Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review of "Eat When you Feel Sad" by Zachary German

      This book is one of those books that has a great deal of hub-bub whirling around it, composed of German's unusual personality, his non-standard writing style, and some high level praise and endorsements. Considering the book it is fairly short and in most ways uncontroversial this amount of attention seems only to add to this noise. Attempting to remove this from my assessment will be impossible but I'll try to be as objective as possible here. I bought Eat When You Feel Sad after watching Adam Humphrey's documentary following German in the two years following the release of EWYFS. Honestly I would recommend holding off watching the documentary until after reading the book as (if you haven't already done both), while Shitty Youth is a well done sketch of an interesting and apparently erratic personality it can only detract from a first reading experience.
       The book itself is immediately notable for German's style which is absolutely, uncompromisingly and pathologically spare. This is like Lish on benzos (or adderall i guess? i donno...), and while one may think shorter sentences would make an easier read it honestly took me some time to slow myself down enough to get the full experience. Events can fly past you so if you want to enjoy this book it helps to read it pretty slowly. Whether or not German chose this style 'consciously' is an interesting question, I think, and one that I have not yet seen addressed. Regardless his minimal style conveys the sort of mentally unstable ennui that the main character Robert experiences throughout the course of the novel. These basic declarative sentences have proved to be fairly polarizing, people either lauding German as a genius or bashing him as "childish" or a hack. In my opinion it takes a certain amount of restraint to write like this, after all description comes naturally and unbidden when we write, and it isn't always good, or necessary. It does leave something to be asked for however. Some of the sections come off as repetitive, especially when you read "Then Robert did X" and it is the fourth time in the novel he has done X (and the fourth time you have read that exact sentence).
      The story itself is fairly bare: it follows the events of Robert's life over the course of a number of years as he grows up, moves out of his parent's and lives in the city among other people pretty similar to himself. He gets a job but it is only alluded to as a minor inconvenience, the majority of events involve either Robert alone in his home (listening to music, making food or jerking off) or hanging with friends and drinking. It doesn't need to be overstated that this is not a plot driven novel. Even though roughly the same events occur over and over again there is a sort of satisfying development that occurs. In the beginning of the novel, soon after Robert moves to the city, he is totally emotionally numb, maybe even completely emotionally vacant. At the end of the novel though he begins to feel, or at least express sadness. We see Robert cry and it seems like a breakthrough: as if this character that may have been a robot or animal bursts into humanity, and in a sort of depressing but sweet way. Robert does not find love but dreams about it in the novel, and this provides a  counterpoint to the general emotional numbness provided throughout. We hear other character's remarks that suggest Robert is "full of bullshit" and a jerk though we never see exactly what he does to deserve these descriptions. It is as if Robert is cut off from the world in a way, the view we get completely subjective, and we are either required (or perhaps not allowed) to build the world, characters and events that occur around Robert.
     As mentioned above German places the stark reality of young urban living (where happiness and contentment should be just a purchase away, and yet remain forever elusive) in the only way appropriate: starkly, barely, and without adornment. Unfortunately many critics (official and of the comment section rabble type) that I have read seem to assume that this is German's magnum opus, and ignore that not only is this his first novel, but that he published it when he was 21 or so. Not that youth itself should remove one from critical scrutiny but this fact should at least place EWYFS in the "interesting-unusual-and-welldone-first-work" bin with German's potential to put out some serious game changers in the future a definite possibility.

If ever writes again...
                                  which, it looks like, he probably won't...

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