By Quentin Fottrell
Les Misérables 2.0: the American consumer.
That’s the theme of of Dean Bakopoulos’ second novel, “My American Unhappiness.” The book follows the personal and financial struggles of Zeke Pappas, a 33-year-old scholar who interviews Americans about why they are discontented for his pet project, the “Inventory of American Unhappiness.” Bakopoulos started writing this book in 2007 – just before the recession hit. “Like many people, Zeke was living pay-check-to-pay -check and was willfully ignorant about what was coming.”
Bakopoulos, 36, a professor of creative writing at Grinnell College in Iowa, had his literary debut with “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon” about the men of a small, depressed Michigan town who take off for the moon, leaving the women and children behind. And he has just finished a new yet-to-be-published book called “Evolve.” That too is another bleak commentary on American consumerism. The plot? Class warfare breaks out over an addictive new energy drink.
In the spirit of Zeke’s “Inventory of American Unhappiness,” Pay Dirt asked Bakopoulos why he believes Americans need cheering up.
Pay Dirt: In the book, Zeke’s ex-wife “friends” him on Facebook 14 years after their split. It seems there are no goodbyes anymore in life and no escape. Do you think Facebook unrealistically raises the bar for happiness? We seem to want to present a highly distilled, contented and successful version of ourselves?
Bakopoulos: It’s a highly constructed version of our own reality. It follows a narrative of contentment and bliss. People might post something mundane, but it becomes a euphoric moment about cooking a hot dog on their new grill. I just deactivated my personal account two weeks ago. Everyone on Facebook appeared to be doing better than me. I thought, “I don’t need this. I don’t need to see how many pages someone has cracked out in one day or how many awards they won that week.”
Zeke spends a lot of time in Starbucks. What’s the appeal to him?
For Zeke, it’s a manufactured community. He pretends he’s avant-garde and a lone wolf, but he finds so much comfort in predictability and mediocrity. Starbucks always has exactly what I want, too. I feel so cheap and easy. I live in a town where there’s no Starbucks at all. I now have a favorite independent coffee shop. But I was driving through rural Tennessee a while ago and I felt so alone in the world. Then I saw Starbucks and felt reassured. There’s something about the music Starbucks plays and the color choices that say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’
Not always. One character in your book has a major breakdown when he starts to talk about a new Cracker Barrel that’s going up outside his town.
There are people I love who get so excited when they see a Cracker Barrel on a road trip. If I owned a real family diner, I’d be very upset.
Poor Cracker Barrel.
There are more things to get excited about on a road trip than a Cracker Barrel.
In your book one character has an existential crisis brought on by ATM surcharges.
When you have a nation under enormous stress, something little can gets stuck under your skin, and it just gets worse and worse. I didn’t have much money writing the book, so I started thinking about having to pay extra to get the money I did have. Those little expenses began to keep me up at night. Health insurance was huge for me that year. At the end of 2007, I quit my day job as an arts administrator. I thought it was a good time to make a leap to self employment. Between 2008 and 2009, my health insurance went from $500 to $1,500 per month. There was no way I could keep up with it. That one expense was so scary and unpredictable. I applied for a teaching job. At that time, I had six months of living expenses left in the bank.
You’re a supporter of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, then?
It’s not perfect, but it’s a solution in an economy where entrepreneurs weren’t penalized for starting something on their own without fearing that they would lose everything with the wrong hospital bill. I don’t think the private sector is providing that.
In 2012, negative equity is another unseen menace.
It’s the quiet desperation of the 21st Century that people who think they’ve done everything right reach their 30s and realize that may never get ahead again. They either have more credit card debt than they ever thought possible, or else they are saddled with negative equity. There’s a feeling among my generation that, “This is it: we will never be free.” That demographic should be getting ahead financially and taking risks. But all this debt is weighing them down and perpetuating the recession.
Humor me. The iPad improves our quality of life and makes us all deliriously happy, right?
It sells what it delivers, which is rare. But that’s what makes them so addictive. You get a new iPad and you feel rich for a couple of weeks, and that the whole world seems easy to navigate. But once you enter that world you feel behind almost immediately. I already feel like I don’t have the right equipment as there are better iPads and iMacs out there.
And high gas prices depress consumers like nothing else?
Rising gas prices are coming at an unfortunate time for the middle class, especially when people have to drive further to find a job. However, it costs a lot of money to harness and protect that resource and I don’t believe it should be cheap. In fact, gas prices should be higher. Subsidizing resources like oil and food can set a dangerous precedent. Corporate agriculture keeps food very cheap and unhealthy. When you look at our obesity epidemic and the use of pesticides, it’s not always necessarily a good thing when it leads to more expensive health problems later on.
Thanks, Dean. Weirdly, I feel better now.
Oh, good. Some days it works like that.
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