What could be more rewarding than spending ten years compiling an inventory of American unhappiness? That is the pet project of Zeke Pappas, the executive director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative, which has about run through the $10 million in federal funding a Wisconsin Congressperson sent its way. It is also being audited by an obscure office of the Department of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, Zeke is also dealing with problems at home. Zeke's father, brother, and sister-in-law have recently died (his wife disappeared a dozen years ago in the first weeks of their marriage). His twin nieces and mother live with him, but he soon learns his mother is terminally ill and has designated his sister-in-law's sister as the girls' guardian when she dies--unless Zeke can find a wife before her demise. As delusional in his personal life as in his work, Zeke thinks he might be able to convince his assistant, his recently divorced next door neighbor, or the barista at Starbucks to marry him; if all else fails, he has a hunch Sofia Coppola might be interested.
My American Unhappiness ranges from very funny to very sad. I was especially fond of the names of projects funded by the GMHI, which are inserted throughout the text ("The Coming Death of the Postal Service and the Coinciding Decline of American Imagination," "The Weather as Divinity in World Literature"). The answers people give Zeke when he asks why they are so unhappy are both funny and sad, as are Zeke's fund-raising letters. But the story of Zeke's family is sad--Zeke genuinely loves his nieces and is devastated at the thought of losing them. Still, everything he does to try to keep them with him is absolutely ridiculous and ill-considered. Some of Zeke's critiques of modern culture seem perceptive, but he's so generally delusional that you feel almost ridiculous if you find yourself agreeing with him.
I enjoyed My American Unhappiness, but it's not for everyone. Zeke is not a sympathetic character, and the pop culture references (the chapter titles are Zeke's Facebook status updates) and frenetic style might be annoying to some readers.
. . . we, as a nation and perhaps as a human race, recently stopped loving stories about the other; we began to love stories only about ourselves. We love stories in which we are the protagonists in search of truth. I do not want to judge this. But my feeling is that we can cope with the increasing smallness, rapidness, and indifference of our changing, violent world only by seeing ourselves as nobel characters caught in the struggle. . . . YouTube, Myspace, blogs--all of these things are ways for us to make ourselves protagonists on a very crowded, violent, and unjust stage.