Wonderful, absurd, dark, but ultimately optimistic. It's about Harry Joy, a thirty-nine year old man who has a heart attack, briefly dies, comes back, and realizes his entire life is a sham. It's so visceral, I could feel it in my bones as I read it. It speaks to our longing for a better, more authentic existence. It's a modern Australian hipppie fantasy about Harry Joy's midlife crisis and ultimate redemption.
As Mary Whipple says: "Bliss is a lively, entertaining, and thought-provoking seriocomic novel, and Peter Carey is a terrifically amusing writer with a great ear for dialogue, a wry humor, and a broad vision. He delights in poking fun of us and our foibles, while saving his barbs for corporations and institutions. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Bliss, I know I would have enjoyed it even more, and maybe even loved it, when it was published in 1981. I feel Bliss to be just a bit dated now--still well worth reading and lots of fun, with many extremely funny scenes--but less relevant with its environmental messages and its anti-Big Business needling than it must have been when these messages were fresh, new, and more importantly, uncommon. As it was, Carey's approach now feels a bit patronizing at times and the environmental message, just a bit didactic--and old.
The book opens with Harry Joy, an advertising executive, having an out-of-body experience as he "dies" from a heart attack. When he comes back to life, he is convinced that he is in Hell. Since his wife is having an affair with his business partner, his son is selling drugs, and his daughter is a sexually precocious junkie, it is easy to see why Harry is convinced that his life is Hell and why he feels a captive to it. As he seeks enlightenment, Harry recognizes that Krappe Chemicals, a client, is polluting the environment with cancer-causing fumes, sees a cancer map showing the rates of cancer near industrial polluters, and meets Honey Barbara, an environmentally conscious prostitute with a heart of green.
Carey's satire here also includes the vagaries of religious doctrine, the absurdities of police procedure, the abuses of the mental health "industry" and its institutions, the fear of Communist conspiracies, and even of the trustee selection process for the State Gallery, which draws from "the very inner circle of society." It is lots of fun to read, with some laugh-out-loud funny scenes, but its thematic punch seems to have dulled a bit over time."
Sardonic humor isn't what I look for in a book. So, while Peter Carey's Bliss has received great reviews and is on a number of reading lists, reading it was a chore for me. The book is about an advertising executive who dies, is revived, and comes to believe he is living in hell. Complacency is replaced with greed, drive, and opportunities to push cancerous chemicals in the marketplace. Salvation is ultimately found in thick-skinned bare feet and the planting of trees in the jungle...and the love of a part-time prostitute and honey producer known as Honey Barbara.
From the back cover:
Bliss is the story of Harry Joy, husband, father, successful advertising man in a subtropical Australian city, who "dies" for some minutes during a coronary. While his spirit floats free of his body lying prostrate on his suburban lawn, Harry recognizes the world he has been living in for thirty-nine years as Hell. Upon his return to life, his wife Bettina, angered by his refusal to allow her to work for the firm, engages in an affair withone of his employees. Their son and daughter are involved with drugs and sexually with each other. Manufacturers of carcinogens are among his agency's clients. The peopl around him are dishonest, brutal, and hypocritical--with one exception: Honey Barbara, a hippy flower child from the outback who comes to town just as Harry is dismantling his business by purging it of evil and whose tender, erotic feeling for Harry is returned in kind. The family commits Harry to a mental hospital; love is lost and regained; and finally the lovers achieve an alternative life that may well be Harry's Heaven.