Review: Bristling for Affronts (A Review of Like Happiness by Ursula Villarreal-Moura)

By Hugh Blanton

There's a certain pride in being a victim, parading your hurt and devastation around like a league championship trophy. Those who have built a life out of being a professional victim should be pitied only for the massive effort they often have to put out digging deep in the well of offense to find something to be upset about. Then there are those who simply fabricate it out of thin air. And now we have perhaps the most bizarre example of all—a woman treated so well by her friend/lover he never made any demands of her and even paid off a huge chunk of her student loan debt. Somehow years after the relationship ended she decided she'd been treated so shabbily by him that she pens him a several thousand word screed about how badly he hurt her. Meet Tatum Vega, protagonist of the novel Like Happiness

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Like Happiness is the debut novel from Ursula Villarreal-Moura. If you're the type of reader who likes to ask "What is the point of this novel?" you'll have trouble coming up with an answer for this one. T Kira Madden says of it "[I]t's also a whip-smart critique of race in America, art making in the age of neoliberal 'feminism' and the crushing humor of trying to exist as a quiet person with big wants." (Which is just another way of saying it fits in perfectly with the current publishing trends and fads.) Our main character, Tatum Vega, moves from scene to scene in the book, bristling for affronts and becoming offended at the slightest slight she can find. Her junior year of college she attends a DH Lawrence seminar and is offended at St. Mawr for it's depiction of Phoenix, a character of Mexican and Native ancestry. She gets upset that art dealer's websites don't offer prints of enough women artists. One might think an aesthete enduring hardships in museums, college campuses, and bookstores is some sort of satire, but Tatum is presented wholly unironically here.
Tatum finds a collection of short stories titled Happiness by M. Domínguez. She's enthralled by it—its Spanish/English prose, its depiction of women characters. So much so, in fact, she writes the author a fan letter. They of course meet and start a relationship. It is sexual at first, but they return to their own lives—her to college, him to writing. They stay in touch, meet from time to time, even travel together. Domínguez offers to pay off $20K of her $38K student loan debt, and she happily accepts the offer. It's a nice easy-going relationship. Boring, even.
Like Happiness does its best to worship at the altar of publishing's holy trinity—race, class, gender. (We're spared from St. Climate Change who stalks the pages of so many novels rolling of the presses today.) Books that are trendy don't have to be written well or even have a good story, and both are the case here. "Chortled," the favorite dialogue tag of amateur hour, makes no less than three appearances here. Cringeworthy and confusing metaphor and simile are strewn about: "acid ricocheted into my throat." "my heartbeat deafening the roar of traffic," "anime sized cheeks." "chalk flavor clung to my tongue." and of course every lazy writer's favorite, "night inky black." (Anime sized cheeks?)
There's plenty use of Spanish language without translation, although not as overdone as some recent novels (see Gabino Iglesias' The Devil Takes You Home) and there's even some Japanese writing after Tatum takes Japanese lessons. One still gets the impression Villarreal-Moura is showing off as characters not only switch languages in the same conversation, they even do it in the same sentence. Some characters seem to make appearances only to show the author's disdain for well-to-do Americans. Tatum is sure that fellow student Julissa will get whatever job she interviews for because she is so integral to American culture, and despite being contemptuous of Julissa, even hating her, she invites Julissa to go with her to an author reading in New York (to provide more stand-in of course). Then a group of loud and obnoxious frat boys make an appearance, "chugging Mountain Dew from clear plastic cups."
Tatum only decides to write this screed to her former friend and favorite writer after an American journalist contacts her in Santiago to ask questions about accusations from a woman claiming that Domínguez mistreated her. Tatum kind of sort of thinks she may have been mistreated herself—a character in Domínguez's latest novel looked a lot like Tatum, at least on the first read. Subsequent readings made Tatum realize that maybe the character wasn't really a perfect stand-in for her, but she didn't allow that to dampen her outrage. She's determined to be an angry victim no matter what.
Like Happiness lacks the ambition to be called an attempt at the Great American Novel. It kind of starts out as a campus novel and slowly fizzles. One keeps waiting for the big reveal—what in the world is Tatum Vega so angry about? But there's nothing. It just falls flat and leaves the reader bewildered about the point of these two hundred and ninety one pages.

Hugh Blanton's latest book is Kentucky Outlaw. He can be reached on X @HughBlanton5.