Yuvi Zalkow’s second and newest novel, I Only Cry With Emoticons, is a hilarious ride through dealing with human connection in a modern age littered with smartphones, tablets, dating apps, and hashtags. At its core, it’s a story about responsibility. It begs the question, how do we take responsibility for our irresponsible reliance on technology? How do we take responsibility for allowing ourselves to become so disconnected not just with one another, but our own lives?
The story starts with our protagonist, a man named Saul, complaining to the reader about his boss’s disappointment in his activity within their company, Collaboration Hub’s social media site. He’s honest with the reader, admitting his lack of involvement stems from the frequent bathroom breaks that he uses to write his novel. Saul justifies this by telling the reader that despite the company’s aim to “Take Collaboration to the Next Level™” he doesn’t like collaborating in the modern world (4). He wishes to disconnect from everyone and focus on his novel—a novel he has been stuck on for years—a stuckness which resulted in his wife ultimately leaving him. At his core, Saul is disconnecting with those around him, and feeling unfulfilled as a result of his isolation.
He reminds readers of the ways we’ve been stuck in our own lives. His boss is emblematic of the voice we have in our heads telling us You’re not doing enough! I wanna see more! pushing us to give more to what we are already involved in. His desire to write the novel, emblematic of our desire to do the thing we have been putting off for so long, working on for so long, the thing we desperately want to finish.
Zalkow writes with a hilarious and unique voice that feels stream of consciousness, which brings us into the mind of his character while also painting vivid scene after vivid scene that leaves the reader laughing the whole way through. At one point he tells us about a really nice text he’s sending to his son, then says he “go[es to] mope in the bathroom,” before delivering a riot of a run on sentence:
When you’re sitting in a bathroom stall pretending to take a shit and your boss knows you are pretending to take a shit and your head throbs and you have in front of you a story with a fictionalized version of a woman who doesn’t even qualify as your ex-girlfriend but is somehow sitting on your fictional grandfather’s dry goods counter with a notepad from a real hotel, it is difficult to relax. (105)
Sentences like these take us into Saul’s world, giving us every detail of what is going on in his mind, and around him, giving us hilarious imagery and creating humor as his voice jumps out at us from the page.
Readers go along for the ride as Saul juggles and navigates relationships at work, adjusting to his divorce and creating a new relationship to his wife, figuring out how to be with his son when his iPad is his third but primary parent, caring for his aging father, and of course, a love interest named Kitty whom his coworker attempts to set him up with.
Saul’s biggest hurdle is himself as he constantly seems to sabotage himself every chance he gets. At one point he’s even told, “I am sure you can stumble your way onto the right path if you want to. But when I look at you I’m not sure I see a man who wants to be on the right path” (152).
This is the most relatable aspect of the entire novel. At the time of reading and reviewing this book, I struggled with getting myself to most things. In the age of the pandemic, getting oneself to do anything often felt like an uphill battle; Saul reminds us that we are not alone in this. It makes it all the more satisfying when Saul finally admits that for some reason, he “get[s] comfort from “banging [his] head against the wall” (164). Seeing it put this way makes the reader realize wait a minute. Sometimes I get comfort from banging my head against the wall. Why is this? When Saul decides to begin taking responsibility for his actions, even if it means diving into discomfort, he demonstrates to the reader that while banging our heads may be comforting, what we must do to achieve results in our lives is be with discomfort.
Saul’s final gauntlet forces him to face and ponder the complexity of not just his relationships, but all relationships. Saul doesn’t undergo some massive change as a person, just who he is being and how he approaches the situations in his life. It’s a more realistic, more human take, showing readers that we aren’t going to have something happen that snaps us to perfection, but that we must choose to be who we are, choose the complexity of our relationships and lives, and be okay with the discomfort that comes from actually trying—and yes, trying includes cleaning up previous messes we’ve left behind. By the end of the book, Saul makes a decision that will alter how he interacts with those and the world around him.
In doing this, he discovers and shares the complexity of human relationships in their own right. This is what the book best demonstrates—our complexity and the workability given to us by accepting and being with that complexity, rather than trying to constantly boil it down and simplify it. Throughout the book we see Saul screw up various relationships of his by saying and doing the wrong thing, but always demonstrating a willingness and ability to own that and try again, even if owning that means Hey I totally screwed everything up and have been neglecting it, let’s fix it now and then you don't have to worry about me anymore. Zalkow’s hilarious and personal story demonstrates to us that it is never too late to turn a situation around.