Jason Porter’s debut novel, “Why Are You So Sad?,” is the latest example of a literary sub-genre in which the petty foibles and mindless tedium of office life are served up for punchlines and mordant parody. Joseph Heller’s “Something Happened” (1974) probably represents the pinnacle of what a genius can do with the concept, and Joshua Ferris’s 2007 sneak-hit, “Then We Came to the End,” proved that Americans are still interested in reading about the displeased denizens of the corporate world.
Porter’s sad-sack protagonist, Raymond Champs, is a brochure illustrator at an IKEA-like furniture company. He awakens one day obsessed with the idea that he and everyone else are depressed. To quantify the problem, he creates a survey with questions such as, “Are you who you want to be?” “Is today worse than yesterday?” He disseminates his survey at work, vaguely telling his co-workers that their boss wants them to take it seriously.
Ray’s steadfast, assertive wife tries to discourage him from his self-appointed task (not least by pointing out that she herself isn’t particularly unhappy), but he tunes her out — or rather, as he puts it, “For me it felt like I was being held captive by an instinctively dissociative response to her words.” Instead of heeding his wife, he goes ahead with his plan and is soon receiving completed surveys from his co-workers, almost all of whom reveal intensely frustrated and warped inner lives. Some of these office mates are extra-pathetic (one has pictures of Alan Alda on his cubicle walls). Others are extra-boorish. There are phony office rebels, bleak-souled lifers, secretaries right out of a Dilbert cartoon and the other standard figures in workplace fiction. Readers of Ed Park’s “Personal Days” will recognize many of these types.
Inevitably, the real threat comes from the boss-man, Jerry, who calls Ray into his office to confront him about the survey. It’s easy to predict Jerry’s reactions to the survey and to Ray’s declaration that “our real customer is a festering hole in the earth, and we are cramming our cheap furniture down its throat like it is a duck and we are trying to make pate.” But their off-kilter confrontation scenes are the comic high points of this latest addition to the roll-call of water-cooler fiction.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
YOU SO SAD?
By Jason Porter
Plume. 198 pp. Paperback, $15