The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson
Karlsson is a famous actor and playwright in Sweden, which means that ignorant Americans like me never heard of him. This is his second novel, appearing in English this summer.
The story is a riff on “happiness”, and the current fad for “self quantification” and measuring things like the “Gross National Happiness” quotient, and also, perhaps, on contemporary notions of “monetization” of everything, including social interaction, personal attention, and, well, anything that can be measured.
Mostly the story is a meditation on what is happiness, and how it stems not from what you have (especially not money), nor solely from how the world treats you, but from how you experience the world, whatever happens.
The protagonist lives an unremarkable life. He has little money, no career, not much family or friends. In fact it seems like a constrained and miserably gray existence. (How very Swedish. ) But he is happy, and seems to be able to be happy no matter what.
Karlsson also riffs on the bureaucratic state (he is Swedish after all). “The Invoice” in question is part of a redistribution program that taxes people based on their “Experienced Happiness”, calculated from extensive evaluation of his life and how he experienced it. The idea is preposterous, but it puts the question of gratitude front and center.
The joke, of course, is that the protagonist turns out to be evaluated to be pretty much the happiest person in Sweden, and consequently receives an absurdly large bill. Having no way to pay, he must request a review. The joke escalates when they discover an error in the calculation that doubles the bill, and then upon further investigation recalculate the sum by another hundredfold. Everything they learn about him seems to fit just so into the model and algorithms, bumping up his E.H. score.
The whole thing isn’t terribly logical, but it does make us think about what makes a happy life, and what we should “pay” for our own happiness. Karlsson’s protagonist is extremely happy despite everything because he seems to be able to just relax and enjoy life whatever situation he is in. He does not escape disappointment, heartbreak, or loneliness, but these things don’t seem to eat at him. In fact, they seem to give him a full life, and propel him to new experiences.
This isn’t a conventional or a universal prescription for a good life, but it is a nice meditation on one man’s own path.
- Jonas Karlsson, The Invoice, New York, Random House, 2016.
Sunday Book Reviews