On Zachary German’s “Eat When You Feel Sad”

Posted by @ 3:56 pm on March 24th, 2010

[NOTE: The reviewer discloses several personal acquaintances, and asserts his unequivocal subjectivity.]

A Few Moments of Sleeping and Waking


When I was a kid my parents had a no-censorship policy on my reading material. The only exception they ever made to this rule was when I wanted to read a book that my dad was reading, called American Psycho. This was sometime in the mid ’90s, when the book was out of print. Dad had gotten it from a woman who worked in his office, who herself had found it on a website that specialized in hard-to-find books—probably the first person we ever knew who had used the internet to actually get something. I remember asking him about it, and that my interest was immediately piqued by his no-doubt abridged description. I remember asking to read it, and how, after much deliberation (which was baffling in itself, because I hadn’t meant “can I” so much as “when can I”) he finally told me, not without evident regret, that he would not let me read the book. “It’s not the content itself,” he said, “so much as that I don’t think you have the context to understand the content for what it is.” I must have expressed some outrage—this was unprecedented, after all—and he, concerned I might sneak a peek despite the ban, hid the book so well that we never found it again, even years later, when we emptied that house out and moved.

I started college in the summer of 2000, a few months after the film version of American Psycho debuted at Sundance. Now the book was everywhere. You could just walk into the store and buy a copy—with Christian Bale’s face on the cover, no less. I didn’t go see the movie in theaters, but I went and got the book. And I’ll tell you something—my father was absolutely right. Even at eighteen I didn’t really understand the book for what it was, namely the darkest of satires, mostly because I didn’t know enough about what was being satirized: Wall Street culture, the ‘80s in general, etc. So I took the book absolutely seriously, and treating it in this way made for one of the single most disturbing reading experiences I had ever had before, or have had since.

Zachary German would have been eleven years old the year American Psycho was released in theaters, and though I don’t know whether he saw the film before he read the book, it’s highly likely that a trailer for the film alerted him to the book’s existence in the first place. He would have understood going in, then, that the ultra-violence was a kind of cartoonish excess, and that the whole thing was to be understood (on some level) as a comedy, but he would have probably been still too young to fully grok how (or even that) the pathological cataloging of brand-names was meant as an extension of the central “joke.”

I’m sure he understands that now, but first impressions die hardest, and often times not at all. I understood the film version of American Psycho as just that—a version, which is in itself the reason I didn’t go see it in theaters. I didn’t want to see some director’s weird re-conception of this monumental horror novel as a comedy. I wanted to experience the Real And Serious Book Itself. Consequently, I still cannot think about American Psycho without a shiver running down my spine, because what I remember is not the book itself, so much as my throwing it across my dorm room, and only later working up the courage to pick it back up and see it through to the end.

There was a segue that I was building towards, connecting my speculation about what the young Zachary German probably took at face value with the adult (albeit barely) Zachary German’s penchant for name-checking everything that catches his protagonist Robert’s attention in German’s debut novel, Eat When You Feel Sad. But wherever that connection has got off to, I can’t find it, and so maybe it never existed in the first place—or maybe it’s so obvious that I should just let you put it together (or not) for yourself. In any case, this um, tendency of German’s is just one of the things that makes Eat When You Feel Sad so very strange.

The book is written in a voice of militant composure. Only simple sentences are allowed, and each one consists of a subject, a verb, and then an object, in that order. Pronouns are allowed for humans (though they’re used sparingly), but are almost totally verboten for products and things. Paradoxically, this work of extreme minimalism rejects all forms of shorthand, and most of the colloquial. A can of “sixteen ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon beer” does not, once introduced, ever become “a beer.” It is referred to only by its full title, and so it goes with all the movies, books, songs, bands, albums, foods, drinks, and countless other items which are consumed throughout. Though actually, now that I think about it, I realize that “countless” is the absolute wrong word—and this mistake of mine is just one example of why (and how) this book and its author are both trickier than they first seem. In fact, each and every person and thing in the book is counted and catalogued, in an accurate and comprehensive index at the back of the book. In this gesture, German achieves some unfathomable level of triple-reverse irony normally only possible in laboratory settings for mere seconds at a time. Kudos to him for pulling this off—and to me for having figured it out.

Here are some selections taken at random from the text:

“Robert is in a community center. There is music” (11).

“Robert is lying on Alison’s bed” (21).

“Robert plays the song ‘Chickfactor’ by Belle & Sebastian. He turns off his bedside lamp. He thinks ‘My job is okay.’ He is asleep” (35).

“The DVD is Lost in Translation. Robert turns on the DVD player. He puts Lost in Translation into the DVD player” (57).

“Robert walks into his apartment. He walks into his bedroom. He lies down. He is asleep. Robert is awake. He takes a bath. He reads the story “Community Life” by Lorrie Moore. Robert rides his bike to Whole Foods. He buys arugula, broccoli, pasta sauce, portabello mushrooms and a baguette. Robert rides his bike to his building. He makes dinner. He eats dinner. He makes a video of himself eating dinner. He washes dishes. Robert uploads the video to YouTube” (71-72).

You could only be forgiven for reading these lines as excerpts from the diary of an autistic hipster, or for writing German off as the great Tao Lin impersonator nobody has been waiting for. But do yourself a favor, and don’t do either of those things, because they’re both wrong, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. First though, I want to be totally clear that these are representative passages; so, you know, caveat emptor and all that shit.

Speaking of Tao Lin, those of you playing along at home might have noticed that there’s a character named “Robert” in Tao Lin’s “nonfiction novella,” Shoplifting from American Apparel, published last fall by the same press German’s on (Melville House). Indeed, Lin’s “Robert” is based on—or, I guess it makes more sense to say, simply is—Zachary German. The two are good friends, now press-mates, and Lin’s blurb is the sole encomium adorning Eat When You Feel Sad. (The galley also had an ecstatic and heartfelt blurb from the great Dennis Cooper, absent from the finished copy for reasons that remain a mystery to me.) German doesn’t describe his novel as “nonfiction,” but the two writers obviously colluded on their stand-in names (Lin’s “Sam” even has a few brief cameos in Eat When You Feel Sad) which does not imply so much as confirm the connection between their two books. And hey, why not?

But what I really want to say about Tao Lin and Zachary German is that they are not, in the end, interchangeable. In fact, to read their same-press, same-sized books in succession is not to fall into repetition, but rather to discover beneath the surface-level likeness disjunction and distance where you might have reasonably presumed none existed. Many of their concerns are shared, ditto some of their obsessions, tics, and favorite foods, but in the end their prose-styles are not all that similar, and their fundamental visions of and relations to the world are vastly different. Lin’s books are all at least in part about misanthropy, inwardness, and a failure to acclimate properly: to culture, to friends and partners, to anything at all up to and including the author/protagonist’s own body and mind. German, on the other hand, is the smoothest of operators, one of those effortlessly cool people you knew in high school and could never decide if you would rather fuck or kill. (Though if you went to high school with German you would have had to act fast—he dropped out when he turned sixteen).

On the one hand, German’s Robert has sophisticated taste in music, food and fashion, and seems to possess at least intermediate cooking skills. On the other, if we take the book’s title at face value, every instance of eating is an instance of sadness, and so the relentless catalog of meals is really a detailed case history of Robert’s depression. He eats and eats—to say nothing of all the other stuff he consumes—but he cannot be satiated. He’s always starving for more of what will pass right through him: mp3s or cigarettes or friends or Chinese food or whatever else you’ve got. His consciousness is the bored finger circling the rim of the half-empty glass of his spirit. Or something.

And yet I find myself unwilling to settle for this reading of Robert, which feels not merely reductive to me, but in some way deceptive, like a half-truth or a lie by omission. There’s a version of Robert, call him “sad-Robert,” that Robert sometimes wallows in or exploits (it’s doubtful whether he can tell the difference) but this quality comes and goes. His sadness is a light with a dimmer, and I think that more often than not it’s Robert’s own hand working the switch. To take “sad-Robert” for Robert entire is to mistake the part for the whole, a sure sign that you’re falling for his schtick, and will soon be rolling him cigarettes, or sleeping in his bed while he checks his email and agonizes to himself about why the hell he let you stay over.

Despite what he’d sometimes have you think, Robert likes being alive. (To German’s credit—he does let Robert say so, from time to time, so the characterization of Robert is by no means a total snow job.) Robert takes genuine pleasure in the food he eats and the music he listens to, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s The Magic of Satie no less than CocoRosie and Lil Wayne. He smokes pot and gets drunk not because of his spiritual emptiness, though I’m sure that it helps, but because smoking pot and getting drunk are really fun things to do, especially when girls are around—which for him they usually are. (He has more friends and love-interests than the reader will be able to keep track of; another good reason for the index.) Even in his moments of deepest weakness—questioning his sexuality; throwing up on himself at a party; having any number of existential crises—Robert still seems somehow almost too good at being himself, which may or may not be the Patrick Bateman connection I was looking for a thousand and a half words ago.

If you’re waiting for me to render a definitive verdict on Eat When You Feel Sad, you might as well stop. I’m not going to, or else I already have. I can’t tell you whether I think this is a “great book” or whether it will “last” (though I’m going to keep both my galley and my first edition in good condition, just in case). What I can tell you is that it is a real book, wholly original and complete unto itself, and that within the admittedly narrow scope of its ambition, it has been almost faultlessly executed, and is therefore a remarkable success on its own terms. The world will have to make of it whatever it can. For my own part, though, I want to say that I very much enjoyed reading Eat When You Feel Sad, spending time in Robert’s weird calm company, and thinking about it afterward has brought me at least as much pleasure again. Let me put it another way: in the time I spent working on this review (the bulk of two afternoons, and a part of a third), I could have done a lot of things, several of which are due in the very near future, and at least two of which come with checks attached. But I chose to ignore all of those things, because I wanted to do this.

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