Book Reviews
11:47 am
Wed February 19, 2014

Deadpan Debut Novel Asks 'Why Are You So Sad?'

Originally published on Wed February 19, 2014 3:42 pm

You'll find Raymond Champs, senior pictographer, seated in Row 8, Pod D, where he draws, day in, day out, instruction manuals for assembling furniture starring Mr. CustomMirth, the mascot of an Ikea-like furniture company called LokiLoki. Raymond may strive to give Mr. CustomMirth's potato shaped body the right amount of whimsy each day. But whimsy, or any type of feeling related to happiness, is what's missing from Raymond's life. And he suspects he's not the only one.

Why Are You So Sad?, Jason Porter's deadpan, debut novel, is a philosophical meandering of life at its most boring as well as a send up of progressive office culture, the kind you may experience if you worked at Google. LokiLoki isn't an office, per se, but a "campus," deemed so by Raymond's boss, Jerry Samberson.

The bland office setting has always been ripe for TV sitcoms. But in Porter's productivity-enhanced setting, descriptions are more alive and imaginative than any sitcom. LokiLoki is a fluorescently lit morgue, where the company's colors of electric salmon and evergreen appear radioactive. And where "walking through the maze of shimmering office partitions was like getting lost in a durably carpeted cornfield. Stalks of filing cabinets and impermanent desk dividers shot up taller than basketball players." If only we could have our workspaces the way Porter narrates them, with desperate wit and charm, work would just be more interesting.

In Raymond's world, sadness is ubiquitous. He discovers this one evening while lying in bed, staring up at his ceiling fan, his wife, Brenda, next to him reading a gigantic children's novel. He asks himself, "Have we all sunken into a species wide bout of clinical depression?" Driving to work the next morning, everything in Raymond's view seems to frown upon him. As traffic begins to "choke...on itself," he suddenly feels an affinity with his fellow commuters, a sad connectedness of misery. Raymond suspects that sadness is a disease, "a severe, but subtle, despondency, germinating in every single one of us."

It's this notion that propels Raymond's journey. He concocts a survey to distribute to his coworkers at LokiLoki in order to get some perspective on this suspected epidemic — a Geiger counter, of sorts, to detect sadness. It's a survey so invading, so personal, and so preposterous, that the employees of LokiLoki actually believe it came straight from Human Resources (or "Employee Regard" as it's called at the company). To make it official, Raymond titles his survey: "Emotional Well-Being Self-Appraisal." Sounds official. And it goes something like this:

Are you single?

Are you having an affair?

When was the last time you felt happy?

Are you who you want to be?

Would you prefer to be someone else?

Is today worse than yesterday?

Do you think we need more sports?

Each chapter of Why Are You So Sad? is interspersed with Raymond's answers to his own questions. And it is within these that we find the emotional core of the novel, the true sadness of Raymond that surpasses mere office humor. Each sardonic reflection achieves a humane truth. Porter's humorous insight into the human condition is a highbrow/lowbrow tightrope walk between philosophical quandary and human desire. And this novel may very well get you to reflect on your own happiness, your own choices. Perhaps you may end up taking Raymond's survey, asking yourself, why am I so sad?

Once the survey hits the office floor of LokiLoki, high jinks ensue. Those who are obviously sad, like Raymond's coworker Don Ables, who lives for reruns of M.A.S.H. and represses an Alan Alda obsession, answer honestly. Don's sadness is predictable. But for those like Raymond's boss, Jerry Samberson, whose dreams never lived outside of the corporate structure, sadness is harder to quantify. When surveyed, Jerry answers: "I imagined this very nameplate that sits on my desk when I was thirteen. I didn't have the title down, but I could see my name inset in white letters." How sad. But is Jerry truly suffering the sadness Raymond suspects in everyone around him? For Raymond's purposes, yes. It's all positive proof that we're already in the hands of a major epidemic, whether we know it or not. Our desires, like Jerry's, have been tamed by modern excess and a purchase-power way of life. "We're like horses with wings who are too fat to fly. Beautiful horses. Beautiful wings ... A miracle of evolution. But way too fat to fly." As the novel reaches its end, it becomes clear that Raymond's problem is a recurring mid-life crisis. He realizes that he, like a set of Ikea furniture instructions, may be impossible to assemble.

But there are always choices, including in this novel. Porter punctuates his philosophical comedy with a choose-your-own-ending of sorts. A tactic that should feel like a gimmick, but given the novel's hilarious tone and quiz-like structure, it's a perfect remedy to Raymond's disheartened ailment. Does he A) Go away forever and succumb to the weight of the world's sadness? Or B) Go home to his life with Brenda and prevail? The author leaves Raymond's choice for you to decide.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.