Authorised Happiness Vol. 1
Jean Van Hamme (Writer), Griffo (Artist), Design Amorandi (Letters), Jerome Saincantin (Translation)
Dupuis (French), Cinebook Ltd. (English)
January 23, 2019
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Jean Van Hamme’s 1988 short story collection, Authorised Happiness, finally gets an English translation in 2019. The first volume features three Kafkaesque stories set in a dystopian Earth that isn’t unlike our modern society.
The first story, “Career Plan,” follows Francis Morton, a man who has managed to get a job after being unemployed for eight months. Morton is one of the lucky ones; most people can’t find jobs even after years. There are near-constant protests against the lack of employment opportunities, but they have little impact on the government.
Morton’s new job is as an analyst at General Analysis Company, but what exactly are the numbers he keeps scrawling through, Morton doesn’t know. Nor does anyone enlighten him. He is meant to do the job, not ask questions. Digging into the company’s history only gets him into trouble with upper management. Is Morton willing to risk his hard-won job to learn the truth?
This story is surprisingly prescient of the current state of unemployment, and takes a sinister turn by the end. The conclusion, although interesting, leaves one with more questions than answers. I would also have appreciated the sole female character to have been more two-dimensional—she is essentially a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl—and surely the domestic violence angle (which came out of nowhere) could have been better handled instead of just being brushed under the carpet. It’s a bit hard to sympathise with a protagonist who beats his wife.
The second story in Authorised Happiness is “To Your Health!” In a world where health is strictly regulated, single mom Michelle chafes against the system that drains people’s personal resources in the name of keeping them healthy. Being affiliated to Unified Medical Insurance gives people access to “free’ medicine, as long as they pay extremely high subscription fees. Plus, every minor health infringement leads to huge fines, leaving people to live in near-poverty. When Michelle meets a non-affiliated man, she decides to cut ties with UMI. For the first time, she feels free. But then her daughter falls unexpectedly ill, and Michelle learns just how high a price one has to pay for freedom.
The concept of this story is amazing—state-sanctioned good health ruthlessly enforced by a health police. I found it a novel idea, and one that is sadly cognisant of how, in present times, privatised health insurance has put a premium on healthy living. The worldbuilding here is excellent, even more so than in “Career Plan,” and I love all the details of the characters’ lives that give us a sense of just how regimented this “democratic” world actually is.
I also like that writer Jean Van Hamme chose to have a single mother as a protagonist. Michelle is in a high-stress situation, but all the little things we do to relieve stress—such as eat a little ice cream or walk outside for a breath of fresh air—are considered infractions against the health plan. So, when the opportunity to escape this life presents itself, she immediately jumps at it.
The denouement, however, does leave me pondering about Van Hamme’s message. On the one hand, it is made quite clear that this way of life is unfeasible, on the other, the moment Michelle needs medical help, she turns to the very resources she objected to. It makes Michelle look like a negligent mother, which is not the impression we were getting up until that point. I would have much preferred a straightforward good versus evil conclusion.
In the final story “Hurray for the Holidays!” the government categorises people according to their social file, which determines when in the year they can take their holidays. The better your file, the more likely you are to get a summer holiday, but only a few people can afford this luxury. Green Group-member Quentin has been trying to get a summer holiday for years, but the best his family gets is a spring holiday at the seaside. Not ideal, what with the rain and cold, so Quentin makes his displeasure clear from the get-go. There is one silver lining, though: Julie from the blue group. But Quentin and Julie’s love affair isn’t part of the listed activities, causing the young lovers to take drastic measures to be together.
The idea of nationalised holidays isn’t as far-fetched as we would like to think, and in that sense, this story works well. However, I did feel like it packed in a bit too much, and I could have used some clarifications about the worldbuilding. I didn’t understand the colour groups. It seems the groups compete in a game that give them social points, and fraternisation between them is frowned upon, but it all seems like a bit of drama for no reason.
I found protagonist Quentin to be bland and whiny. The love story between Quentin and Julie seemed unnecessarily rushed; they go from noticing each other in passing to till-death-do-us-part passion far too swiftly. Nonetheless, this story, like the others in Authorised Happiness, was full of mystery, and very dark.
The art by Griffo is astounding in this volume of Authorised Happiness. It is easy to get lost in the words, but if you want to appreciate the worldbuilding, you have to look closely at the art. Griffo adds details in the panels that gives you a sense of just how problematic the systems of this world are. There is such a richness imbued throughout these stories by Griffo, that it adds a whole new dimension to the storytelling. Though it isn’t immediately obvious that the three stories are set in the same world, according to the essays by writer Jean Van Hamme and artist Griffo, the stories are connected. There are slight hints to that fact, which might become clearer with the second volume.
Authorised Happiness is a fascinating and engrossing read that will draw you in. It’s hard to believe they were written three decades ago but still remain prescient of current times. With its wealth of artistic detail, and its unique commentary on societal structures, this is the kind of book that you will find yourself returning to over and over again.