Author: Michael McGhee
In the dystopian future world of Happiness Ltd., consumerism is king. People walk the streets of New York City with spending quotas to meet, and opportunities to purchase any item one’s heart could desire are frequent and persistent. Protagonist Nelson Young is on the fast-track to success in the News Objectivity branch of Happiness Limited, the corporation over whose capitalist empire the sun never sets. At the start of the novel, Nelson finds himself promoted for his talents, but his disillusionment is only increased by an encounter with a DP named Celia—a Disenfranchised Person, someone who has rejected the life of consumerism and lives illegally outside the reach of Happiness Limited, using a black market of goods and services to survive. Celia’s parents were taken by Happiness Limited when she was young, and she and Nelson quickly fall for one another. From there the novel launches into the dangerous consequences of their love; it is not enough that Nelson is at war with himself over his career with Happiness Limited and what he feels for Celia, but such a relationship is extremely dangerous for both of them as Nelson incurs the wrath of Happiness Limited.
Author Michael McGhee clearly depicts a world obsessed with spending, and a reader can feel the depth of the situation he has created. Without a doubt, there are gears making this world tick, but because McGhee’s prose is so direct, the focus is rightly on Nelson and Celia, who are so terribly affected by those gears. The novel’s consumerism premise is quite believable and described as almost inevitable, which adds to the excitement of the novel. It allows readers to explore a futuristic world that’s not so outlandish that it leaves them behind. McGhee traces actions to their logical conclusions, sometimes with humorous effects. For example, in this future world a Dalai Lama has been elected as a spiritual leader “after that dusty old man from the twentieth century finally died.” He calls himself Doll and comes replete with books, concerts, a lecture series, and sponsors. When questioned about reconciling non-attachment to a consumer’s lifestyle, he responds: “But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy [life’s pleasures] while they’re here! That’s why I say, ‘Don’t sweat it.’ Life’s a beach, as you Americans say.” Part of the fun of the novel is seeing the extent to which consumerism has changed our world, and McGhee devotes just enough time to such changes to add depth to Nelson’s and Celia’s story without distracting from it.
The women of Happiness Ltd. are some of the most interesting characters in the novel. It is enjoyable to read a woman like Celia uphold and eventually struggle with convictions she has held since the loss of her parents. She attempts to reconcile this with her love for a semi-delusional Nelson:
“It’s a police state. It may look pretty, but you’re in a prison. If I sign over my free will to Happiness Limited, they’ll watch every step I take. They’ll hear everything I say. We would live in the country, but we wouldn’t be free. And do you know what the worst of it is? Our children would be prisoners too.”
“It’s not like that! You have a distorted view. Besides, I earn enough money for both of us. You don’t have to work. You could raise our family. Haven’t you heard of the Happiness stay-at-home mom program? It’s better than hustling consumers for handouts.”
She looked stung. She spoke so quietly. “I am not a hustler.”
Her journey from the beginning of the novel to the end is almost more fascinating to see than Nelson’s—she has no choice but to battle and survive her circumstances, whereas Nelson has the luxury of choosing to struggle. She survives as a DP every day, but visiting her is like a vacation to Nelson, almost a voyeuristic experience. Similarly does the character Ultra compel readers. Ultra is the epitome of success within Happiness Limited’s framework, a celebrity so powerful she’s awarded the place of honor at the yearly Celebrity Bonfire not once but twice. As her storyline coalesces with Nelson’s and Celia’s, she provides the readers with insight into the way Happiness Limited functions. She has an image so grand that she escapes some of the consequences of working with them, but when that image reaches a tipping point, Happiness Limited finds a way to rectify it in its favor. While she may seem a bit inconsistent at first—cold and uninterested in the struggles of others at one time but then overwhelmingly empathetic at another—it only adds to the complexity of her character. She is consistently focused not only on her image—of which people expect “Flair. Excitement. Rejuvenation”—but her future: “But my doctors are telling me I could easily live another hundred years. And by that time, they’ll probably have figured out how to extend it even more. I don’t know about you, but dying is not on my personal calendar.” Women like Celia and Ultra, two polar opposites in this world, nuance this dystopian future. Their storylines are fascinating to follow and do so much more than push Nelson along in his adventure. The stresses of their experiences feel real to a reader, and seeing them function in this complex world only adds to the quality of this exciting novel.
The strength of Happiness Ltd. is in McGhee’s clear prose and the depth of this dystopian future. Seeing how various characters navigate the world is fascinating and allows readers to explore with them. Nelson’s and Celia’s struggle to form a life together against all odds is a compelling retelling of a classic story, and the extents to which Happiness Limited will go to destroy a love that upends the status quo is a frightening wakeup call to an American society that could easily move in that direction.