“Why are you so unhappy?” That’s the question that Zeke Pappas—a thirty-three-year-old widower and scholar who directs the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative—asks almost everybody he meets as part of an obsessive project, “The Inventory of American Unhappiness.” Yet he remains delightfully oblivious to the increasingly harsh realities that threaten his own life, opting instead to focus his energy on finding the perfect mate. Following steps outlined in the women’s magazine, Simply You—and the seductive promise of being “head over heels (or engaged!) by the summer”—the ever-optimistic Zeke identifies some “prospects”: a newly divorced neighbor, a Starbuck’s barista, his administrative assistant, and Sofia Coppola (“why not aim high?”). A clairvoyant when it comes to the Starbucks orders of strangers, a quixotic renegade when it comes to federal bureaucracy, a loving and jocular uncle when it comes to his twin nieces, a devoted believer in the afternoon cocktail and the evening binge, Zeke’s irreverence is underscored by a creeping paranoia and made more urgent by the hope that if only he can find a wife, he might have a second chance at life.
1. Zeke’s story, though universal in its sense of loss and loneliness, is woven tightly into the experience of midwestern Americans during the post-9/11 “Dubya” years. What kinds of cues does the author use to create a sense of time and place in the novel? Do you think it would have worked equally well set in another part of the country, or in another era?
2. Zeke muses, “Everybody seems happy through a window” (p. 30). Do you agree or disagree with this sentiment? Discuss how the novel offers a different kind of window through which to view the characters’ happiness or unhappiness. When the novel opens, does Zeke seem happy or unhappy? In what ways is the novel his own answer to his question, “Why are you so unhappy?”
3. Compare and contrast the battle waged by Zeke’s brother Cougar who fought and died in the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, with Zeke’s anti-war protests and his work in the humanities. Do you think it’s fair to say that both brothers are fighting for something important, an ideal, or a way of life? What do you make of Zeke’s definition of and distinction between art and the humanities on page 139?
4. “The Starbucks Challenge” is a small ritual Zeke enacts daily both for Minn’s entertainment and perhaps to mitigate his own increasing unhappiness. Identify and discuss other ways that characters in the novel seek to alleviate their unhappiness, if only briefly.
5. Does Zeke’s description of the American condition on pages 45–47 strike you as familiar, or is Zeke, as his assistant Lara suggests, just convincing his subjects (and you the reader) of their unhappiness? Do you think the very act of asking, “Why are you so unhappy?” can influence a response so profoundly as to turn a positive outlook into a negative one? Why or why not?
6. Why aren’t Mack and Joseph excited about Zeke’s announcement that he’s getting married? Do you think the pronouncement would have been received differently if Zeke were a woman, given that the advice he’s following comes from a women’s magazine? Do you think it’s more socially acceptable for a woman to be on the hunt for a mate? Identify other ways that Zeke’s character defies stereotypes of the midwestern male in this novel.
7. When Zeke’s mother has to choose whether to make her son happy or do what’s best for her granddaughters, April and May, she decides she should get custody of the girls. How do you feel about her decision? What would you do?
8. My American Unhappiness in some ways seeks to illuminate the nation’s post-9/11 malaise, a temporary insanity and depression that affected people more deeply, Zeke might argue, than they’re even aware. On a microcosmic level, Zeke’s family suffers a post-9/11 transformation as well with the death of his father, brother, and wife all within a short period of time following the attacks. Discuss how Zeke’s sense of identity is influenced by his nuclear family (parents and brother) and compare and contrast that to his role in his post-9/11 family (mother and nieces).
9. Valerie, Zeke’s missing and presumed-dead wife, haunts more than half the novel before reappearing. How much of this incident has affected Zeke’s ability to pursue and maintain a relationship in his post-Valerie life? What else might be holding him back from asking out Minn, Lara, or Elizabeth prior to his mother’s ultimatum?
10. Pages 249–250 contain a kind of rant about Zeke’s frustration that Americans are only interested in the story of themselves. Discuss his diatribe in the context of his misguided attempts to connect with the women in his life. Additionally, what do you make of the chapter titles in light of this criticism?
11. The last scene of the novel leaves the reader, literally, with a ray of hope. What meaning do you think the author intended for you to take away from this ending? Was it enough to lift the mood of the novel, which essentially spirals downward as Zeke’s life and rationality fall apart?
12. What would your response to “Why are you so unhappy?” be? Try writing an answer as though you were responding on the project’s website and then share these with each other.