Try searching for Joan Silber’s new novel, “Secrets of Happiness,” and you’ll have to paw through a pile of similar titles from Lucy Diamond, Eckhart Tolle, Billy Graham and others. Depending on your guru of choice, there are seven, eight, 10, 12, 48 or 100 “secrets of happiness.” Many of these authors agree that the secret is “simple,” but there’s no consensus on whether the secret is revealed by the Danish, the Japanese or your dog.
The science is unsettled. Which is pretty much the point of Silber’s novel.
Her “Secrets of Happiness” looks like a series of linked stories, but it’s more like a roulette wheel in print: Each chapter spins to some other character in a large circle of possibilities. It takes only a moment to get your bearings, and the disappointment of leaving one narrator behind is instantly replaced by the delight of meeting a new one. The relationships between these people are sometimes close, sometimes tenuous, but every one of them is looking for the secret to happiness. (Spoiler alert: They do not all find it.)
The prime mover in this ever-expanding universe of stories is a manufacturer of ladies’ garments, who regularly travels from New York to Thailand. We don’t ever hear from him directly, but in the opening story, his family discovers that he has a Thai mistress and family not too far away from their big Manhattan apartment. In fact, Mom No. 2 is the hostess at a Thai restaurant they frequently go to in Queens.
“Married thirty-two years,” says Mom No. 1 to anyone who will listen. “I feel crazy.” Her philandering husband feels “put upon by all the fuss.”
The first story is narrated by Ethan, a son from the first marriage, who finds this revelation about his parents baffling — and not just for what it suggests about his dad’s covert love life. “Our mother had now become a mystery to us,” Ethan says. “Just when we’d gotten used to our father.” Mom quits her job and heads off to Thailand to teach English with no plans to come back.
“I thought my mother had found a way not to be bitter,” Ethan says. “But I didn’t know that I wanted to be inspired by any stellar methods of getting through a terrible breakup. I wanted to live the rest of my life without having to know this; I hoped to be coupled forever. I watched my mother anyway — how well she was doing without what we expected her to need, how much less she was at the mercy of all of us — and I saw that I was storing away the details for a rainy day or whatever.”
So much rests on that tagged-on phrase “. . . or whatever.” These stories unfurl with such verbal verisimilitude that they’re like late-night phone calls from old friends. Every imperative page trips along with the wry wisdom of ordinary speech — the illusion of artlessness that only the most artful writers can create. Whether we’re hearing from the Thai American half brother in Queens, the girlfriend of a filmmaker in England or a taxi driver in Boston, Silber creates the illusion of a confession spilling out, propelled by each speaker’s astonishment at life’s strange turns. Unpretentious and unstudied, they find bits of profundity as if it were loose change behind the sofa cushions.
As sprawling as this eclectic group appears at first, their stories — like ours — all revolve around money and love. Can a check ever come with no strings attached? Who cares enough to nurse the dying? Who deserves the inheritance? These tales turn on such questions, as though Silber were holding a coin in the light, testing the mettle of each grasping, grateful, generous soul.
Tellingly, the final chapter of “Secrets of Happiness” involves the sale of a rare, stolen copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” The presence of that old classic serves as a clever reminder that the search for riches still animates the drama of so much domestic life. “One of the big questions of my father’s life had been ‘What can money buy?’” says Joe, Ethan’s half brother. “He believed in money, he wanted everything bound to him by it, as if it were surer than other ties.”
Every chapter tests that cynical accounting. “You could never say money didn’t come first,” thinks Joe. “No one would believe you.” But in quiet, surprising moments, “Secrets of Happiness” suggests something lies beyond the columns of loss and gain, something one character calls “the sunny opacity that love can induce.”
One senses throughout this novel that Silber knows something crucial about the secrets of happiness. She’s been publishing for more than 40 years, sometimes without the attention she deserved. But in her 70s, she suddenly attracted a cascade of tardy prizes, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Malamud Short Story Award. When she accepted the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2018, she looked like an author mature enough to know the capriciousness of such an honor and humble enough to be delighted by it. While reading a passage of her work from the stage, she frequently had to stop and wait for the audience’s laughter to subside. The reaction seemed to catch her off guard each time, as though she were as surprised as anyone by her tender, uncanny wit.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Secrets of Happiness
By Joan Silber
Counterpoint. 275 pp. $27