If any of us had, say, 136 pages to take stock of our entire life, we'd almost inevitably consider whether or not we've been happy. "Happy" is a daunting word in many ways -- the chipper look of it, its deceptive simplicity, the unsettling contrast between an intellectual understanding of its meaning and our seemingly inadequate feelings deep inside. It might be the elusive nature of happiness that prompts Samuel, the French narrator of playwright Yasmina Reza's "Desolation," a 136-page end-of-life rant, to try to make a distinction: "[There is] something I value a hundred times higher than a happy man -- a joyful man."
The "joyful" man Samuel is speaking of is his friend Leo Fench, who has recently passed away. In this alternately caustic, beautiful, remorseful, meaningful and sometimes just plain mean monologue, Samuel assesses his life through those people he loves and/or hates the most. There's his second wife, Nancy, who "doesn't understand that a man who has no place to whine cannot be a normal man"; his housekeeper Dacimiento, who can't properly fit garbage bags over the rim of a trash can; his estranged son; his wonderful friend Genevieve Abramowitz, and his mistress Marisa Botton.
Three men also make up his circle: his friend and neighbor, Lionel, whose wife has ruined him by changing the curtains on his windows; another friend, Arthur, who infuriates the narrator by moving to Israel and adopting Jewish nationalism; and of course, Leo, the joyful one.
The spark, or inspiration, for this monologue is an announcement from his son, a child he doesn't understand or approve of (though he doesn't seem to like his daughter much either): The young man is happy. Samuel's contempt for this condition is palpable and often absurd: "I would have liked you better as a criminal or a terrorist than as a militant in the cause of happiness."
The son -- who we learn detests his father for his harshness -- is traveling the world, embracing a life of leisure. "I whose only terror has always been daily monotony," the narrator explains, "I pushed open the gates of Hell to escape his mortal enemy, I have given life to a windsurfer."
Clearly, this man covertly envies his son. Yet, does he resent the boy's happiness or, more specifically, the fact that it has been found so far from the side of his now extraneous father? But if you feel inclined to sympathize with the narrator, his nastiness -- "The funny part of it is that instead of hardening you up, I produced a weakling" -- makes it difficult. It's to Reza's credit that she doesn't ask you to try.
While reading someone's unfettered complaining might sound like about as much fun as sticking needles in your eye, Reza's narrator is someone you want to listen to, and not only because he's often deliciously wicked. What's exhilarating is that he speaks -- sometimes to himself and sometimes to his son -- with the unbridled and sometimes desperate bravado of a man who knows he's about to die and therefore says whatever he pleases.
Samuel struggles with his own honesty. Sometimes he tries his best to be charitable, but his withering cynicism overcomes him, as when he describes Nancy: "She's wonderful, you know. She loves people, she wants the best for all humanity. Starting at dawn. The woman is so upbeat, it's a nightmare, from the moment she gets out of bed." Reza's sentences either skip along crisply or ramble angrily, according to Samuel's mood. It doesn't matter that we get no outside perspective on our hero. You can imagine that sometimes he's muttering to himself while fussing over his garden; at others, he carries on like a child, stamping his feet, red-faced and punching the air.
Often the narrator's sadness seeps out as well, as unavoidable as his anger. It's then that he most seems to be reaching out to touch his reader: "Even if children don't remain as warm as you think they will, they're still your children and I refuse to lose you completely," he says. Moments like these in "Desolation" gave me the chills. Yet, while the narrator of her story is admittedly depressed, Reza fiercely resists the weight of that emotion. In the last days of his life, Samuel is very alive. When Reza builds a particular passage into a rising crescendo of life, pain, anger and love, it's a hypnotic adrenaline rush, something almost like joy.