Serious question: when did everyone get so sad? Or was everyone always this sad and people only recently started talking about it? Or is it only women who are really, really sad and we only let men write books until Sally Rooney?
I’m being facetious. Of course I am, I always am. But I’m coming off of a run of reading five books about self-aware, sad (white) millennials in a row, and I’m wondering what that says about the world. (What that says about me is quite another matter.) The point is, there’s a big place for sadness in the world right now, and I’m fully here for it.
The book itself sums this up societal phenomenon quite nicely:
“It was archaic, how they treated mental health. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, antipsychotics - none of it had changed since the 1950s, and then, suddenly, boom. It was when celebrities started coming out as sad that the world really took notice. People loved it. It’s okay to feel sad, these familiar faces said. I’m just like you, ignore the mansion.”
It’s not just that there are lots of books acknowledging, accepting, and even celebrating sadness. It’s that we’ve been introduced to a new, more honest form of sadness. It is layered. It’s like it’s had an advertising agency rebranding. This isn’t sadness as you know it. But underneath it all, it’s the same sadness that’s always existed. It’s just found its way onto our bookshelves and into our hearts.
The first and most important thing I have to state about Sad Janet specifically is that Sad Janet is by far the funniest of these books about sadness. Almost every page has several punchlines. And these are super special, punchy punchlines that neatly tie up a singular emotion, state, or observation. If there aren’t punchlines, there are things that punch in a different way; observations and statements that are so deeply relatable they hurt inside of me, in places books don’t usually make me hurt. I’m actually going to do a test now where I open up the book at random and type out a line from a page to show you what I mean.
“Sometimes a mountain of nachos and a beer or two is all it takes to stop feeling shitty. I didn’t care if people stared or looked away; I had my book and enough melted cheese to make the world disappear.”
If that doesn’t define relatability, I’m not entirely sure what does. And it’s endless, and actually exhausting at times. On more than one occasion I didn’t pick up the book to read because I wasn’t ready to be punched in the face with such concise and knowing relatability. Some days you just don’t want to be seen, and especially not seen in such flawless clarity.
It’s crass to do this, but I have to. I apologise to everyone involved in what I’m about to say, except to both Lucie Britsch and Phoebe Waller-Bridge who should be mutually delighted by the comparison. But this book reminds me of Fleabag. So many of the clever one-liners could easily come from Fleabag’s mouth as she tears herself down, over and over again, unable to feel worthy of healing.
I wondered recently when it became a prerequisite for a successful comedy show to have a deep darkness in the lead. Comedy has always been a coping mechanism, a medicine, a way to deflect horrors and harshnesses into something palatable so we can carry on with our often shitty lives, making money for ‘the man’. But now if the show that is meant to make me laugh doesn’t also manage to make me cry, it’s failed. Who says that we millennial women are demanding? Perhaps this is the have-it-all lifestyle I was promised.
But that demand is why Sat Janet shines. Because I’m not interested in reading about the sad woman we’ve known throughout literary history, moping around and wishing she wasn’t broken so she could be like the women in magazines with their big white grins. That’s not how Janet views the world. Janet is, ironically, quite happy to be sad, annoyed that boys are a temporary respite from her comfortable state of sorrow.
“Only now that I’m mad as hell do I wonder why my tiny, fleeting joys are always to do with boys. I don’t even like them that much. I wonder if a pill might stop me thinking with my vagina.”
There are (probably) many psychoanalytical readings of this book that state that Janet (like me) isn’t actually happy being sad and she just says that and even lies to herself because it’s easier to stay as you are than to work to change, and that Janet pretends it’s because of her mum that she accepts the drug trial but actually it’s because, on some level and despite protestations, she wants to get better.
And like Janet: “I was sad before it was cool.” And just because it is cool now, does that mean I should just be happy to stay sad, now that I can be sad freely, in public, in the company of my sad friends as we watch our sad icons on TV and read about them in our sad, sad books?
And that’s where Sad Janet is about more than one woman’s sadness - although it does provide a charming window into the titular Sad Janet’s troubled soul. It is about the sadness industry. And when I talk about ‘the sadness industry,’ in this specific case I am not referring to comedy, although that is what I appear to have described here today. I am talking beyond even pharmaceuticals and Silicon Valley and the generalised, memeified response of either ‘I think you should talk to someone’ or ‘okay but have you tried meditation? I have this app?’ I am talking about how much of modern capitalism depends on us being sad, or any other emotional state we can define in order to not accept that perhaps we are in fact just sad, so that it can sell solutions back to us.
Using Christmas, and a special antidepressant that’s just for Christmas, to encapsulate the absurdity of the intersection of capitalism and sadness, Sad Janet paints a sad picture of where we are as a sad society. But it made me laugh while I read it, and I suppose that’s all a sad girl can ask for.
By Lucie Britsch
288 pages. 2020.