“I wanted so badly for there to be more. I ached for there to be more than my crappy little life.” He shakes his head. “And there was more. I just couldn’t see it.”More Than This begins with a drowning: all we know at first is that a boy, Seth, is all alone in the cold, indifferent ocean, and that he loses his battle against the waves. Seth dies — only to wake up, naked and cold but otherwise fine, in a seemingly abandoned world. As he explores his surroundings, he realises that he’s back in the English town where he and his family lived before moving to America, and where a tragedy that changed their lives forever took place.
Everything looks more or less as Seth remembers, other than the small fact that everyone else in the world is apparently gone — and by the look of things, they’ve been gone for quite some time. Is Seth really alive, or is this crumbling empty world some version of the afterlife? As Seth tries to find out the answer to this question, the story moves back and forwards in time, and bit by bit we’re able to piece together what led him to the freezing Pacific Ocean on the day that he drowned.
The above barely scratches the surface of the story, but I can’t tell you much more about More Than This without giving away details you’ll have much more fun discovering for yourself. As Patrick Ness put it himself, the structure of the book can be described as follows: you spend the first part wondering what’s going on, in part two you’re given an answer, and part three asks, “Are you sure?” More Than This is a very conceptual novel, only I worry that saying this will make it sound all cold and cerebral and like it doesn’t have a heart, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. This is an excellent story that will keep you turning the pages, but what really drew me to it was its thematic and emotional core.
Because More Than This is such a spoilable book, I can’t really talk about it in as much detail as I’d like without risking giving too much away — so consider this a spoiler warning for the rest of this post. Before those of you who haven’t read it yet go away, I’ll give you the short version: I really, really loved it; I found it thoughtful and moving and really difficult to put down; I think it will hugely appeal to Chaos Walking fans (especially if what you love about those books is the sensibility behind them); and I hope you all read it as soon as possible and then come discuss it at length with me.
There; now come the spoilertastic bits:
Patrick Ness has said several times that be believes that the popularity of the YA dystopia is partially due to the fact that end of the world scenarios are so great at capturing the emotional reality of being a teenager. When you’re young and grappling with intense emotional experiences for the first time, it feels like the end of the world is upon you — not to mention the fact that the powerlessness and uncertainty that often dominates young people’s lives is perfectly captured in dystopias. In More Than This, Ness takes what he calls the metaphorical dystopia and uses it to pose an interesting set of questions about the limits of our world, as well as the reality we build through the narratives we tell ourselves.
If you’ve read Chaos Walking, you’ll know that Ness isn’t one to shy away from open endings, and More Than This is no exception. I have a feeling that the ending will divide readers, though it definitely worked for me. I was much happier with the ambiguity part three reintroduces than I was with the answers section two seemed to be giving us. There are some metafictional elements to More Than This, such as the fact that Seth is aware of how narrative works and even asks himself questions about what kind of story he might be in. At one point be becomes worried, because the answer he seems to have found is too much like
“...the kind of story where everything’s explained by one big secret, like everyone going online and what’s real and what’s not being reversed. The kind of story you watched for two hours, were satisfied with the twist, and then got on with your life.Reading this made me happy, because no, I didn’t particularly want a Matrix-like story where one big secret settled all the questions. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that sort of story, but by now it’s been told enough times that it’s difficult to do anything new with it unless you take it in a different direction. Fortunately, by the end of More Than This I was more reminded of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than I was of The Matrix.
The kind of story his own mind would provide to make sense of this place.”
The ending doesn’t tells us with absolute authority what’s real and what isn’t, but to me that makes sense because the only authoritative answer is the one we arrive at ourselves. I don’t mean this in a pseudo-quantum sort of way; I just mean that we get to decide which narratives about our lives become our truths and which ones we’d rather revise. This is what Seth is doing when he makes his final decision. He chooses to believe in it all — in Gudmund and Monica and H and Owen and his parents, as well as in Regine and Tomasz, and especially in their independence from his own mind — and I chose the same right along with him.
If Seth’s friends were just something his imagination had conjured, then the emotional core of the book would fall apart for me. Seth’s realisation that all these people with stories and perspectives and experiences that aren’t his are real, that there are all these lives every bit as complicated as his own, is a source of immense relief. As I said yesterday, what this novel does best is capture that feeling of being overwhelmed by your own emotional reality that you often get when you’re young, and it provides hope by pointing out you can escape that. There’s more to your life than the present, and there’s more to the world than your life. This realisation is humbling, and there’s a lot of comfort to be found in that.
As much as I love the thematic resonance of an empty and desolate world, and as much as the mystery of Seth’s circumstances kept me turning the pages in part one, the flashbacks to his pre-drowning life were actually some of my favourite scenes in More Than This. I especially loved the romance between Seth and his boyfriend Gusmund — one, because as Ness said it shows that you can include gay couples without making that the whole point of the story; and two, because the scenes are beautifully written and the tenderness between them was absolutely lovely to see. I was also particularly interested in the double-bind Seth finds himself in: his relationship with Gusmund feels like a universe of their own; like something precious and very, very private that they want to keep to themselves for reasons that go beyond having to keep their sexual orientation closeted. When word about their relationship spreads, however, this is all people see, and in a way that robs Seth of this experience.
To be clear, I dearly wish we lived in a world where being out or not was an absolute non-issue, but I realise that because this is not the world we have, secrecy has inescapable political implications. It would be ridiculous to suggest that homophobia doesn’t shape people’s lives to an extent, and Seth and Gusmund’s story shows that very clearly. However, we also need to be cautious not to create the expectation that lgbtq people need to account for themselves in all circumstances in a way straight people would never be expected to, or else they’re anti-progressives who are letting everyone else down. Although I’m a straight girl, that desire to exist in your own private universe in the early stages of a relationship is not unfamiliar to me, and we do gay teens an injustice if we rob them of the right to feel that way, regardless of the role homophobia unfortunately still plays in our world. I really liked the fact that More Than This acknowledges this experience and gives its characters the space to have these emotions without judgment.
The last point I want to make is about the one aspect of More Than This that didn’t quite work for me. I’ll start by saying that I loved Tomasz and Regine — I loved them for who they were, I loved their friendship, and I loved the fact their being allowed to exist as more than lessons for the protagonist is so crucial to the story. However, my belief in Tomasz as a character was undermined by the fact that the way he spoke didn’t quite ring true for me. I don’t mean the Polish, which I’m not qualified to talk about, but rather the kind of mistakes he made when he spoke English. I say this not only as a fellow non-native speaker who learned English at around the same age as him, but as someone with a bit of a background in linguistics. I spent a year as a research assistant working on a project about non-native speakers learning English, and although speech patterns will be different depending on what your first language is, Tomasz’ came across as very caricatured to me, and unfortunately this kept pulling me out of the story.
I don’t think this is something most readers will pay much attention to, and I’m ready to leave it alone as a matter of suspension of disbelief. But I keep coming back to it from a different angle: when you include characters from underrepresented backgrounds (which Ness does, and I’m grateful for that) but don’t get them quite right, you risk ending up making people like them feel that they don’t matter enough to deserve having these representations be convincing to anyone but those who don’t know anything about them. To me, the trouble with the way Tomasz spoke was that it broke my immersion in the story, but if he was a character who represented me it might have been about much more than that. When I spoke to Ness on Wednesday he told me he very much wanted to hear what Polish readers would have to say, and this is a desire I share.
A few of my favourite bits (warning: All The Spoilers):
“Stop that,” Seth said, smacking Gudmund’s hand away again, still laughing.They read it too: That’s What She Read, Waking Brain Cells
“You sure?” Gudmund moved an arm underneath Seth and pulled him back into a full embrace, nuzzling his neck.
“Hold on,” Seth whispered suddenly.
Gudmund froze. “What?”
“Just what?” Gudmund asked, still frozen.
But how could Seth explain it? Just what?
Just Gudmund’s arms around him, holding him there, holding him tightly and not letting him go. Holding him like it was the only place that could ever have existed.
Just that. Yes, just that.
“Self-contained”, Gudmund had described him, but what that really meant was that it felt like he’d had a private burden to shoulder for as long as he could remember, and maybe not all of it even to do with what happened to Owen. Worse, it had been accompanied by an equally hard lifelong yearning, a feeling that there had to be more, more than just all this weight.
Because if there wasn’t, what was the point?
That bad been the other great thing about Gudmund since that surprising spring night at the end of their junior year when they had become more than just friends. It was suddenly as if, for the briefest of moments, the burden had been lifted, like there was no gravity at all, like he had finally set down the heavy load he’d been carrying—
“Holy shit,” he whispers.
He’s seeing the actual Milky Way streaked across the sky. The whole of his entire galaxy, right there in front of him. Billions and billions of stars. Billions and billions of worlds. All of them, all those seemingly endless possibilities, not fictional, but real, out there, existing, right now. There is so much more out there than just the world he knows, so much more than his tiny Washington town, so much more than ever London. Or England. Or hell, for that matter.
So much more that he’ll never get to. So much that he can only glimpse enough of to know that it’s forever beyond his reach.
The cloud closes up again. The Milky Way vanishes.
Here is the boy, the man, here is Seth, being laid back gently into his coffin, the hands of his friends guiding him into place.
He’s uncertain what’s going to happen next.
But he is certain that that’s actually the point.
If this is all a story, then that’s what the story means.
If it isn’t a story, then the exact same is true.
But as his friends begin the final steps, pressing buttons, answering questions on a screen, he thinks that what is forever certain is that there’s always more. Always.
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