By Jonas Karlsson, translated from Swedish by Neil Smith
Hogarth Press (204 pages, $24)
The narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s “The Invoice” is a nice, mild guy. He works part-time in a video store, rides his bike everywhere, enjoys watching movies, gets along fine. He’s not very ambitious, but he’s pretty happy -- which is his downfall. Because one day he gets a bill in the mail that says that he owes nearly 6 million kroner (about $750,000), although it’s not immediately clear why, or to whom.
“I chuckled at the thought that someone might pay that amount of money by mistake and never question it,” he says, throwing the bill away. But you know what happens when you throw a bill away: You get another one, with interest.
The bill, it turns out, is a sort of happiness tax from the government -- a tax on sunshine and birdsong and satisfaction and peace of mind. The amount owed is prorated to each person‘s level of happiness. (“Do you imagine all that is free?” asks Maud, the government official he calls, and who eventually becomes his confidante.)
The more the narrator protests, and the more evidence he produces to prove that he has suffered -- really! -- the higher the bill goes. Orwellian officials who seem to see and know everything about him determine that none of his travails has affected his equilibrium; he is simply much happier than most people. “Bloody hell, that’s the highest quotient,” one official is heard to mutter.
This absurd, gently humorous novel satirizes our impossibly burgeoning debt; our materialistic society; our mad, insatiable need for more and more and better, and our suspicious and ever-watching governments. It is, especially in these days of so many depressingly similar novels, refreshingly original and thought-provoking. (TNS)