This weekend, the annual London Book Fair trundles into the dismal halls of Olympia. For the most part, this nuts-and-bolts trade event boasts all the warmth, glamour and excitement of a cattle auction in Cumbria. Thrilling or not, a quick scoot along the endless rows of stalls will rapidly disclose those scraggier cuts of the book business often masked by the topside of high-exposure fiction and biography.
I've always been struck by the staggering profusion of near-identical titles published under the capacious umbrella of the New Age and "self-help" movements. The trade labels this nebulous empire "Mind, Body and Spirit". Consult the current catalogue from HarperCollins, for example, and you'll see that it sports a mere nine pages devoted to "literary fiction", and 54 – fully six times as much – to "MBS".
The titles include Witch Crafting (by a "Wiccan high priestess"); Love Your Hair; Find Your Fortune with the Tarot; The Real Witches' Kitchen (by the "High Priestess of the Hearth of Hecate"); Way of Palmistry; Druidcraft (by a "Druid of world renown", no less); and Herbs for the Soul. Given the recent ructions in his dynasty, Rupert Murdoch – who controls HarperCollins – may well be taking a keen personal interest in Return from Heaven, which promises to reveal "more about the mechanics of reincarnation than any previous book".
As they say, you couldn't make it up. Precisely for that reason, the monstrous blather of this vast marketplace – where cynicism fleeces credulity – grows very hard to satirise. Which is not to say that outraged writers shouldn't have a go. So I approached Happiness (Canongate, £9.99) , a first novel by the Canadian satirist Will Ferguson, with glee. I desperately hoped to find a ferocious burlesque of the self-help racket that would, at last, thrust a finely pointed stake through the industry's soggy marshmallow heart.
Well, it's not quite as sharp as it should be. It drags on a bit; some of the jokes misfire; and the author sounds just a shade too pleased with himself. But Happiness still scores enough direct hits to make it a cherishable antidote to the money-spinning waffle of "MBS". One further glance at Mr Murdoch's battalions of the bizarre (any takers for the "handbook for teen witches" from a "committed modern Witch" who's also a "rock goddess and media star"?), and you'll see what a signal service Ferguson has done.
His neurasthenic editor-hero, Edwin de Valu, of Panderic Press, plucks from the bulging slush-pile a corny, baggy, semi-literate self-help manual by one Tupak Soiree. Cue many (perhaps too many) digs at the ditzy MBS prose, which "mixes Buddhist moral philosophy and libertarian-style capitalism". Switching from shards of Einstein to gnomic mantras, the mysterious Tupak shoves every self-help nostrum into his blender and serves them up as a ponderous compote of clichés: "The same finger that points to the moon picks our nose." (By the way, HarperCollins's real Wisdom of the Ages offers a digested blend of "60 of the world's greatest thinkers" – Buddha and Einstein among them.)
The only problem with Ferguson's fictional What I Learned on the Mountain is that (unlike the rest of its teeming kind) it works. "What if it isn't just a book... What if it's the book?" Within days, Edwin makes a million in stocks. His disgruntled wife reads the sex-tips section, and bedtime goes ballistic. Naturally, Tupak also tells you how to stop smoking. He storms Oprah, sells 65 million copies and changes the world for the better – which means, as we soon grasp, for the worse.
Liquor, tobacco and drugs cartels go out of business. Fashion and fast food soon follow suit. Like "a firestorm, an earthquake, a typhoon", the book levels whole industries as humanity sheds its cravings and anxieties. Touchy-feely bliss spreads like an epidemic. Tell a cabbie to step on it, and he'll reply, "The flow of time is neither helped nor hindered by our own desires."
Clearly, this "Stalin of the New Age" has to be terminated fast. "We need our vices, we need our cotton-candy fluff, because life is sad and short and over far too soon." I'm afraid that Ferguson's own philosophy – the standard critique of zombified contentment shared by all anti-Utopian novels since Samuel Butler's Erewhon in 1872 – turns out almost as hackneyed as Tupak's. Meanwhile, Happiness gallops out of its brave new world for a farcical showdown with the cackling figure behind the guru. Aldous Huxley meets Carl Hiaasen (as a blurb-writer at Panderic Press might say).
I did, however, enjoy the idea of Oliver Reed as the ultimate embodiment of our heroic freedom of the will. Why not roll up at the book fair with a proposal for "The Oliver Reed Way to Enlightenment"? HarperCollins may be buying.Reuse content