There is a paradox that has confounded philosophers and scientists for centuries: While we don’t like being sad, we are drawn to sad art. A recent study exploring this phenomenon suggests that when art expresses sadness, the value lies in its ability to evoke a sense of human connection. In other words, it’s not that the art makes us feel sad but that we empathize and therefore connect with the emotion that draws us to it.
In his short fiction collection Sometimes Only the Sad Songs Will Do (Shanti Arts, 2020), poet and fiction writer David Denny masterfully illustrates how this works in practice. Each story in the collection works together to paint a vivid picture of one of the most culturally and technologically vibrant places in the world: The San Francisco Bay Area. Through his fiction, Denny creates a mosaic of life in this iconic region, with narrators facing crises of the spirit who are as distinct as they are captivating. Never shying away from the realities of life in California, Denny takes readers on a journey through this complex landscape of the area and modern life in America, including the highs and lows of the tech industry, gun violence, celebrity, homelessness, prejudice, politics, and wildfires.
The title story is a striking exploration of emotional dissonance, perfectly captured by the narrator’s reflection on his obsession with the songs of the Cowboy Junkies, a group known for captivating audiences with their melancholy music and why he prefers them to more upbeat tunes: “There are times when happy songs don’t make you happy; they only mock your inability to be happy.” This theme of grappling with internal struggles against a backdrop of external abundance is a thread that runs throughout the entire collection.
Another story, “Moss Beach,” stands out as a particularly powerful narrative. This tale of a woman caught in the throes of guilt and grief powerfully illustrates how our inner demons can distort our thoughts. For example, the narrator explains how at a support meeting the main character “went ahead and gave voice to her worst fear: that her infidelity had somehow caused the accident. It was a cruel and illogical motion, she knew, but nevertheless there it sat, always perched on the edge of her thoughts.” Denny’s skill in portraying this complex emotional landscape makes the story both heartbreaking and impossible to put down.
Sometimes Only the Sad Songs Will Do is essential reading for anyone seeking a refreshingly honest portrayal of the human condition and a deeper connection to people and the experiences that make us who we are.
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Happy short fiction reading!