My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos (pub date June 2011)
This is a novel that I was very excited to read, because it deals with a very relatable issue for people my age, the “Gen Y” crowd. That is the issue of our collective unhappiness, our dissatisfaction with life in general. In recent years I’ve personally dealt with this issue, mainly stemming from job frustration and having a BA degree that I’ve never really used. My friends and family have all at one point expressed a similar feeling of general malaise, whether it be related to jobs, relationships, money, or living situations. So why are Americans so unhappy?
In My American Unhappiness, Zeke Pappas tries to find the answer to that very question. As the head of a project called “The Inventory of American Unhappiness,” he collects interviews with people across the nation in an attempt to distill a singular answer to why, despite greater (relative) wealth and opportunity than people of other countries, Americans are generally unhappy. While working on this project, Zeke finds himself entering a dark period of his own life. He is trying to come to terms with being a young widower, while taking care of his sick mother and fighting for custody of his orphaned nieces.
This is a very deep and meaningful story, with an unexpected plot twist and a surprisingly uplifting ending. Well written and thought-provoking, the book is filled with poignant comments on the hopes of young Americans:
“…that life will offer you much, that you will have choices upon choices set out before you like a feast, and all you have to do is choose the kind of happiness you would like to pursue.”
And the reality when they grow up:
“…you don’t care how somebody’s novel, thesis, art, job, marriage, life is going…because you simply don’t have the energy to hear about other people’s struggles and triumphs. Your own joys and woes are exhausting enough, aren’t they?”
The characters are interesting and complex, especially the character of Minn. On the surface she is a typical “girl who majored in Humanities but now works at Starbucks,” but her positivity provides a nice contrast to Zeke’s cynicism.
The only thing that detracted from the book was the political commentary. For me the intermittent side remarks about Bush, Obama, and 9/11 did little to help me understand Zeke’s character, and struck me as self-indulgent on the part of the author. They bordered on obnoxious and did nothing to advance the story.
That being said, My American Unhappiness is a valuable novel to read, because it speaks to the sentiments of many modern Americans. If you’ve ever woken up one day and thought “this isn’t what my life was supposed to be like,” you can get something out of this book.