“You Are Happy?”
by Akhil Sharma
from the April 17, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Akhil Sharma’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker a few times over the past few years (you can see our responses to “We Didn’t Like Him,” “A Mistake,” and “A Life of Adventure and Delight”).

I’ve tended to enjoy his work, though I still haven’t read his Folio Prize winning novel Family Life (which Lee reviewed for the site here).

I am glad to see that this is not an excerpt from a novel. Rather, as discussed in Sharma’s interview with Deborah Treisman (here), “You Are Happy?” is a story in Sharma’s collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, which is being published this summer.

By | 2017-08-04T16:48:22+00:00 April 10th, 2017|Categories: Akhil Sharma, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Roger April 11, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    This piece left me cold. It started out in a dark place and remained there. Events take place but they amount to motion, not dramatic action, because at an emotional level the story is largely static.

  2. David April 11, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    I think my reaction to the story is much like Roger’s. I felt like I was reading someone reporting what the story was about rather than reading a story itself. I also found it very odd that the author says that he sees the story as optimistic because the boy initially thinks it’s a good idea to kill his mother and by the end he’s sad she’s not around. Perhaps the story would have been more interesting if it had been told by the boy as a man many years after the events happened where we might see more the emotional consequences of the event and how he dealt with it in the years following, perhaps also how it affects his relationship with his father and even his cultural identity. But that would have been a much different story than what we got.

  3. Dennis Lang April 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    I found the story gripping and disturbing. I guess the “disturbing” part is obvious as we watch the mother destroy herself through the eyes and emotions of her young son. She is somehow in a state of insuperable unhappiness. I think we can feel it, that she is suffocating, and maybe also a sense of her desperation, reaching out to find the happiness only available to her with alcohol.
    Then, life plows on, “the girls arrived on the veranda….”
    Pretty powerful.

  4. Rai April 19, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    The story for me was powerful for taking unexpected and unwaveringly brutal turns. It started off seeming to be about taboos of social drinking (I would have been happy seeing how that was developed in a standalone story) before tacking to alcoholism and how this problem was confronted by all the family.

    While I accepted the escalation of events as plausible (I credit the prose for that, its simple, direct, easiness) I feel the ending was limited and did not sufficiently unfold the consequences of those events. In his interview Sharma says: “To me, the fact that the boy begins by wanting his mother beaten and ends in horror at what has occurred shows a movement toward decency.” I don’t believe that any such movement has actually been conveyed on the page.

    P.s great blog, thrilled to find others to talk with about these stories!

  5. Dennis Lang April 19, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Yes, Rai, requires usurping of anything we might consider moral in finding a justification to basically sweep a life out of existence for her personal weakness, as though she was just inconvenient to the others–and consider it an act of “decency”. But, as you point point out, the realization is that of the son, an arc from blind acceptance of a prevailing cultural norm (apparently) to the revulsion of it and a new, more humane understanding. Anyway, that’s how I read it.

  6. William April 20, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    I found this story very moving, in a descriptive way, not a handwringing way. Unlike many of the stories in the NYer by American 30-something women, in which the female character bemoans her fate endlessly, this story portrays the horror of the events through the eyes of a teenage boy who barely comprehends at first what he is witnessing. Also unlike those stories, the action moves along, it’s not just repetition of the same inner angst. Also unlike those stories, which are about FWP, this story gives us a true problem, a true source of distress for the protagonist, not just that a woman’s girlfriend stopped talking to her because she complained too much, but that his mother is a bottom-stage alcoholic and that she is murdered by her family at his father’s orders.

    In a way, this is the perfect piece of fiction since it follows the basic motto — show, not tell.

    I don’t see how anyone could be left cold by a scene in which the mother puts two crates of wine bottles in her bedroom along with bags of chips AND a basin to puke in. And she’s smiling while she does it, contemplating with pleasure the debased state she is about to put herself in. Horrible in itself. More so because the boy sees it all while he is alone with the mother in the house since his father has gone abroad. No, the author doesn’t say, “Oh, this was such a horrible thing to do.” He depends on our being able to put ourselves in the boy’s place, in our ability to empathize with the boy in this situation.

    How can anyone call this plot emotionally static when the degradation ramps up and the boy’s distress ramps up and eventually violence and realization and revulsion occur?

    I don’t think that the story would have been more interesting if it had been told by the boy as a man many years after the events happened. In my reading experience, the most harrowing way to tell a story is in the moment, since there is always tension about how it will turn out. When a mystery novel is written by a person from hindsight, we know that person survives. A perfect way to drain the tale of suspense and drama.

    Also, the author isn’t trying to tell us how the events impacted the boy’s future. That’s another story, as someone said. In this story he wants us to see this existential experience and how it emotionally overwhelms the boy now.

    A well-crafted piece. The author has his technique in full control.

  7. Roger April 20, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    William, your take on this story is as wrong as it is long. As already noted, the piece is emotionally static because it starts in a dark place and stays there. Sharma may as well have made the mother a heart attack victim and described her flatlined EKG for several pages. That would have made for a similar read. If wallowing counted as dramatic action, this piece would have plenty of the latter, but that’s not how good fiction works. You assert your disagreement with the “static” assessment but do nothing to rebut it. I submit that’s because it’s not rebuttable. If there is something about this piece to like, dramatic action isn’t it.

    Of course Sharma lets us see the grossout behavior of the mother and doesn’t throw in needless exposition along the lines of “Oh, look how awful this is.” He’s not a completely incompetent writer, as some of his past work in TNY illustrates. Sure, he’s got “show, don’t tell” mastered in this piece, which just about any first-year MFA student can do. Count me as underwhelmed with respect to that not-so-impressive achievement.

    The degradation doesn’t “ramp up.” It remains more or less the same. She becomes highly degraded soon and stays that way, varying only slightly as she glides toward her predictable demise.

    Oh yeah, Sharma also shrewdly doesn’t write a murder mystery in which the potential murder victim narrates. Genius. But wait – Sharma actually does something almost as bad. Half way through the story, it’s revealed that the mother will be murdered. So no, he doesn’t get points for building suspense. I can’t even give him a sarcastic genius designation.

    And look, William, if you’re going to tell the rest of us to stop being so fancy and serious in our analyses, as you did in the discussion of the Lanchester piece, you are going to need to avoid comments like “he wants us to see this existential experience and how it overwhelms the boy.” Please. Existential experience indeed.

    I hope you will do better at training your critical faculties at future TNY stories and at discussions of same. Also, hope you’re up for some tough but intended-as-friendly roasting. Because you’ve just gotten some!

  8. Eric April 21, 2017 at 5:22 am

    I liked this story OK, although I agree that it reads more like journalism than fiction. I probably would not have liked it, though, if I didn’t finish the piece convinced that this kind of thing really does happen in rural India, since the whole point of this kind of writing is to enlighten readers about something of which they know too little. I suspect that Sharma has the same kind of cool, detached prose style no matter what he’s trying to write, and that it wouldn’t work for many other kinds of fiction, but for a piece like this I found it quite effective.

  9. Dennis Lang April 21, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Roger–This is great! Going after William reminds me of a rumble in the parking lot after high school!!
    I don’t have a clue what dogma they’re hammering in creative writing classes these days–sounds like the same, “show don’t tell” sort of stuff” but it hits me for this type of art there can be no objective ranking. It comes down to what it meant to the reader. It’s subjective.
    The important question is always how did the writer achieve what he/she intended to achieve emotionally and intellectually not what someone else thinks they should achieve by some formula.
    So, speaking subjectively this was a harrowing, brutal story written in a very distinctive voice by its own “rules” filtered through the sensibility of the young boy as he experienced it.
    Memorable!
    (Now boys be nice.)

  10. Trevor Berrett April 21, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    I still haven’t read my story, so I can’t say whether Sharma’s style would work for me this time, but it has before.

    I just wanted to jump in to say that I appreciate the back and forth here, and I hope no one is getting too worked up about it. It’s been fun, especially because it’s brought to the foreground with Dennis’s comment that we sometimes rate a story on whether it does things we think a story ought to do. Show don’t tell. Static versus dynamic. Those may be qualities a particular piece possesses and does well, but I’m with Dennis in saying that those can also be formulas. It’s always nice to come here and see the variety of responses because that reminds us that some things work and some things don’t, and often it depends on the reader.

    By the way, I know Roger, who’s been contributing thoughtful, often comical and friendly comments to The New Yorker posts for years, is not saying a piece should adhere to a certain formula to be successful. Just so everyone knows.

  11. Greg April 25, 2017 at 4:39 am

    I am with Eric on this one:

    “It reads more like journalism than fiction. I probably would not have liked it, though, if I didn’t finish the piece convinced that this kind of thing really does happen in rural India, since the whole point of this kind of writing is to enlighten readers about something of which they know too little.”

    What really got to me was how the women are treated like over there….Now I fully appreciate why international women’s rights are such a major concern!

    Lastly, the story reinforces that alcoholism is a disease. For many years I thought it was a choice, but I have now come to see it as an all-encompassing affliction.

  12. Ken June 19, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    I’ve read 3 stories by Sharma and have found each basically “artless” and agree completely that they’re more reportage than fiction. Certainly he brings up important issues in a clear, readable way–but that’s the function of journalism. Having it be from a boy’s p.o.v. made the scenes feel distanced and undramatic but not in a clever, perhaps playfully artful and post-modern way.

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