Just Be Yourself, Bro
2000ft Above Worry Level by Eamonn Marra
Eamonn Marra is a writer and comedian. 2000ft Above Worry Level is his first novel, a scattering of humorous stories chronicling the travails of a depressed young man. He is without direction, bumbling through childhood, university, and a succession of precarious flats and jobs. We glimpse little snippets of his life, often without context; in one story, he has a girlfriend, by the next, she’s an ex. His overall trajectory is not up or down, but around and around: clear cycles of failure and self-loathing, followed by the narrator’s attempts to get back into the rhythm of getting on with it.
Most of the narrator’s troubles are exacerbated by his impulsive and impressionable nature. He is eager to make the world a better place and himself a better person. In Wart, after reading an article about “how people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who don’t” (33), he switches his major to English literature. He walks everywhere to avoid using fossil fuels (but winds up getting rides with other people). He explores veganism, but often breaks this to eat gelatinous pick-and-mix lollies when he is having a bad day. His friend in his philosophy class accosts him for this. “To him this was an unbelievable flaw in logic… It didn’t matter that I didn’t eat meat and that he did; all he cared about was logical consistency.” (35) By the final story Jobs, he is a regular at a vegan potluck meet-up, but is starting to hit the gym and put on some muscle mass and accepts eating meat as part of this. Only after accepting his limitations - his relative powerlessness - might he begin to move with ease in the world.
Most of his attempts at self-improvement are failures though. Among the things he adds to his routine are walking up a hill everyday (in order to lose weight) or reading a certain number of classical books (to become educated). Some of these goals he sets - no matter how insignificant - give him a sense of purpose he is otherwise lacking. In Home, after being kicked out of his flat, fired from his job, and moving back in with his mother, he starts painting a fence with the (unwanted) advice of his elderly neighbour. He memorises the information on the signs at a local lookout, which he repeats back to others climbing up to the lookout, like a kind of tour guide. By clinging to these little self-driven attempts, he is able to slowly rebuild his life.
The narrator’s impulsions often get the best of him, and Marra depicts this with a lot of humour - though he is careful that we are not laughing at the narrator, but with him, recognising that even the most humiliating situations can be funny. In Three Pizzas the narrator decides to buy pizzas for his flatmates, but struggles not to eat them before they get home. He ends up eating all but four slices of one flatmate’s pizza, then uses this as justification to eat all but four slices of the other flatmate’s pizza. When the flatmates finally arrive home, they don’t care that the pizzas are half-eaten, they’re just happy to be getting any free pizza; the narrator was overthinking it. In The Wart, he obsessively picks and bites at a wart on his hand. During a lecture he begins to cut into it with a compass, only to realise that everyone is staring at him; blood gushes everywhere as he runs out the door.
In Dog Farm, Food Game, the narrator recounts an online relationship with a girl called Abby. They align their schedules so they can spend each waking minute chatting to each other. They have camsex - “wow” is what the narrator types whenever Abby reveals herself to him. Often he is too awkward to actually suggest camsex, so he tries to initiate it by positioning his erection so Abby can see it. This not only shows his timidity, but is a kind of pornographic wish-fulfillment, a form of roleplaying.
Because you are better able to control (more than in real life) what you reveal of yourself to other people, it is difficult to fully trust someone you know primarily through the internet. It is also hard to establish long-lasting bonds. But this is also what allows the narrator the kind of distance necessary for him to feel comfortable expressing himself - a prerequisite for any kind of friendship or relationship.
This double play threatens to undermine their relationship though; how much of the narrator’s feelings are based on a connection with the real Abby, and how much is based on the idea of Abby? What is love and what is just roleplaying? We are given reason to doubt what Abby tells us when she admits to lying about kissing lots of boys at parties when she was fourteen. What else is she lying about? Who we are in real life is not always who we would like to be. Acknowledging that is the beginning of the narrator’s attempts at self-improvement.
The narrator has sacrificed everything to keep up his virtual relationship with Abby. He’s stopped going to university. He hasn’t seen his flatmates in weeks. While he has developed real feelings for her, hers never seem to rise above roleplaying. With the new semester starting up, she returns to her real life and stops coming online. She stops responding to his messages. The narrator does his best to track her various online presences (including checking the view counter of a private video he only shared with her), but is slowly cut off from her. Once again, he is alone.
This collection peaks with Syndrome. It’s a very hot day and the narrator is struggling to even think straight:
“The air inside the library is even thicker than outside… All the computers are being used so I write by hand, which is useless, because my handwriting is illegible and I’m writing trash.” (153).
He has serotonin syndrome, brought on by a double dose of antidepressants. The heat and confusion of serotonin syndrome is conveyed well by the uncertainty of what exactly is happening in the story’s opening: is the narrator sick or is it just hot? And it’s unclear whether the narrator took the double dose intentionally; at first he thinks it was accidental, but everyone keeps asking if it was a suicide attempt, to the point where he begins to doubt himself, and isn’t so sure anymore. He lies in bed trying to arrange a laptop that he needs to pick up. He sends a pathetic selfie of himself to his ex to get her sympathy; she calls him out on it. The story ends with him going to sleep on his final night in hospital, crying to a Kanye West music video.
While the final story Jobs suggests the narrator might be sticking to more permanent, healthy routines, there’s nothing to suggest his vegan potlucks and hiking and gymgoing might be just another walking up the hill or painting the fence. There’s little to suggest the narrator himself has changed, rather than merely performing a different set of routines. Other characters, through whom we might see his changes reflected, don’t stick around long enough to leave such an impression
As a novel the story is largely without direction or completion. For that reason I think it’s more rewarding to treat this book as a collection of short stories which happen to share the same character. Indeed, most of the significant events - like the break-up with the girlfriend, and being kicked out of his flat and losing his job - happen off-screen. Those challenges of life in which the narrator might finally prove his mettle go unseen. What we’re left with are those little moments after the failure, in which someone who claws even deeper into his depression and neuroses has to find a way to navigate through - no matter what.