The cover copy for Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad advertises that protagonist Robert “feeds his cat, watches television and drinks beer. He gets mustard on his clothes, rides a bicycle and talks on Gmail chat.” Put aside any cynical suspicion that the novel will miss that high bar, for Robert in fact engages in each listed activity, plus things the cover copy doesn’t even mention, like masturbation and vegan cooking.
The novel is composed of quick third-person scenes without mention of what occurs between them aside from the occasional “Six months later.” We first find high school freshman Robert in a video arcade, a record store, a magazine shop, and his parents’ house. Soon he’s a sophomore attempting a relationship with Alison. He habitually reaches out—physically—touching friends, his face, a tree, his cat, his teacher in a fantasy, and broccoli he doesn’t prepare. He touches a lot and appears to feel very little. “Robert and Alison have sex. They finish having sex.” Alison begins to cry. “Robert thinks ‘Should I touch Alison’s arm or something?’”
Robert is increasingly self-destructive, and at least half-aware of it. His mind reaches for solutions to his emptiness. He sees clothes on his floor. “Would I be happier if those things were put away?” He thinks pot could help, “Or no, I’d probably just breathe weird and fall asleep.” He thinks, “I should have more stuff. At some point.” He considers that he “should stop eating wheat maybe.” He types words then deletes them; he thinks of what he should do then deletes that too. It’s as if he’s blindfolded and waving both hands as he walks, hoping something warm bumps straight into his chest. But what could that something be? And if it’s a person, will it be wearing a properly-hip sweater?
It took twenty pages to get used to German’s short, intentionally insipid sentences, and to ease my stubbornness at reading an author who might hate everything I’ve ever enjoyed reading. I wondered—in the early pages—if Eat When You Feel Sad were merely anti-literature, if it were a one-hundred-twelve-page complaint about every literary element I love. I thought the chosen style suggested a determination to be miserably carefree about not caring about the fact that there is nothing to care about, and I worried the author had no surprises in store, that this was his sole intent. I felt set up. Disliking Eat When You Feel Sad would be admitting to myself that I’m a bore and—this will sound creepy—convinced my existence has meaning.
But, after nearly recycling the book at page twenty, I pushed on to page thirty, and from there to the final sentence I did nothing besides read Eat When You Feel Sad. I didn’t set it aside to blow my runny nose. My interest began to rise with the continual cerebral shattering of monotonous prose:
Robert is standing on a subway platform. Kelly, Abby, Steve and Ted are there. Robert, Kelly, Abby, Steve and Ted are each holding a grocery bag from Trader Joe’s. Robert thinks “I’m the only person in the world. More than ever, there is only me.”
As the novel progresses, Robert’s thoughts become increasingly sweet, increasingly tasty, and suddenly, they feel violently honest, because in contrasting such bare descriptions of “living” with internal reality German throws into relief the humanity of his character. Robert is more exposed than I thought a character could be given such dry sentences and direct thoughts, and he feels more honest than most minds I’ve read on the page. German’s stylistic choices allow no room for the contrivance that generally characterizes thought replication, no poetic reconstructions, no I’m dysfunctional, now love me because I told you; rather, we get an attempt at straightforward transcription, as when Robert wishes to break up with a girl he seems to quite like, and she protests, “I thought we were really pretty great together”:
Robert says “Yeah.’” He says “Yeah.” He says “Yeah, it’s just…” Robert thinks “I don’t like her clothes and I don’t think she’s—I don’t want to introduce her to my friends, the ones that I don’t have yet but who will be more like me, vain and judgmental and stuff.” He thinks “I need to stop being like this.” He thinks “Run into traffic.” He thinks “It’s not going fast enough to kill me probably.”
If a dramatic mental revelation in more traditional literary work can be a punch in the face, Robert’s simple thoughts are at times a cement sidewalk to the skull: the buzzing music at impact, the flickering taste of pennies seeping south from the eye sockets. The robotic prose has an isolating effect, and thus German captures the solitude of the human mind. Robert’s thoughts peer out and find nothing similar, nothing like them, nothing close enough to grab onto. While he’s clearly depressed, the effect for the reader is not depressing. The thoughts that breach the haze of Robert’s bodily movements highlight human consciousness as so clearly original, so set apart from the world, so fundamentally rare, that we know it is meaningful, despite its apparent insignificance.
Eat When You Feel Sad forced a recognition in this rather traditional reader: When scene and story are stripped away, when all poetic potential is stiff-armed line by line—craft murdered, artifice torched—the mind that remains is still a pulsing, shining thing, a bright burning spot.