Screaming at Imaginary People

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“My American Unhappiness” is an odd novel. It’s not the next great American novel, but it is a good novel.

I’ve found that most books are either a comedy or a tragedy. There are variations, of course, but ever since stories began we could usually classify things as one or the other.

This book does something I didn’t know could happen: it embraces both terms. For the first half, I was convinced it was a comedy, and a good one at that. There were funny descriptions of family life, tongue-in-cheek depictions of nonprofit management.

The basic premise of the book is itself a hilarious window on the lack of the narrator’s self-consciousness: he’s running a project where he interviews people about why they are unhappy, but he refuses to admit that he himself is desperately unhappy.

Unfortunately for him, clinging to delusions that deeply ingrained cannot turn out well. As his life goes downhill, it becomes harder and harder for the narrator to ignore how unhappy he is. And in the end, he has no one to blame but himself. Which means that, if you’re a person who enjoys screaming at book characters about how dumb they are, you’ll be hoarse by the end of the book.

It’s a very modern book, full of Starbucks comments, observations about the life of young liberals in America today, and Bakopoulos has integrated social media into the plot quite well. It’s also a book with an intense sense of place–quite unusual in the Midwest, where we spend too much time in cars.

One thing that worried me was a few comments about gender: do guys really size up every woman they meet for sex? Because that’s weird…

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