The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue

Sadness, An (Inevitable) History

Jason Porter
Why Are You So Sad?
(Plume, 2014)

Suppose the human race has been compromised by a debilitating sadness in which getting out of bed in the morning “feels like pulling a sequoia out of the earth with your bare hands.” Answer this question, Is today worse than yesterday? Now suppose the world has been dipped into a pot of planetary darkness, but with agonizingly trendy accents of candles in the shape of fish jumping out of streams and furnished with faux leather loveseats with the dreaded some-assembly-required. Now consider: Would you prefer to be someone else?

Perhaps, in a world under such duress a filmic voiceover would announce the existence of one man who was willing to challenge the despondent complacency that has allowed sadness to enthrall and infect the human race on this endemic scale—that wouldn’t be far from one of the daydreams of Raymond Champs, the anti-champion of Jason Porter’s debut novel, Why Are You So Sad?

Raymond has a theory that the entire world is captured in a prolonged moment of despair of historical and evolutionary significance. His theory is solidified in one epiphanic moment while sitting in traffic: “I am sick. We are all sick. Something is in the water. It is in the soil. We are all symptoms of a grieving planet.” From there, Raymond becomes preoccupied with speculatively diagnosing sadness in his fellow creatures, relying on other depressives to both validate and stain his downturned world view that things are generally going wrong. Raymond considers sadness from the evolutionary standpoint, sometimes wondering if bats just prefer to live in darkness or if pigeons have a strong sense of self; even the dinosaurs must have experienced a dip in mood before suffering a lugubrious extinction. If so, he ponders, what will become of us?

As an illustrator for a home furnishings company that excels at marketing trendy creature comforts, Raymond finds himself amidst a culture of success, cubicles, and complacency. Though he yearns to simply “exist in a moment,” he moves through artificial environments and ad spaces. Raymond exhibits the same disillusionment typically found in contemporary narrators suffering from heartsickness and questionable mental stability, yet Raymond fosters his own buckled kind of hope. Grasping for clarity about his own sadness, he concocts a way to contextualize depression across the human species, “an emotional Geiger counter that could objectively measure other people for sadness,” which results in today’s most officious solution: a survey.

Under the guise of a professional review at his workplace, Raymond searches for confirmation that his theory is correct, that a global community of sadness exists under the routines of work, love, and other evolutionary challenges demanded by modern existence. He formulates survey questions with the same desperate poignancy he feels: Are you who you want to be? Would you prefer to be someone else? Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful? When was the last time you felt happy? Why are you so sad? Raymond’s deadpan commentary probes the outer layers of adult personae as defined by professional ambition, relationship satisfaction, and the ability to separate past from present, inner from outer selves. At work, he begins to fill in the hollow outlines of his coworkers as they submit written answers about their (reductive) hopes and (diminishing) dreams. When Raymond’s subterfuge with his questionnaire distracts him at home, he veers around urgent conversations with his pragmatic wife, who is almost resentfully loving as she is unamused by his eccentric project and concerned about his diminishing focus on work (“The world is still spinning. Everybody is fine. People are unhappy sometimes. You’ll be fine,” she writes in answer to one of his survey questions).

Throughout the novel, Raymond is the first to confess his own emotional ills, with his own short answers prefacing each installment of Why Are You So Sad? as it performs an arc not so much of self-discovery but about why we should bother to discover at all. Raymond’s dry wit couples with his quiet anxiety to place him in a seemingly passive routine of commuting to office and enduring meals. Meanwhile, his inner emotional state remains in a cyclone spin. The illustrator perceives married life, the office world, and the wider timeline of human unhappiness in visual interpretations comparable to a cartoon gone awry: “It looked like the word happy was going to enter a dark brown hole, as if the entire sentence was a train about to funnel into the side of a mountain.”

And yet, somewhere at the core of his comical musings is the pure need to feel connected, some primal necessity left unadulterated by the demands of adult life. Porter’s novel functions best in offering this companionship, more than offering revelation, to those enclosed in the same loop of evolutionary sadness as Raymond. Why Are You So Sad? offers a reading experience akin to standing in a well-lit room crowded with people who are each convinced they’re standing alone in the grey corner of a cubicle; half of the reader’s investment comes from anticipating their expressions the moment they finally lay eyes on each other. By the final question of whether or not this moment will arrive, Porter extends the authorial hand to offer alternative, multiple choice-style endings, and the burden of answering Why Are You So Sad? falls to the reader.

If depression is indeed embedded into our history, then at least literary tradition has benefited from its contribution of black humorists and deadpan confessors. Raymond Champ’s meandrous introspections evolve from the dark humor established by Kurt Vonnegut’s confessional asides, Chuck Palahniuk’s anti-establishment riots, and the observational humor of David Sedaris. Jason Porter and his debut novel join a community of stories balancing unconventional style with conventional human loneliness. As the reader waits for Raymond to resolve his own unanswerable question, the collection of answers he does receive by the last pages are each “…brilliant, sad, leaning, struggling, unknowing. Each one the same story, but not at all the same.”


Megan Hanson

MEGAN HANSON is a master's candidate with a concentration in literary theory at Brooklyn College. She has written book reviews for Tottenville Review, and has received awards from Glimmer Train and the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at Touro College and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

All Issues