Review by Emily Faison
“Had the edge moved in the night?” “Where did the balloon go?” “How do you measure happiness?”
Ninety-nine brief stories ask more questions than they answer. Narrated by a mysteriously collective We, Alan Michael Parker’s The Committee on Town Happiness questions and redefines the meaning of community.
Nearly every chapter is written in third person plural. Parker easily handles the tricky “we,” using it to mask individual characters. The limited hive-mind perspective blurs the big picture of unfolding events, but Parker scatters hints for the reader: an ominous edge, disappearing townsfolk (including an M.I.A. hot-air-balloonist) and the whispers of an affair all lurk behind the cheerful vantage point of the committee.
Most of the committee meetings involve arbitrary voting and ranking. Several of the stories are nothing more than lists of these items: ‘Finicky responses to stimuli’ earns a 4, while ‘Air’ and ‘Daily Joy’ only receive 3s. “No kind of happiness should ever receive a 1 or a 2.” Indeed, ‘The unknown’ only receives a 1. These frequent reports on the status of everyday items serve to orient the reader to the temperature of the town. With dark whimsicality, the petulant committee provides the reader (but not always the town citizens) with the outcome of these votes, but why are the votes even necessary? How do these votes affect the townsfolk? Insistent on preserving town tradition while arbitrarily inventing new rituals and rules, the committee claims to preserve and create new delights. By throwing parades and celebrations (complete with ice cream trucks), the committee hopes to distract citizens from strange disappearances, but these parties only reveal the committee’s desperate desire for control.
Parker pokes fun at local bureaucracy with his committee’s imposition of bizarre and meticulous bylaws, but this silliness reveals the committee’s failing attempts to facilitate the happiness of the town in the face of growing mystery. Without resorting to malice, Parker’s book comments on small town bureaucratic nonsense in a familiar, friendly way. The committee’s obsession with official-ness and recording minutia–“without the minutes saying so, there’s no history. Without history, nothing happened”–will resonate with readers who have ever been to a PTA meeting, served on a board, or have ever experienced the frustration of slow-moving officials and endless red tape. Between relentless votes on the most mundane items and constant awarding of numerical value to everyday occurrences, the committee creates internal petty squabbles to avoid facing their own redundancy. While the committee on town happiness desperately clings to their familiar system, their slow fracturing is reflected in the dwindling number of citizens, leaving the reader to ponder what makes a community.
I enjoyed the silly-but-serious misrepresentations of the narrator. Both eager to please, yet believing itself superior to the public it serves, the committee is evasive and childish. Even when the committee leaks “inside information” to the reader, the reader cannot be certain if the narrator is truthful, or if the committee members are all collectively lying to themselves and one another. Despite the screen of the committee, the reader is privy to the behind-the-scenes voting that the rest of the townspeople are not, and this perspective allows reader to remove their tourist’s badge as they attempt to solve the jigsaw of names and scandals in this tight-knit town.
The narration intentionally obscures the plot, forcing the reader to see through the narrator’s information in order to piece together a story about a town. Yet this town’s committee, our untrustworthy narrator, is central to the mystery. Can a committee “map a great expedition to shared happiness?” How do communities share happiness? The Committee on Town Happiness questions the committee’s claim that “happiness prospers when compartmentalized,” leaving the reader to wonder if individual happiness is compatible with community.