I find that authors of short story collections are able to really elevate their work when they can resolve the innate challenge of curating them: Often, they’re too fragmented, and leave the reader’s mind buzzing as little time is spent in sparsely crafted worlds before hard pivoting to new ones. But if thestories are written too interconnectedly, it begs the question of whether the author should have just written a traditional novel instead. Thankfully, “Happy Stories, Mostly,” written by Norman Erikson Pasaribu and translated by Tiffany Tsao, finds that delicate balance. As a collection of stories that shine a spotlight on contemporary queer Indonesian life, the works within leave a deep, ruminating impression.
It’s the longer stories that soar. “The True Story of the Story of the Giant,” “Ad maiorem dei gloriam,” and a few others highlight the melancholy and grief of everyday life. From a college student bereaved over their closest friend’s sudden death, to a nun forced into a retirement home when she knows she still has a fire in her to continue living the life she used to have, the characters grapple with real, painfully tangible moments in their lives. The stories read cohesively, as they focus on a select few topics: sexuality, Christianity, and the captive feeling of stewing over old memories and past relationships.
As I finished the collection, I was reflecting on something that others readers have surely picked up on: These stories are not happy. They’re profoundly sad. And as natural for a short story collection, some of the works don’t reach the same storytelling peaks as the others. For these stories, coupled with the overall gloominess, they made for a bit of a numbing read. Not a bad read, per say, but they don’t deliver a particularly transformative experience.
And perhaps that speaks to the author’s truth. The last story of the book, “Her Story,” is an interesting experiment in breaking the 4th wall, as the unnamed protagonist laments about her sad life, before turning her questioning towards the writer penning her story, and how sad that person’s life must also be, if her story is indicative of their lived experiences. Still, as real and human a feeling as sadness is, it is also a deeply human feeling to hope. In “Happy Stories, Mostly,” there’s little space afforded to these characters to aim or yearn for more, and if this was explored at a greater length, these stories could have spawned a more engrossing dialogue. When the stories are at their strongest, it’s typically because the characters decide to do something with the grief they hold within—whether that’s an impromptu flight to another country for a fresh perspective, or a promise to help see a friend’s unfinished thesis to completion.
I imagine “Happy Stories, Mostly” will generously reward rereads. It’s subtle at first, as you make your way through the stories, but not only do familiar themes tie the collection together, but also names, settings, phrases. All do their part to create a fluid, dreamlike sequence of similar people in different stories navigating through a shared pain, burdened by an unnamable sense of loneliness.
Many stories feel like they’re in conversation with each other, from the grieving mother who lost her son, to the mother who worries her son is drifting away from her as he focuses on his marriage. There are a myriad of characters who have lost someone important in their lives, and it’s as if this connection is saying that while they can no longer talk to their loved ones, at least their stories can, communicating a sense that no one’s alone in their grief. As if to say that every pain a person has felt before has been felt by someone else, in another place, in another time.
“Happy Stories, Mostly” will immediately register for some. Overall, I enjoyed this window into the lives of everyday people, and how the relationships to their family, their queerness, and their Indonesian identity have played a part in shaping the foreground of their experiences today. But for others it will likely turn off, as the heaviness of its dozen stories is likely to take a toll. If one feels that way upon reading, it may be best to sit with those feelings for a little bit. Sadness and grief have a way of evolving, given time.