The Invoice
By Jonas Karlsson, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith. (Hogarth Press, 204 pages, $24.
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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.

LAURIE HERTZEL, senior editor/books

 

The Light of Paris
By Eleanor Brown. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 320 pages, $26.)

 

Macalester alumna Eleanor Brown’s second novel (her first was the delightful bestseller “The Weird Sisters”) recapitulates an old and sometimes hackneyed plot — the transformation of an American woman in Paris — in a fresh, endearing way. It is two stories in one — the first set in 1999, when Madeleine, a thirty-something, drifting, unhappily married Chicago woman, visits her aging, crotchety mother in their small Southern hometown and finds in her attic the journals of her emotionally stifled grandmother, Margie, who in 1924 went to Paris and for a time reveled in freedom, art and love.

Madeleine and Maggie are remarkably similar, and their fates are, too, up to a point. “How is it possible things that are so important to us when we are young somehow fade away?” Madeleine asks herself as she uncovers her grandmother’s secrets, and ponders her own. “It’s so easy for … dreams to get run over by other people’s ideas about what we should do, or to be eroded, little by little, by the day-to-day drudgery of living, or to lose heart when faced with the long, hopeless struggle between where we are and who we want to be.”

Though at times a little too predictable and earnest, “The Light of Paris” is generally finely written and absorbing, and explores the always compelling questions of how to balance reality and romance, duty and dreams, family and freedom.

Brown will read at 7 p.m. July 20 at Barnes and Noble in the Galleria, Edina.

PAMELA MILLER, night metro editor