Long story, long...read on!
Monday, November 23, 2015
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness vs The Living by Matt de la Pena
Long story, long...read on!
Wow, it continues in great Smackdown tradition to see many unlike books paired, especially in round 1. For me, this remained true. I read The Living in two sittings and could not put it down - action, action, action. I am always looking for a book with “boy” appeal and this definitely qualifies. I know there were a lot of bad things happening one after another but I didn’t feel like “What!?!” Was it the best piece of literary fiction? No, but kids would read this book and sell it to other kids.
I was really looking forward to The Rest of Us as I am always intrigued by what weirdness Patrick Ness will bring to his next book. I was not let down. I read this over a week mostly because I needed to digest the story a little at a time. I liked it but I felt that Ness tried to put too many characters with personal challenges in one book. And then jazz them up a little by adding Gods, vampires and immortals. At my school, there are kids who would like it but I don’t think they would LOVE it. I did think he did an excellent job at providing insight into OCD and I really felt for Mikey but I didn’t really get to know the other characters. I’m leaning toward The Living, convince me otherwise!
Haley: I wasn’t really blown away by either of them, but I did enjoy moments. The Living and The Rest of Us will definitely appeal to very different audiences.
The Living by Matt De La Pena, an action-packed story about the end of the world, reads like High-Low fiction. There is nothing complicated about the story or the writing itself. This is textbook YA apocalypse fiction: there’s a weird disease, a drug company conspiracy, the worst earthquakes and tsunamis in recorded history, and for some reason the story is set on a cruise ship. It’s straightforward action, minor disaster after minor disaster, with a sub-plot of teenage unrequited love. I wasn’t really drawn into the plot of Living, but I did find the main character, Shy, to be relatable. His internal monologue during his interactions with his crush, Carmen, is dorky and funny and his reactions to the disasters that befall him and the rest of the characters are realistic. Shy isn’t a hero, he’s just a kid, and I liked that about him; he feels like a real person. Overall, not an earth-shaking novel (pun intended), but it comes with teenage angst in spades and I know plenty of kids who would gobble this book up. Plus, it’s part of a series, which is one of my favourite ways to ‘trick’ reluctant readers into a love affair with reading.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness, is unlike anything I’ve read. In the world of a typical teen fantasy or sci-fi novel, the main character is the hero of her universe, has a ridiculous name and weird hobbies, and is beset with fantastical other-worldly challenges within the context of a seemingly normal teenage life in a seemingly normal American town. The Rest of Us is set in that same town. That “normal” town where the typical main characters date vampires and battle with the dark side of the universe. Ness takes that world and turns his magnifying glass on the extras, the characters that aren’t special and aren’t cool and just live normal lives in the normal town while all the cool kids live extraordinary lives in a universe that always seems to revolve around them.
Really, it’s more literary experiment than novel. Each chapter begins with a 5 sentence summary of the typical teen novel plotline - what are all the cool kids doing? They’re saving the world, obviously. In this novel, however, the cool kids are the subplot. The main plot begins after this summary, from the point of view of Mikey, one of the extras, a normal boy with normal problems who just wants to be the hero of his own story. Mikey and his friends are instantly loveable characters with real problems like eating disorders, dead siblings, shitty parents, and OCD. Ness’ experiment goes awry, though, because neither subplot nor plot is detailed or compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest. And the cool kids, “Indie kids” as Ness calls them, are constantly popping up and interrupting the plot with their problems and then racing off to solve them, but not before reminding Mikey and his crew that they shouldn’t get involved because they’re probably not supposed to help. This isn’t their storyline, after all. These interactions between subplot and plot, which should be hilarious or at least interesting, end up working against Ness, though, because every time Mikey’s story starts to stand on its own two feet it is interrupted by the ridiculous subplot and I am reminded that I am participating in a bizarre literary experiment, not just reading a book.
That being said, the novel isn’t a complete failure, though, because Ness manages to spend enough time on Mikey’s story to get us to really care about him. And, his portrayal of Mikey and his sister’s mental illnesses is accurate, heartbreaking, and tender. Ness doesn’t solve their problems for them, either. In the final moments of the novel, in a contrived twist of fate, Mikey’s should-be-”Indie” friend, Jared, reveals that he has the power to cure Mikey’s OCD and Mikey turns him down, saying that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life not knowing if he could have figured it out on his own. For me, that is the ultimate victory of this book - that Ness is able to portray characters with mental illness honestly and accurately and that he doesn’t tie things up neatly for them. Unfortunately, that’s not what Ness’ book is about. Really, by the end of it, it was hard to tell what Ness wanted the book to be about. I’m not sure Ness knew, either. As an experiment, this novel is, without question, unsuccessful, and I found myself wishing Mikey had his own book. But maybe that’s what Ness wants us to take away from this experience? A clamboring for something more than typical teen novels? Whatever Ness’ intentions were, they fall flat because this novel would probably not hold the attention of the average teen reader much past the first chapter. Which is too bad, really, because in its redeeming moments there is a bit of genius here.
So, even though I liked the character of Mikey enough to vote for The Rest of Us despite its failings, because it’s not particularly readable as a whole I can’t in good conscience force anyone else to read it. Even in the spirit of literary experimentation. And that leaves us with The Living as my pick - a fast-paced book with a flimsy plot. A snack of a novel that you can read in one sitting and that will not leave you completely unsatisfied.
I’ve been in The Mighty Smackdown for a few years now and the two times we’ve had a Patrick Ness selection I came out thinking that his book was the best of the bunch. With A Monster Calls we all pretty much agreed and with More Than This, everyone just kind of looked at me awkwardly through the internet. I’m pretty much over that, though. When I saw The Rest of Us Just Live Here up against The Living, which has a pretty schlocky cover and a bit of a too cool for school air about it, I figured this would not be much of a battle. I was right, but not the way I thought.
So, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is pretty cool at times. Some intriguing characters. Mysterious plot. And a vague, but thought-provoking, alternative universe with vampires, Gods, weird deers and whatever the hell Indie kids are. All wrapped in near bursting bubble of teen angst.
If you found those last five sentences (or not) a bit tough to digest, consider it a microcosm of the novel. As usual, Ness shows himself to be thought-provoking and thoughtful. He has an ear for cadences in speech that suggest magnitudes lurking below the surface, but he also creates characters who seem just a little too self-satisfied even while they are welling in sometimes outrageous misery. But that’s a small thing. The issue here is there is just flat out too much going on. This does not read like a novel, so much as a pilot episode of a television series; and probably a series that would build off a mediocre pilot (or maybe first six episodes, more accurately) to turn into something special. I very much liked the way that we are plunked into the middle of this world where all this weird stuff is just part of the lay of the land and Ness does not feel compelled to launch us into massive expository digressions. This restraint (or maybe it’s just part of a larger plan where these things are revealed in subsequent books) is not in evidence in other areas of the book, however. Consider, Mikey. He has OCD. His sister has struggled with an eating disorder. He’s deeply in love with Henna, who we are reminded many times, is very beautiful. As is the new kid, Nathan, who Mikey hates, but Henna seems intrigued by. Oh and his dad is an alcoholic. And his mom is a selfish (mostly) grasping politician. And I haven’t even mentioned the plot yet.
I’m all for ambitious novels with complexity, but for me, this novel is not so much complex as it is overburdened. I’d be game for getting to know these characters a bit better and I’d be up for digging into the mythological context Ness has built around them, but these two things seem to be working at cross purposes in a 300 page novel that simply can’t give each devil its due. I liked a lot of things in the book, but it was not a book that I found myself reading compulsively.
I’m prepared for indignant cries of “hypocrite” given my primary criticism that Ness has too many balls in the air, given that Matt De La Pena’s The Living also gives his protagonist, Shy, a lot to deal with, but I’m going to give him credit for having a clear sense of what he has created. This is the first book in a series. Shy is a young male protagonist that has enough swagger that he might resonate with some of our young guys who may be more comfortable with video games and action flicks, but he also has some depth and nuance to his character. Yes, he ogles the beauties (he is, to be fair, on a cruise ship) in his life relentlessly, but he is reflective about some of the conflicts this creates for him. As the blurb on the cover notes, the novel is “plot-driven” in the sense that there is a lot of things happening, but it is continually moving and I found it an enjoyable read. I don’t want to oversell the book, but in a book layered with many human and global catastrophes, De La Pena showed a real skill for creating space for considering some profound issues. Bottom line for me: I was intrigued enough by the book that I think I would buy the next in the series and I can think of no small number of students that I would feel comfortable recommending the book to.