A self-described “ordinary—yet unique—man,” the unnamed narrator of Matar’s (Counselors Beyond Knowledge, 2013) first work of fiction, shares his perspective on living a happy life.
For more than 24 centuries, citizens in the nation of Eudemonia—an Aristotelian term meaning “happiness” or “human flourishing”—have made unprecedented cultural, political, and technological achievements thanks in part to their joy of living, which they are said to have inherited from ancient ancestors. Present-day Eudemonians, however, have lost that joie de vivre. As a result, birth rates are declining, making Eudemonia’s extinction imminent within the next 30 years. To prevent ceding the nation’s independence to nearby Humnesia in exchange for help repopulating, Eudemonia’s president, Sarah, has 10 days to rediscover what made previous Eudemonians so contented. She joins forces with a history of philosophy professor named Adam, who unearthed an ancient manuscript suggesting that a few people in every generation are capable of realizing the same secrets of happiness known by the ancient Eudemonians. This manuscript leads the duo to Matar’s narrator, who responds to Sarah and Adam’s myriad questions—“What makes you happy?”; “How many times have you failed in the past?”—by clarifying his stance on happiness. In the three-way dialogue that makes up the bulk of Matar’s novel, the narrator reiterates his core philosophy: happiness depends on distinguishing between illusions (concepts like ownership and freedom), which lead to misery, and truth, which leads to happiness. Some of his philosophy—that life is a free gift, that success loses meaning without failure—will strike a familiar chord with self-help readers. Other opinions are more provocative, such as the suggestion that humans only truly help one another unintentionally, because acts of charity come with the expectation (and illusion) of self-satisfaction. Though the novel has a fair share of intriguing ideas, Matar never anchors them in a compelling character. Ultimately, the book favors generalizations and platitudes—romantic love, like a vampire, “cannot survive as soon as it is exposed to the light of true love”—over intriguing yet too-brief glimpses into the narrator’s past: “My most happy moments occurred when I was living in a war-torn country.”
A compelling premise hindered by a lack of new insights and too little character.