Surveying literary history, Georg Lukacs wrote in 1914, “Life contains within itself both the relative independence of every separate living being from any transcendent bond and the likewise relative inevitability and indispensability of such bonds.” On such slippery footing, the novel took form (Cervantes, Goethe, Tolstoy). Criticism, too. Some hundreds of years have passed since those first conceptions. Is our age so different?
This is the footing Jason Porter tests in his debut, a “funny, but not jokey” comedy of the workplace, that theoretical box everyone is always proposing to think outside of (usually in the workplace). The opening paragraph of Why Are You So Sad? posits the existence of one Raymond Champs who wakes in bed on an average morning in his average Bay Area life and declares a bad case of the blues: “We are all symptoms of a grieving planet.” Raymond designs schematic displays for an IKEA-like superstore called LokiLoki, the icon for which he has named MrCustomMirth and whose limited emotional range hounds his creator. Married to quick-witted and forgiving Brenda, Raymond knows he should feel better than he does, but, at least in this case, knowing isn’t the same thing as being. The disease of sadness can only be confirmed, Raymond decides, by creating a survey to quantify his burgeoning intuition, an “Emotional Well-Being Self-Appraisal.”
Why Are You So Sad? is a novel that makes novel-writing appear deceptively easy. As comic premises go, Porter’s has plenty of potential in this age of unabashed data-mining. Like a broodier George Saunders (whose New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs piece from several years ago Porter brings to mind, a conscious soul narrating from inside a buried Revolutionary War-era corpse) or Joshua Ferris in Then We Came to the End, Porter’s narrative veers from waywardness to personal calamity, the reader welcomed to laugh at, and with, the sorrows of a young misanthrope. The more certain Raymond Champs grows of the universality of his own personal feelings, the more his disconnection from the lives of those around him becomes manifest. Swift, plainly delivered, dead-ahead chapters give out onto samples of Raymond’s responses to his own survey, with prompts like, “Do you believe in God?,” “Do you believe in life after death?” and “Do you believe in life after God?” Porter, a former touring musician, occasionally produces a line stupendous in its ever having cohered from the ether of unformulated phrases: “We will experience more, and it will weigh less.”
There is something wrong with Raymond Champs and maybe with us too, even if the effect of laughing at Raymond’s spiraling derangement is to feel a distance from his plight, the kind it is possible to close a book on. Yet, as Jeff Ragsdale’s provocative Jeff, One Lonely Guy and psychotherapeutic thought pieces like this one remind us, there is a basis for these findings outside the realm of Goethe-suffused fiction.
The intricacy of character development in Why Are You So Sad? will not impress many readers, although neither would the kind in a The Kids in the Hall sketch. That their antic subjects are stuck is largely what makes them funny. Porter does successfully evoke the voices of several modern personality types in his survey responses. The cumulative effect gives the novel its measure of depth. Readers are themselves invited to take the Emotional Well-Being Self-Appraisal.