I am not sure what struck me about Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter when I came across it. Wondering how an author would handle satire sliding into absurdist humor with a philosophical twist? Looking for something different to get out of a bit of a reading slump? A quick read available on my Kindle (thank you NetGalley!)? Maybe all of the above …
Porter’s uproarious, intelligent debut centers on Raymond Champs, an illustrator of assembly manuals for a home furnishings corporation, who is charged with a huge task: To determine whether or not the world needs saving. It comes to him in the midst of a losing battle with insomnia — everybody he knows, and maybe everybody on the planet, is suffering from severe clinical depression. He’s nearly certain something has gone wrong. A virus perhaps. It’s in the water, or it’s in the mosquitoes, or maybe in the ranch flavored snack foods. And what if we are all too sad and dispirited to do anything about it? Obsessed as he becomes, Raymond composes an anonymous survey to submit to his unsuspecting coworkers — “Are you who you want to be?”, “Do you believe in life after death?”, “Is today better than yesterday?” — because what Raymond needs is data. He needs to know if it can be proven. It’s a big responsibility. People might not believe him. People, like his wife and his boss, might think he is losing his mind. But only because they are also losing their minds. Or are they?
The result? [why so many questions in this post?] An interesting sort of stream of consciousness story. Humorous and yet with some well done sections with a more serious bent and some insights into relationships and psychology, etc.
Porter does a good job of catching that ennui that can sneak up on you and easily slip into depression; a sort of overarching lack of satisfaction with your life and a straining to understand why you feel like you do. And even as you are sure others feel the same way no one seems to want to talk about it or explore the causes. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms or ways of denying and hiding their unhappiness.
Some of the satire comes from a character who is no longer willing to abide by these unwritten social rules and is determined to break out from this perspective even if he really has no idea how. Defying convention within the world of business, corporate cube farms in particular, is a rich vein of humor and Porter captures this well. But it is in the transition between serious and humorous that I am less sure he succeeds. I think he highlights this dissatisfaction and frustration well, and I like the way Porter handles Ray’s relationship with his wife, but am not sure there are a lot of deep insights involved.
To offer readers differing perspectives let’s have a special in-post dueling reviews:
The book toggles deftly between its narrator’s bummer of a worldview and his riotous, biting snark, peppered throughout with dashes of surprisingly transcendent philosophies. Porter’s is a smart, compact debut that, despite sometimes hitting a nerve when it’s aiming for the funny bone, resonates on both tragic and comic levels.
Porter is clearly playing with language and has an affinity both for absurdist humor and for crisp dialogue. However, tools don’t make a novel whole. This exercise in satirizing the cookie-cutter lives of First-World suburbanites may prove taxing to many readers, especially those who crave a satisfying conclusion. The author pulls out a few tricks at the end, as an encounter with an attractive conceptual artist makes Ray rethink his next steps, but a deliberate rug-pulling gimmick at the finale falls flat, failing to lend our hero the sympathy he’s intended to inspire. A single-serving comedy about the nature of contemporary doldrums.
I lean toward the Kirkus side. I enjoyed the humor and exploration but agree that the conclusion was less than satisfying. A creative and a quick read but not sure it all came together.