Joy Machine

by Lucy Zhang 

In return for happiness, you must give up your sadness, the doctors told their patients. The growing demand for the procedure had led to the rise of retreats on discovering your inner sorrow and joy, advertised in the corners of wellness blogs, on billboards welcoming drivers into cities, in the middle of YouTube videos. “Unearth your inner self, understand who you were meant to be,” the programs touted alongside images of smiling, clear-skinned people.

At first, most were reluctant to undergo the procedure, skeptical any technology could cleanly untangle memories of their successful attempts at shoplifting plastic-wrapped onigiri from those of getting caught by the angry cashier who wielded a mop heavy with water for smacking. Spouses worried forgetting about their cheating partners meant they might never know how to love again. Some clutched onto their preference for fried turkey even though it meant reliving oil burns—the first case of burns over burns the doctor had ever seen. Even more feared that losing the pain of a dead parent meant losing memories of visiting bird shows together and waving crisp ten-dollar bills in the air for a bird to snatch. There’s a way to filter and extract the undesirables through sophisticated signal processing and rank reduced matrix factorization, the doctors explained to those fresh off waves of tragedy.

The pilot group was composed of those who’d grown numb to despair, worn down by time, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, which is a powerful mindset to have, the doctors concurred after interviewing their first round of candidates. The senior citizens were placed in individual body chambers sealed with a glass casing and illuminated with LEDs. This isn’t cryonics, the doctors told the skeptics while flicking switches, lights brightening the chambers, illuminating cables winding through holes punctured through the wall. It was bright enough to see the faces of those dormant in capsules, their wrinkles and squat noses and chapped lips and thinning hair, the fishing-like wires inserted into the tops of their skulls so the doctors could turn neurons on and off via light.

The entire procedure had been live-streamed and broadcasted to assuage the public’s fears, although the public remained cynical, grips tight around their losses and devastations, their deceased loved ones and betrayals. There’s no joy without sorrow, they said, hoarding calamity in their hearts. But as the video streamed and the machine whirred and whatever existed beyond the wall of wires buzzed like summer cicadas, as the patients’ facial expressions softened, the public wondered silently if this new technology had some merit.

But they did not say so out loud, because sitting next to them was their spouse conducting a secret affair, their child who’d destroyed any chance of traveling the world while young, their father they secretly wondered when would pass on and take their insurance costs and dementia with them, their unread voicemails from banks demanding credit card payments, the moldy russet potato in the fridge their son claimed to be a scientific experiment and thus could not be disposed of. It isn’t sorrow, they laughed. It was exhaustion, nothing a good night’s sleep couldn’t solve. And as time would have it, the dementia-plagued fathers passed away, the affairs exposed or confessed, the payments made or defaulted, the potatoes thrown out, the children grown and gone, time returning in abundance.

The second group was young: those unable to pinpoint their sources of depression, money draining from their sieve-like wallets to pay for therapy, those whose bodies stopped working the right way, the best way, the most efficient way—victims of car crashes and gunfights and faulty elevators, limbs or faces or organs not quite cohering as they once did. This isn’t a cure for physical injuries, the doctors warned. But the group did not care and after assisting those who could not climb over the glass or bend their knees to sit, they slipped into the body chambers as well. It was the same, the public observed: the tenseness in group two’s facial expressions fading after the doctors turned on the system. When they walked out of the chambers, they told the world on TV how happy they were. These people had nothing left to lose, even a placebo would do the trick, the public scoffed, discarding the results as a stunt.

The third group was not particularly sad, though they thought there was always room to improve. Are you sure my memories will remain intact, they asked the doctors. Will we be able to become sad post-operation, or will we need to undergo the procedure again? Is there a minimal amount of existing happiness required to ensure a good outcome? The doctors said there was no surefire guarantee for anything, but that their methods had yielded a one-hundred percent efficacy for all patients thus far. The group deemed these numbers persuasive enough, and the glass lids closed over their bodies. 

The only group who did not undergo the operation was the doctors, because they claimed they needed to understand sadness to ensure optimal results. The sorrow collected from patients was compressed and stored in the backroom in a large vault, under constant analysis and experimental procedure despite the dangers of high exposure. During their off-hours, the doctors shed their lead vests and gloves and goggles, ordered stale delivery bento boxes from Tanto Restaurant half an hour away, complained about divorce procedures or sore backs or insomnia or dreams of dying people or dreams of living people. The pillars of society are always built on the backs of someone, they joked as another doctor handed in their resignation.

Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, The Fourth River, New Orleans Review and elsewhere, and was selected for Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions. She is losing sleep over a novel. Find her at or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

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