Magical Realism, Philosophical Pursuits and Ableist Assumptions In Happiness Falls by Angie Kim
By Eleanor Bowskill, Zarah Yesufu, Hannah McWhinnie and Nalisha Vansia
What happens when the only person who knows the truth about a mystery is unable to say it? This is the high stakes premise of Angie Kim’s second novel Happiness Falls. When Mia’s brother Eugene returns alone from a walk he went on with their dad, the clock starts ticking to find answers to his father’s whereabouts. This is complicated by the fact that Eugene has autism and Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition that means he can’t speak. Mixing mystery with a heartbreaking portrayal of a family at a time of crisis, Happiness Falls will challenge your perception of what it means to communicate with one another.
Angie Kim’s novel grew from a magical realism short story she wrote over ten years ago. The magic of the story, whilst not in the plot, never left the book. Not only did dates and moons align, but through some form of “kismet, fate,” Kim understood her character Eugene more. “All of a sudden to find out that there was something called Angelman syndrome… and then to see this description exactly how I had Eugene in my mind” is incredible. Kim translates this fate into her fiction: “I thought it was appropriate that I have these experiences alongside [Mia] too.”
Aside from having a spiritual legacy, there is also a philosophical element to the story. “The family are all philosophers in their own way,” says Kim. This influences the way they view and move through the world. “Even though it is a missing person narrative, it’s really a Trojan horse, it’s an excuse for the characters to think about their family dynamic and past.” In fact, “the philosophical mindset is a way for them to bond” and through this common thread, the novel’s core message about family and “keeping our mind open” comes to the fore.
Setting the novel against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, Mia’s narrative throughout the novel is a unique and outstanding display of a young woman “who thinks a lot about epistemology, and the way that we acquire knowledge.” Mia constantly backs up her knowledge with factual and fictional sources, including The New Yorker and Law and Order, but is “sophisticated enough to know that all of those things are questionable.” Whilst her cynical nature and constant “one-upmanship” against her brother, John, may create the impression of an unreliable narrator, Kim explains that Mia’s true intentions are “to ask people to really question things, rather than just taking as true things that you read.”
When Kim began drafting the novel, everything came together naturally, no particular aspect was intentional or contrived. It turned out that Mia’s voice was “really strong” and she “loved it immediately.” When writing in this voice, Kim found that there were a lot of sides to cover, because of “the kind of personality” Mia has, and it reflects how she thinks. Kim often engages in what she calls “method writing,” derived from her theatre days, in which she tries to inhabit the minds of her protagonists. Throughout the writing process, she wanted to “go off on a tangent” and found herself using footnotes, not worrying about getting lost on an interesting point. The use of footnotes was also an attempt to be considerate of readers who aren’t fans of huge asides, and who can just skip ahead.
Throughout the book, it became clear that Mia had attributed much of her self-worth to her academic achievements, and soon began to assess those around her using the same metric. However, the root of her need for validation, or the motivation behind her perfectionism, is much less clear. For Kim, these internal incentives are part of what makes each person themselves. Academic work is something that Mia is good at, and when you are good at something, that’s something you can cling to. In the book, Mia tells us that being smart is “the one thing” that she feels she has going for her; she’s not very pretty, and she’s not athletic. Therefore, it’s understandable that she tries to “find her corner of the world” in what she feels are her strengths.
Outside of her work as a novelist, Kim teaches creative writing classes for autistic, non-speaking students. In this role, she has come to realise the massive disservice that has been done to them under the assumption that if you can’t speak, that must make you nonverbal. For Kim, it is so important to “keep your mind open” and not fall victim to the misguided belief that autism is a cognitive condition, rather than a motor planning one. As a Korean immigrant, Kim could not speak English when she arrived in the US. She saw first-hand how, even when there is an understandable reason for someone struggling with the language, they are still made to feel stupid. On a societal level, we need to overcome the ableist expectation that “equates oral fluency with intelligence” as it leads us to degrade non-speaking people.