No doubt many readers of Zachary German's Eat When You Feel Sad (Melville House) would report that it isn't much preoccupied with telling a story. There's no sense of progression, no "arc," no apparent attempt to focus on those details and episodes in the protagonist's experience that carve a "story" from it, as opposed to an account of that experience as undifferentiated events.
And yet I would say that this novel actually does nothing else than tell a story. It does not have a "plot," but otherwise it focuses unwaveringly on recounting the activities of its protagonist, named simply Robert. Robert himself does nothing but act and react:
Robert walks into his building. He opens his mailbox. He looks in his mailbox. Robert picks up an envelope from Netflix. He closes his mailbox. Robert walks up stairs. He walks into his apartment. He opens the envelope from Netflix. He reads a description of the movie The Squid and the Whale. Robert walks to his bedroom. He takes off his clothes. Robert plays the album Lambent Materialby Eluvium. He lies on the bed. His eyes are closed. Robert stands up. He puts on shorts. He walks to the kitchen. He looks at the window. He pours water into a glass. He looks at his cat. He thinks "I wish I was at my parents' house." Robert thinks "What's going on tonight? Should I call someone?" Robert calls Kelly. He leaves a voicemail. Robert thinks "I'm not sure what to do." Robert opens the freezer. He picks up an ice cube tray. Robert walks to his bedroom. He lies on his bed. Robert takes an ice cube out of the ice cube tray. He places the ice cube on his stomach.
The novel is structured by self-enclosed scenes such as this, each of which has a beginning, middle, and end, although not much in the way of drama is provided. Robert does this, notices that, listens to something, verbalizes a "thought." Through the accumulation of these scenes, Robert's life moves forward (punctuated by the occasional flashback or flashforward), but not because the novel's plot dictates that it must. Ultimately, the relationship between the actions narrated in passages such as this one is more paratactic (sentences that are essentially coordinate with one another, that could be connected with a simple "and") than hypotactic (sentences that are subordinate to an underlying thread of thought or direction), but such narrative drift is still a narrative. I would call German's method a radical application of the picaresque strategy, a form of storytelling in which one thing after another occurs, but without an artificially imposed plot structure. Robert's "story" is not about where events will ultimately take him as the properly dramatic outcome of what's come before but about the moments in his experience as they unfold, considered as themselves a sufficient source of story.
The paratactic strategy extends even to the verbalization of those thoughts. There is no "flow" of consciousness, only the sudden declaration in fully formed sentences: "I wish I was at my parents' house"; "I'm not sure what to do." In another representative passage, Robert begins to "think" about his circumstances:
Robert is in a classroom. He is sitting at a desk. He thinks "I should ask to use the bathroom and then walk outside." He thinks "What's outside?" Robert thinks "Nevermind." Robert thinks "I should just not come to this class tomorrow. I should go to English and then after English I should walk outside. It doesn't matter. There's nothing outside probably.". . .
There is no pretence here that in reporting Robert's thoughts the narrator is actually "plumbing" the character's mental states. The method being used is, if anything, a deliberate mockery of the idea that such an undertaking is or should be desirable as a literary strategy. Eat When You Feel Sad is about as far as a third-person narrative can get from focusing on "interiority" as the primary goal of fiction. It relentlessly stays on the surface, merely relaying Robert's actions and conversations, summing up his thoughts in grammatically complete sentences when it becomes necessary to include what's happening "inside" as well. This is, of course, a wholly implausible way of representing human cognition, but it is finally no more implausible than the stream-of-consciousness or free-indirect approaches, which are equally artificial in their attempts to convey "mind" through verbal discourse. German's novel is if nothing else a very useful reminder that this is the case.
To some extent, the emphasis on exteriors could be a function of German's use of an attenuated, "plain" style. One thinks immediately of Hemingway or Carver, although German pushes this style even farther toward rhetorical constraint. If Hemingway's style helped convey a feeling of world-weary alienation, German's conveys one of near-immobility and utter confusion. Whether such a style is being used to "reflect" this condition or the condition is the inescapable consequence of the style itself is a question that could be raised, but ultimately the effect is the same. The novel's distinctively reduced rhetorical devices evoke a milieu of reduced energy and purpose. Robert's world is a world characterized by the perpetual occurrence of one thing after another, narratable in the most elementary kind of language.
I wouldn't say that Eat When You Feel Sad is always compelling or entirely without other problems.The theme of disaffected youth has really long since ceased to be shocking, and while German manages to treat it from a formal and stylistic perspective that adds interest, I myself still find it hard to take the youthful ennui and aimless discontent altogether seriously. I think we all understand that American culture provides a difficult transitional period for "young people" who resist becoming future cogs in the mercantile machine, but I don't really think that we need updates of Rebel Without a Cause and Catcher in the Rye from each succeeding generation in order to underscore this reality. Even with German's formal/stylistic adventurousness in Eat When You Feel Sad, the novel doesn't completely manage to enliven an overworked subgenre.
Zachary German was 22 years old when this novel was published. I will be anticipating his next book to see whether this one is a fluke, whether he can transcend the limitations of the Novel of Youth and extend the narrative and verbal strategies employed in his first book. If he retreats to a more conventional approach, or if he simply offers more of the same, I will be disappointed.