Getting lost in my own thoughts while reading Jonny Sun getting lost in his own thoughts.
I’ve been waiting for an advanced reader’s copy of Jonny Sun’s essay collection Goodbye, Again ever since I first heard about its existence a year ago. Sun is my favorite writer, across all of his platforms, my go-to presence when I want to be reassured that whatever I’m feeling has been felt by someone else. It’s my favorite thing about him and his style, but after reading his essay collection I started questioning that sense of comfort. Art and storytelling is comforting, but is it really healthy to find one specific person your emotional support writer? That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person’s words. And I get the feeling Jonny Sun is aware of that expectation from his readers.
It feels reductive to summarize or introduce Goodbye, Again because each piece ranges from a single paragraph to pages of insightful musings. Broken into five parts, plus a foreword and afterword, he writes about loneliness, friendship, plants, family, anxiety, and his constant need to feel he’s being “productive.” Sun is open and honest, the tone familiar for anyone who follows him across social media. He grapples with the expectations put upon him by his career, expectations both societal and his own, complete with little drawings along the way. This took two or three years for him to write, and the resulting book is meditation of work and identity that feels like staring out the window on a commute, or intense shower thoughts after a long day. So in the same vein, my “review” will just be my notebook scribbles I made while reading.
Whenever I think about Jonny Sun, I end up thinking about Twitter. It’s impossible to go a minute on Twitter and not see a retweet with a caption about relatability. All social media, but especially Twitter, thrive off captions of “it me,” “attacked,” or being “seen.” As a person navigating, engaging with, and creating what is ultimately a false sense of familiarity, what does it mean to be “yourself” online? When users get reduced down to “brands,” words gain veracity with check marks and influencers influence the vote, being a person online requires more and more unrequited vulnerability. To be a human you have to be sad, happy, angry, funny, honest, witty, etc., whatever––the full gamut of emotion; to be a human on the internet, you have to be it all for others to see and consume.
So I worry about the “relatable anxiety” of Sun’s book, the kind of memeification of anxiety that can lessen its impact on those affected by it, especially if they don’t know it. As I read his essays and thought about the ways his thoughts came across, after a while it went from “I relate” to a concern for Sun’s well being. I’ve read other books sharing the same feelings of anxiety and depression, but I had a sense of detachment from the author. I think that’s partly because of my own “personal” investment in Jonny Sun, but also partly how he presents himself on the internet.
He’s private and simultaneously vulnerable, sharing his insecurities in a way that makes his life and personality feel familiar. It’s the parasocial relationship that internet-based fame thrives on, and in Sun’s case––as in all cases––I’m not sure who it serves. Feeling seen, being known, is the point of writing (storytelling); what happens when you form a sense of self informed by an outside influence? To fully project my thoughts onto a celebrity figure, I think creating things to share for others is part of the comfort Sun finds in his work. A lot of the book reflects on the idea of “we are not our work” and Sun’s struggle to find that separation. He writes in the book that he finds comfort in tasks because tasks give him a direction and outline where to put his thoughts and energy. But then he’s—as we’re all—left with the question, “If I’m not my work then…what am I?” Sun isn’t offering any answers, which is fine, but there’s something disquieting in reading him figure it out.
I’m thinking about the need or pressure to provide a sense of positivity or feeling of “it gets better.” A happy ending is a comfort and we’ve come to expect it in our stories. So what do we do when we don’t get it? When we’re left with feeling the same anxiety and listless-ness as when we started the book. A false sense of comfort or positivity doesn’t help anyone, either. Instead we’re left with the feeling of a deep sigh: nothing resolved, nothing made worse, just an acknowledgment of the weight.
Jonny Sun, intentionally or not, has crafted his persona to make himself feel accessible and relatable in that internet way that makes followers, readers, fans think of him as a friend. And I care about my friends. If any of them said to me some of the things he wrote, I’d be concerned for their well-being. But Jonny Sun is not my friend. So what do I do with this misplaced concern?
Later thought: Maybe it’s better he didn’t drag out a deep analysis of his anxiety and thought process. Maybe it’s enough that he named what he was feeling, calling a spade a spade. By addressing and acknowledging what he’s feeling as anxiety and depression, that’s at least the first step for some of his readers to understand, “Oh, that’s what that is.”
Being a relatable writer or internet figure isn’t a bad thing–I’m worried this is all sounding like a judgement of Sun, his writing, his career. And not every essay in this book is sad, or melancholy, or weighted, etc. He finds and expresses the joy in his life as well, but he thinks more deeply about it in what I think of as his signature style. The moments when his friends get together to create music, not to “put out there” but just for themselves; his recipe on how to cook eggs and the memories it brings up; the joys of being a regular at your favorite restaurant; staying in a friend’s home; and my favorite–the sanctuary of dim sum. It’s his sharing of the good, the bad, the content, the worry, that makes Sun feel like a friend, a trusted person you could talk to and someone who would actually listen. I think in this “internet age” in this global pandemic that is literally isolating people, that voice and comfort and kindness is exactly what people need most. He is relatable exactly when we need human connection the most.
In the afterword, “A Small Goodbye,” he reflects on what it was like working on this book for the past few years. He writes, “I think, at best, any creative project is an archive, or time capsule, some marking down of some sense of who you are, or were, at the specific moment in time while you were making it.” And as a “reviewer,” I have to make the disclaimer: That is a direct quote from an uncorrected proof, and could be subject to change when the final version comes out April 2021. That in-between space has occupied my mind ever since I finished the book. I’d love to hear Sun’s thoughts about the process, drafts, advanced reader’s copies, edits, and the journey to the final release. Or what about in a year or so when the paperback edition comes out? Who will Sun be then, what will this book be then? Where will the state of the world be then? In a most Jonny Sun-esque observation, each edition of the book is its own small goodbye, isn’t it?
I think I’ve completely lost the thread of this review. But the point is to tell the internet that Goodbye, Again is good (imo) and I recommend reading it. In my copy of Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too he inscribed, “May this find you wherever you may need it.” (And reader, of course I cried.) Like I said before, I go to Jonny Sun’s words when I want to be reassured I’m not alone; Goodbye, Again is his latest extension of that assurance.