Radical Temperance: “Cool Sobriety” and the Novel: Anneliese Mackintosh’s So Happy it Hurts

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Emily Hogg, an assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. Hogg presented this work to the Radical Temperance: Social Change and Drink, from Teetotalism to Dry January conference held in June, and this post dives deeper into her work on representations of “cool sobriety” in the novel. Enjoy!

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Prof. Emily Hogg

“An air of cool hovers around sobriety at the moment,” argues Alice O’Keefe in The Guardian in December 2017, “just as it does over veganism and clean eating.” For O’Keefe, this is exemplified by “the proliferation of sober blogs such as Hip Sobriety (hipsobriety.com) and Girl and Tonic (girlandtonic.co.uk).” Indeed, a sense of fashionable distinction is proclaimed by the very title of Hip Sobriety, founded by Holly Glenn Whitaker. The cool appeal of such contemporary ideas about sobriety rests, in part, upon the way they distinguish themselves from older, staler accounts of its meanings; if sober living was generally understood as “hip,” of course, there would be no need for Whitaker to use the word itself. In this cultural moment, there is a determined effort to rewrite familiar narratives about alcohol and its place in our lives. The Hip Sobriety manifesto, for example, directly challenges a number of well-known ideas about alcohol, stating: “you don’t need to hit rock bottom,” “Am I an alcoholic? is the wrong question” and “It’s not incurable” because “Cured is never having to drink again.”

Screenshot 2018-09-27 08.53.35This reimagining of sobriety has a significant literary dimension: it is driven in no small part by reading, writing, and the circulation of texts. In the Guardian article, O’Keefe, reviews The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray, a blend of self-help and autobiography which, as its title suggests, seeks to illuminate the pleasures of sobriety through descriptions of its author’s life. Both Glenn Whitaker’s Hip Sobriety and Girl and Tonic, by Laurie McAllister, stress the significance of reading in the maintenance of sobriety. McAllister lists “6 of my favourite books about sobriety,” whilst Glenn Whitaker’s blog includes posts called “Why Reading is Paramount in Recovery’ and “’13 Essential Books to Build a Holistic Recovery from Addiction’.”

Screenshot 2018-09-27 08.55.55These reading lists emphasize non-fictional writing, especially memoir, self-help, and hybrid memoir/self-help texts. But some contemporary literary fiction also attends to sobriety, and the particular status of fictional representations might invite a different kind of reading experience than that associated with non-fictional texts. Anneliese Mackintosh’s novel So Happy it Hurts (London: Jonathan Cape) was published in 2017 and follows a character called Ottila through one calendar year, her first year of sobriety. The book begins at the point where she has decided to stop drinking, after taking a course of antibiotics, being told she can’t drink for ten days and then drinking a bottle of wine and being hospitalized. There is one occasion during the year described in the book where she has a drink, but otherwise she is able to maintain her sobriety.  

The novel’s structure is brilliantly innovative. It takes the form of what Ottila describes as a grief scrapbook, even though, as she says: “nobody’s died. Not lately, anyway. I’m grieving for alcohol though, and maybe that’s enough.” She makes the grief scrapbook by taking a book called the Little Book of Happy from the hospital where she works. Then she adds to it, sticking in various documents which, read together, provide a discontinuous account of her year. The documents include an image of an app for monitoring sobriety, a poster from the hospital advertising Dry January, and a list of “twenty things to do instead of drinking.” The book also includes transcripts of Ottila’s sessions with a therapist, as well as receipts, text messages, emails, and excerpts from her recovery workbook. The novel stitches together a narrative of Ottila’s first year of sobriety through the juxtaposition of all these different fragments of text.

It is important that Otilla makes the book by adding to the self-help text. The fragmented effect could, in theory, have been created for the reader if Otilla’s scrapbook was simply a blank notebook. But because Otilla is adding documents to an already existing text, a sense of dialogue is created – she is speaking back to, and rewriting, other narratives. This is particularly significant for thinking about sobriety. For example, alongside each item in the “twenty things to do instead of drinking” list, Otilla has added an annotation, printed in the book a handwriting-like typeface.  Against number 7 on the list, “read to a child,” Otilla writes “creepy.” Number 8, “visit someone in an old folks’ home,” is “creepier,” and number 9, “speak in rhyming couplets for an hour,” is “creepiest.”

In this way the novel seems to dramatize or perform a wider discussion about sobriety. It transforms and recontextualizes the documents associated with contemporary sobriety (the app, the Dry January advert), using them to tell Otilla’s story. Written through and against other cultural accounts of sober living, and in dialogue with them, the narrative develops as a looser and more individual account. In its form and structure, it therefore makes the current contestation over the meanings of sobriety visible. At the same time, because it is marketed as a novel rather than as self-help or memoir, it invites its readers into a particular relationship with it. In the genres of self-help and memoir, personal stories are often leveraged as examples – individuals’ past experiences are typically presented as paths to follow or to avoid. Ottila, on the other hand, is presented to us as a fictional construct, without any ostensible therapeutic or instructional purpose. Because it is a novel, So Happy it Hurts is able to represent a process of irreverent grappling with discourses of sobriety, without taking on the responsibility of directly persuading, instructing or guiding its reader.

Of course, readers’ interactions with texts are fluid and unpredictable – as readers, we may learn lessons from novels that do not ostensibly seek to teach us. This novel provides an interesting counterpoint to the contemporary rethinking of sobriety. It does not ostensibly set out to help readers build their recoveries, as some of the books in Holly Glenn Whitaker’s list do. But by including ephemeral material like train tickets and text messages, the novel gives a sense of something occurring in real time, and in the messiness of real life; it proceeds in an improvisational fashion, performing an openness to change and new ideas. It presents Otilla’s experience of sobriety as something nimble and endlessly surprising, something that is experimental and full of different options. For the reader interested in what sobriety might mean, the novel does not suggest new answers or advocate a singular cool new redefinition, but it does model the refusal of static, stuck understandings, and the fluid, ongoing process of finding new meanings and exploring the diverse possibilities of sober living.