Self-aware books walk a thin line between breaking the fourth wall in a way that refreshes a familiar story, and becoming too invasive. In Starting From Happy, the second novel from former Saturday Night Live writer and New Yorker staff writer Patricia Marx, the overly meta tendencies overshadow what might otherwise amount to a sharp skewering of domestic literature.
Wally, a scientist of inscrutable intelligence, meets Imogene, a New York lingerie designer, at a party thrown by a mutual friend. Patty, the author inserted into the text, narrates the story of a long courtship and partnership, of the “he repeatedly proposes, she continually says no” variety. The above-title cover blurb is from Woody Allen, and Marx’s quirky meta-romance feels of a piece with some of Allen’s creations. Imogene is uncompromising but mercifully unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, while Wally is perpetually optimistic. Somehow they forge through life together, the romantic details spared in favor of the unexceptional day-to-day routine of a long relationship.
Starting From Happy unfolds in hundreds of “chaplettes” ranging from a few words to a full page in length. Dialogue exchanges frequently extend over the course of a few pages, with each response getting its own chaplette. The pint-sized chapters move the story along at a nice clip, but cripple the depth of the satire. Small details are magnified, such as Wally’s pet turtle from a previous relationship, or the fabrics that go into Imogene’s lingerie creations, but they quickly pile up in a mountain of detail that precludes meaning.
Marx’s narrator avatar intervenes at every turn to comment that readers should go spend time outside, undercutting expectations and drawing attention to the story’s artificial nature. She offers a summary of the book a third of the way in, and stops one possible plot direction to double back and turn in another. Each time Patty the author makes herself known, it slows down the pace, inducing more eye-rolls than laughs.
“Did anything go well for Wally and Imogene in these years? Were there moments of happiness?” Patty wonders. “Sure there were, but is that the kind of book you want to read?” Their story doesn’t revolve around the good times. Instead, it picks out mundane, seemingly inconsequential details that compound the mediocrity of their circumstances.
The funniest lines and observations in Starting From Happy are unfortunately relegated to footnotes that point out of the already incredibly fractured plot instead of remaining inside it. Satirical commentary on the domestic romance is clearly Marx’s goal, but her approach is too clever for its own good, dividing itself and constantly winking. In the attempt to thoroughly satirize the structure of romantic plots, too many thin layers of self-awareness get in the way of the humor.