First-novel happiness

Love, honesty, family-and life at a neo-con newspaper

PAUL WELLS February 27 2006

First-novel happiness

Love, honesty, family-and life at a neo-con newspaper

PAUL WELLS February 27 2006

First-novel happiness

Love, honesty, family-and life at a neo-con newspaper

Katrina Onstad’s first novel, How Happy to Be, is getting too much attention in Toronto and too little elsewhere because at first it seems to be a catty roman à clef PAUL WELLS about one of the most insular micro-cultures in modern history: young Toronto journalists in the early days of the National Post. That’s certainly what I was looking for when I bought a copy. The good news is that Onstad has produced something quite different and better. Something beautiful, even.

The jacket flap says How Happy to Be is about “Maxime, an entertainment writer at a neo-con newspaper.” Oh-ho. I met Onstad when she was an entertainment writer at a neo-con newspaper. (I don’t know her well. Our longest conversation was a year ago at a Starbuck’s in Yorkville. She apologized profusely for dragging me to Yorkville, in the manner of people who spend a lot of time in Yorkville.) When the Post launched in 1998, the staffers used to tell one another that it was all so terribly exciting it should be a book someday. The little paper had everything: youth, humour, alcohol, fabulous clothes, an endless supply of somebody else’s money, AND...MS.

As people usually are when they think their careers would make a good novel, we were almost certainly wrong. The first of Onstad’s many smart decisions is the cavalier manner in which she tosses off the first third of the novel, the part set in assorted newsrooms and College Street bars during the Toronto Winter Film Festival of 2001. As a satire on the Toronto media hothouse, How Happy to Be is no help at all. The details are barely sketched in. But the broad outline is very funny. Maxime, the depressed heroine, works at a paper she calls The Daily that is losing a circulation war with another paper, which she calls The Other Daily. The rich owner is depicted as the arithmetic mean of David Asper, Conrad Black and Niles Crane of TV’s Frasier—socially awkward but fabulously wealthy Eurotrash. There is no identifiable Ken Whyte figure. There is no identifiable Paul Wells figure. Count your blessings. There is an airily distracted girl columnist clearly modelled on Rebecca Eckler and Leah McLaren, who likes to write about “her ass, her boyfriend’s crooked penis, her new loft...”

None of this makes much of an impression on Maxime because she is realizing that her dream job, being a movie critic, is not what it was cracked up to be. She spends much of the book trying hard to get fired, without much luck. “It’s hard to get fired in a libertarian climate. Every screw-you rebellious gesture is interpreted as just another triumphant expression of the individual.” She shows up at an interview with Ethan Hawke prepared to trash him in print for cheap laughs. He turns out to be a gentleman. She trashes him anyway. The boss loves it. Maxime is despondent.

Her brain is melting away by degrees. “You indulge and linger over Us magazine while the letters on the front cover of The Economist (the same 26 letters) swim and separate, impenetrable to you, a dead language uncovered

at the bottom of the sea.” Intrusions of warmth and sincerity from the non-ironic world—a letter from home, a rumpled new boyfriendrattle her defensive hipster stance. “Earnestness always makes me suspicious. A trick? A colleague trying to make me feel guilty for failing to appreciate this life? Are people sniggering, plotting, playing?”

Arch and sly, then touching, in Onstad, we’ve lost a film critic and gained a fine new novelist.

Soon enough it becomes clear that How Happy to Be isn’t about its setting at all. It’s about its heroine learning what matters: love, honesty, family. (It’s a surprisingly traditional set of values; Onstad might be dismayed to learn how palatable her heroine’s decisions are to a conservative audience.)

In the other excellent book that’s been written about the Post’s early years, Chris Cobb’s non-fiction Ego and Ink, Onstad pops up now and again as a clever but bewildered outsider. She says things like, “I was like, ‘Well, why am I here?’ ” and “I sensed that we weren’t particularly welcome.” She carries the same outsider stance to her fiction. But it is a most agreeable posture because everything she describes, from her position just a few degrees off-kilter from everyone else, is so sharply observed.

I started reading How Happy to Be before the election and found myself in a succession of cafés laughing out loud. At one point Maxime tells the tale of her best friend Sunera, who fell just short of a magazine career in New York: “On the thirty-fifth floor of a building so old that the black-and-white tiles at the entrance spelled the magazine’s name under her feet, she spent a long hour dazzling an

editor.... But when she really imagined packing her bags, stepping onto the airplane with a ticket in her pocket, the clouds in the sky clustered to form her mother’s face: ‘All our hard work, Sunera! All our sacrifice and you leave us in our old age? Oh, the shame of it!’ ”

Soon something happens to shatter Maxime’s uneasy truce with her flashy but meaningless existence. The second half of How Happy to Be is as touching as the first half was arch and sly. Before it’s done, Onstad’s first novel starts to feel like the one she need-

ed to get out of her system before she does the really memorable work that’s still in her.

And before it’s done she admits as much.

“I’m tired of records,” she writes. “I think I would like to give you something in a language that I haven’t created yet...an entirely new story for once.” We seem to have lost a film critic and gained a fine new novelist. I for one couldn’t be more delighted. M