Eat When You Feel Sad is the debut novel by 21-year-old Zachary German, notably associated with fellow Brooklyn writer Tao Lin (who wrote last year’s novella Shoplifting from American Apparel). Both occupy a unique space in newer fiction that dissects typical, banal hipster life: listening to relevant music, G-mail chatting, eating vegan food, making mixes on iTunes, riding bikes, drinking.
Eat When You Feel Sad is about a young man named Robert. The novel follows his life from ages five to 19 in brief, sporadic scenes, which together don’t amount to a full, comprehensive story of his life, but the humorous and distant tone reflects his own detached personality. Robert’s life moves quickly and ambiguously. He has countless friends, and they are his chief diversion. He drinks malt liquor, smokes pot, and goes to their houses.
The novel uses extremely spare and minimal prose, e.g. “Robert walks into his bedroom. He looks at his cat. Robert closes his bedroom door. He touches his cat. Robert plays the album They Might Be Giants by They Might Be Giants.” This limited type of syntax has a remarkable range of effects; in some scenes its deadpan is hilarious, in others it’s troubling.
Eat When You Feel Sad feels very much like living, in its lack of continuity or coherence. Each scene is composed of a series of actions, with Robert’s half-baked thoughts and observations sprinkled here and there. These reflections on his life, which surface at any moment, are often incomplete, vague, and indecisive: “Robert thinks ‘I know that something matters but I still live as though I think that something matters. No, maybe I don’t. That’s what I should do, though. No, I don’t know.’”
References to music and pop culture abound. Robert’s musical taste: Lil Wayne, Broken Social Scene, Erik Satie, among many others. He also reads: Ann Beattie, Richard Yates, for starters. A peculiar humor is achieved by the lack of discernable effect music and books have on Robert. He might simply remark to himself in passing whether or not he enjoys them. German takes a wonderfully interesting approach by making music and books play a role in Robert’s life primarily as diversions. Robert listens to the song “I’m Insane” by Sonic Youth and it means little about Robert, or even his mood. To me, this makes for a very realistic, 21st century experience. Music is just part of his appetite for consumption, and “Robert” might be little else beyond this appetite.
The novel has an index which tracks references to everything—songs, bands, books, foods, brands, stores, people—that occupies Robert’s life, and the majority of these items appear only once in the novel. The index is central to the structure of the novel, because it tracks all of Robert’s changing interests. Songs, bands, and movies become merely items to interact with in the world, along with people.
The ultimate feeling created by the peering into Robert’s daily life is pleasurable, because of its relentless, lucid attention to the most purely functional aspects of life, and its strangely new, realistic perspective.