Twenty and Bored and Alive

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Zachary German’s debut novel, Eat When You Feel Sad, is funny, readable and sincere—which is curious, since it is also experimental and stylistically extreme. Centered around the life of a young man named Robert, the novel is comprised of short vignettes, which themselves are comprised of short, declarative sentences, which in turn are comprised of simple, repetitive words and phrases. Robert eats hummus. Robert cleans his juicer. Robert speaks on Gmail Chat to Mark, Sam, Kelly, Steve, and Lydia. Robert walks to the Laundromat. He feeds his cat. He says something mean to his cat. He touches his cat. The tone is emotionally flattened and yet deeply sad.

With its combination of humor, deadpan, and ennui, Eat When You Feel Sad calls to mind writers like Anne Beattie and Tao Lin, but also writers like Bret Easton Ellis and, in certain ways, Ernest Hemingway circa In Our Time, had Hemingway’s interstitials been about Laundromats and Broken Social Scene rather than fishing trips and soldiers. Throw a few strands of Andy Warhol and early Pavement into the mix and you might get something like German’s novel.

Eat When You Feel Sad is uncompromising. It flouts chronology and conventional ideas of narrative arc, character development, and plot. To call it episodic would be an understatement. Peripheral characters appear and disappear. Actions in one scene appear inconsequential to the actions and motives of the next—although this sense of randomness is humorously acknowledged in the novel’s index, where one may handily reference the numerous occurrences of “Lil Wayne” (five), “They Might Be Giants (band)” (one), “They Might Be Giants (album)” (one), “Lydia” (nine), “Robert’s cat” (twenty-four), “Robert’s parents” (six), “Robert’s parents’ dog” (three), and so forth.

The stakes are low. There are no life-threatening illnesses in Eat When You Feel Sad; no suicides, no ailing parents or grandparents, no self-destructive habits or tendencies, minimal interaction with people outside the ages of 15-27, and only throwaway mentions of employment (indexed mentions of “work” – zero). Even in the stories of Joy Williams, one of German’s influences, violence and death reside. The same is true for Hemingway’s In Our Time which, oddly enough, German’s novel resonates with quite a bit—both are semiautobiographical books about young, confused men, told in stark, minimalist prose with intermittent fractures. Yet, even Hemingway’s most idyllic moments, the scenes of camping and fishing and fending off mosquitoes in “Big Two-Hearted River,” are set in relief against moments of intense violence—ministry officials facing firing squads in the rain, enemy soldiers “potted” while scaling a wall. In Eat When You Feel Sad, German puts no Chekhovian guns on the wall, set to go off in the last act. The propulsion comes not from plots of danger or death, but from voice, the pure and myopic perspective of a young and confused middle-class person in a city in America. This voice is neither howl, yowl, nor whisper, but something more like a quiet monotone, slightly ironic and yet also depressed, lonely and, at times, compellingly vulnerable.

It makes sense, then, that the most poignant and beautiful moments of book occur when Robert is left alone, simply to exist. Through German’s effort to colloquially document the most ordinary of movements, a sense of the narrator’s nearly mechanical self-consciousness is conveyed and, moreover, shown to be surprisingly emotional.

Robert takes a six-pack of eleven-point-six bottles of Elephant malt liquor out of the plastic bag. He looks at the six-pack of eleven-point-six-ounce bottles of Elephant malt liquor. Robert touches one of the bottles. Robert’s fingers become moist. Robert opens one of the bottles of Elephant malt liquor. He looks out the window… Robert looks out the window. The sun is out. Robert looks at the park across the street. He looks at people in the park across the street. He thinks “I’m sorry that everyone has problems. I don’t know what to do. I’m vegan”… Robert plays the song “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene. It’s warm. Robert thinks “I feel okay.” He drinks Elephant malt liquor. He thinks “I want to call someone.” He rubs a pillowcase against his eyes. He drinks Elephant malt liquor. He thinks “I like Broken Social Scene.” The song “Cause = Time” by Broken Social Scene is playing. Robert thinks “I’m glad I don’t have any disabilities.” Robert finishes drinking Elephant malt liquor. Robert is asleep.

Despite the deliberate emotional flatness of the prose (or perhaps because of it), there is a relentlessness, a compulsiveness to these actions. Repetitions such as “six-pack,” “bottles” and “Elephant malt liquor” contrast with statements that only occur once—“I’m sorry everyone has problems. I don’t know what to do,” “I’m glad I don’t have any disabilities”—the result of which is taut and quietly startling. Even a seemingly inauspicious line like “Robert touches one of the bottles” can be intensely sad in its simplicity and quickness, as if it were a unconscious tic, this desire to touch something and to feel something, even if it’s just a wet, cold bottle of cheap alcohol. When the paragraph concludes with the quietly beautiful leap from “Robert finishes drinking Elephant malt liquor” to “Robert is asleep,” there’s a sense of completion, of release and finality. And it’s calm in that final place. Calm, yes, but also lonely.

Certain readers will find this novel’s repetitive and willfully surface-dwelling voice frustrating. Others will enjoy it for its fantastically ordinary beauty and resonance. Eat When You Feel Sad is a slight, strange, yet ultimately hopeful debut: a slender, idiosyncratic document of what it’s like to be twenty and bored and alive in 2010.

James Yeh is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in PEN America, elimae, the film 60 Writers/60 Places and the anthology 30 Under 30. He lives and bikes in Brooklyn. More from this author →