18th Oct 2012
Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo
For a book with the word ‘happiness’ in the title, this nippy little collection of shorts from Pulitzer Prize-nominated American poet Lucia Perillo sure knows how to make one feel utterly depressed.
Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain is a mixed bag of stories, all set around the Puget Sounds in the Pacific Northwest.
The characters are for the most part working-class men and women discovering and exploring sides to their life through simple short stories that, when pieced together, present a community held together apparently by desolation.
Sex, drugs, cancer, bereavement, the menopause, growing up with neglect, not understanding your children, depression and loneliness – all these abound.
However, the stories are also strangely uplifting, in that they show sides to human nature common to us all. You won’t feel alone with this book.
Perillo is a poet and that comes through in her writing. Although the prose is not as brief as it could be, it is lyrical and masterfully wrought – some of the sentences are mind-blowing, and made me want to take notes throughout.
My favourite tale, Big-Dot Day, is probably the most complete as a story. Much of the others are more flash fiction, and a couple come across as the starts of something bigger, which is frustrating to read.
As snippets of people’s lives, however these stories read well, and the themes of hardship and the day to day that tie them together and the beautiful writing make this a nice little collection for fans of the genre.
There is, however, one tale, Ghost Story, that could be incredibly triggering for people affected by rape or sexual violence. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone feeling remotely down, as there isn’t a lot here to be happy about. However, if you like lyrical writing, literary prose, flash fiction, or Americana, this is the collection for you. And check out Perillo’s beautiful poetry, too.
Recommended for: Fans of Mary Gaitskill, Twin Peaks and Kimya Dawson
Other Recommended Reading: The best book of short stories I read last year, Bear Down Bear North by Melinda Moustakis, is out in paperback this month, and you’re doing yourself out of some of the best writing I’ve encountered if you don’t treat yourself to it.