A Review of Yuvi Zalkow’s I Only Cry with Emoticons.
By Jillian Pincus
Yuvi Zalkow’s I Only Cry with Emoticons tells the story of a damaged man trying to finish his novel as he wades through divorce, an unfulfilling work life, and complex relationship dynamics. Taking place in a futuristic society even more dependent on technology than ours today, Zalkow explores how the online world can interfere with (and corrupt) reality. He emphasizes the importance of in-person connection by delving into the narrator’s familial and romantic relationships. The novel encourages its audience to think about their lives and their place in the world by asking “whose story is it exactly?” that a person wants to tell.
Zalkow sets out to examine the complex and ambiguous nature of human connection by interrogating narrator Saul’s relationship to his family, friends, and, most importantly, himself. The novel aims to thrive in the world of ambiguity, or, as the novel puts it, “the blurry in-between world.”
While the novel has laudable intentions, it spends too much time telling the reader exactly what is happening, which takes away from the story’s ability to exist in “the blurry in-between world.” At one point in the novel, Saul talks about how he wishes he had listened to his grandfather’s stories more before the man passed away. To convey this idea, Saul discusses a time when his grandfather told a story while letting a cone of ice cream melt. Saul says, “at the time, I focused on the wasted ice cream.” This line did a fantastic job of subtly demonstrating Saul's regret. However, Saul then goes on to explicitly tell the reader he should have paid more attention to his grandfather and that he’s sorry that he “only paid attention to the ice cream.” This takes away from the subtle brilliance of “the wasted ice cream,” by not simply allowing the reader to sense Saul’s regret.
In a similar vein, Zalkow sometimes uses fourth wall breaks to provide the audience with exposition, rather than allowing scenes in the novel to do that work for him. While fourth wall breaks can create a sense of familiarity between the audience and the narrator, because they’re being used for expository purposes, they unfortunately end up lessening the connection between the audience and Saul’s world.
Overall, I Only Cry with Emoticons left me wanting to feel closer to its characters. The facts about, and descriptions of, each character communicate a clear idea of their purpose in the novel, but because you’re mainly hearing about their purpose and who they are, it becomes difficult to truly see and connect with them. For example, Saul repeatedly informs the audience that his marriage did not work because his wife resented him for always working on his novel, and because he initially resented that he and his wife had a child. It would have been more effective to witness scenes demonstrating these relationship problems.
One of Saul’s key character traits is that he is constantly trying to write a novel he fears he cannot finish. Saul’s status as a struggling writer is imperative to the plot, but because Saul keeps telling the audience he is having trouble writing, this trait never makes Saul’s character feel deeper. However, the novel does discuss the idea that a writer must “bleed” in their work for it to be compelling, which is a clever way to convey the importance of putting everything you’ve got into the stories you write.
"You keep writing your story and you don’t stop for anybody or anything."
~ Yuvi Zalkow in I Only Cry with Emoticons
The novel also reckons with how technology changes relationships. It tactfully demonstrates how technology can both widen and bridge gaps between people. For example, technology allows Saul to frequently communicate with his father who lives far away, but it also causes Saul to feel disconnected from those around him. This tension conveys the challenges and benefits of living in a technological world.
Zalkow also uses fun technology-based language to describe aspects of reality; a character as looking “pixelated” or saying that two characters both “say YES in all caps.” This connects the technological with the physical in an enjoyable way. However, the novel struggles at times to discuss the internet in a realistic way. For example, the novel refers to tagging people in online posts or messages as an “@mention” rather than simply an “@.” When the portrayal of the internet feels unrealistic, it takes you out of the book’s world for a moment.
I Only Cry with Emoticons’s sentences flow into one another in a way that makes the book easy to keep reading. It deals with a variety of interesting themes, but left me wishing those themes were explored more in-depth. Similarly, its characters come across as interesting people I wish I had gotten to know better. I Only Cry with Emoticons has interesting ideas worth exploring, but it often misses the mark when it comes to emotional execution.
Full title: I Only Cry with Emoticons
Author name: Yuvi Zalkow
Publisher/Imprint: Red Hen Press
Publication date: June 7, 2022
Page count: 232
Jillian Pincus is an Advisory Editor for Five South and a Managing Editor for Litro Magazine. You can find her on twitter @pincusjillian.