One of the most exhausting aspects of life in the age of digital immediacy—a time when popularity is measured in Facebook “likes” and when important news stories trend on Twitter before being recognized by the media—is constantly having to hear about life in the age of digital immediacy. It seems that there’s an entire camp of journalism devoted to proclaiming its own redundancy in the face of social networks, memes, and the broadband-heightened rate of information exchange. And it’s hard to believe that a generation raised on continual technological advances can be so easily impressed with so little. The popular acceptance of, say, a new smartphone as an event horizon overshadows a more astonishing reality: Despite all the means of communication at our disposal, we remain both a terribly lonely country and a country terrible to be lonely in.
Several years ago, comedian Jeff Ragsdale had plenty to feel miserable about. Finding himself out of work and living an isolated existence in Harlem, Jeff needed a way to confront his despair. And so, in late 2011 he taped a flyer up around Manhattan reading “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me (347) 469-3173. —Jeff, one lonely guy.” Jeff’s phone number quickly (and, given his low-tech approach, somewhat ironically) became one of the most famous numbers in Internet history, a curio across imageboards and a beacon for the damaged, the depressed, the idle, and the horny. A selection of some of the more than sixty thousand calls, texts and voicemails Jeff received—most of them first posted on his blog—has now been published as Jeff, One Lonely Guy by no less an emissary of the ultra-modern than Amazon Publishing. One of the first releases under senior editor Ed Park (the book was co-authored by essayists David Shields and Michael Logan), Jeff came out an astonishing five months after the first poster was taped up, making it the rare DIY affair open to enormous, Kindle-friendly distribution.
Jeff’s correspondents make up an enigmatic cross-section of self-medicating youth (“I went through a traumatic breakup. Now I want to work in finance.”), exhibitionists, and adorable barroom existentialists (“But what if I don’t know what my true character and identity is?”). There are some real cries for help: a 16-year-old girl needs drugs to make her happy, a woman from Spokane calls after attempting suicide. Others are less alarming, even genial: A pimp offers Jeff tips on meeting women, and a compulsive sexter named Ashley regales us with grammatically-precise propositions (“I would indeed like a rather large penis at the moment.”)
Aside from their names, we learn little about these characters, though what we do learn is telling. A perceptive Goldman Sachs trader calls to relieve tensions caused by the Occupy protestors outside his building. A prostitute in Canada attempts to enlist Jeff’s help in moving her escort service to the U.S. Women are generally better represented than men and many of them are coping with eating disorders, sustained emotional abuse, or absent lovers who have been incarcerated or deployed overseas.
Still, the individual conversations seldom make as much of an impression as the composite portrait of deep, inescapable despondency. The insights that Jeff, One Lonely Guy picks up on aren’t rocket science—people give the advice they wish to receive, seemingly tame people like to have wild sex—but they’re so infrequently recognized that the book registers as an unusually authentic sign of the times, and as such, the experience of reading it can be close to revolutionary.
Jeff has something to get off his chest, too. We gradually gather than he shares many problems in common with his callers. From the italicized slivers of biography that pop up every few pages (culled from an unpublished article) we learn of the events leading up to Jeff posting his ad: an extremely stormy and violent relationship with his ex, possible drug abuse, a death threat he made to another woman and a police warrant for harassment. Prior to becoming the Lonely Guy, Jeff’s main source of advice was Jim Caviezel, a family friend known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. After becoming the Lonely Guy, Jeff began exchanging confessions and acting out frustrations with total strangers who may not have had anybody else to talk to.
What’s wrong with that? Well, herein lies something of a problem: The book isn’t really an exchange. We see what other people are saying (even if only in choice sound bytes), but Jeff’s statements are usually represented by ellipses, so we have to guess at his replies. As a result, I often felt I was missing something crucial. Collage is one thing, but basic comprehension is another: How many of the women callers is Jeff soliciting? Did he send that woman Cassandra what I think he did? What exactly is the caller who accuses Jeff of “unconsciously dumping your baggage on me” referring to? Is she right? With scanty context, we’re not totally in a position to say. Also, there’s no way to distinguish whether quotes come from texts or from phone conversations—two very different modes of communication.
One thing’s for sure: Jeff is certainly seeing a few of the women he’s talking to, and he shares a scary intimacy with many of the repeat callers. A 17-year-old begs to be kidnapped, and the masochistically self-effacing Erica writes, “I’m not perfect, Jeff. You deserve so much better than me.” But apropos of what? Jeff’s access to his subjects is astounding, but ours is dismayingly selective. We laugh at the callers who accuse Jeff of being a pedophile or a government program, but he remains a ghost, someone about whom we know everything and nothing. From online user-anonymity, we’ve now reached author-anonymity. While Jeff’s efforts to protect and guard his narrative (if that’s what it is) don’t altogether compromise the project, the missing pieces stand out suspiciously, partly because they invite voyeurism, then stop short of compromising the book’s invisible hero. And being left out of one half of the conversation gets a little, well, lonely.
But despite its lacunas and compromises, Jeff, One Lonely Guy is worth the read. While too cursory and enigmatic to be the open book it might have been, it remains an edgy diagnostic and a product of our modern malaise. As a matter of fact, when I found myself waiting for an email from Amazon’s publicity director regarding some questions I had (including whether or not it was a hoax), I just called Jeff. I mean, his number’s on the cover, so why not? He answered on the first ring. The email from Amazon never arrived.
JW McCormack is a senior editor at Conjunctions and currently studies at Columbia University. His articles and book reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Publishers Weekly, n+1_'s film supplement N1FR and online.