Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway.There are two storylines in Patrick Ness’ The Rest of Us Just Live Here: one is about high school senior Mike, his sister Mel, and their best friends Henna and Jared, who have no particular desire to be Chosen and are doing their best to live their lives. The novel’s opening scene does a great job of establishing the intimacy and care between them — to quote from Fans of the Impossible Life (a book that, to my mind, occupies a similar emotional territory to this one), they’re trying to learn the “messy and difficult and unmanageable truth of [each other’s] individual lives”, and doing their best to navigate the challenges these truths pose.
In addition to that, there’s what in most narratives would be the main plotline — a story about the world nearly ending, and the intrepid heroes and heroines who save it. We catch glimpses of this story in the summaries at the start of each chapter, which in this case bear little relation to what The Rest of Us Just Live Here is actually about. However, he novel’s premise is more than background decoration: there are real wounds caused by the constant end of the world scenarios the characters are not quite involved in, there’s a real sense of urgency, and nearly everyone has lost something or someone they hold dear.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is about the richness and complexity of the narratives happening at the edges of what we’re conditioned to give our attention to, be it high-stakes reality-collapsing scenarios or simply our own troubles and concerns. Everyone, we’re reminded, is the hero of their own story. The novel’s structure highlights this very noticeably, but there’s more to it than form: there’s the story Mike doesn’t see, for example, because he’s so wrapped up in his own. This oversight is all too human, but it has consequences for one of the most important emotional ties in his life. I’d say this alignment between theme and structure is cleverly done, but I worry that makes the novel sound sterile when in reality it is full of heart.
One of my favourite scenes comes at the end, when the characters we’ve grown to know and love sit with the indie kids who have been busy preventing the apocalypse as they all watch their high school burn. There’s a constant undercurrent of humour to the novel’s resistance to centering the characters who would normally take the spotlight, but the joke doesn’t come at the expense of those poor battle-scarred kids, who have also lost several somethings and someones they held dear. Mike finds himself thinking that they “really do seem just like the rest of [them]”, and I love how well this sumps up the novel’s beating heart: it resists the urge to build community and define in-group identity by dehumanising others.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is also concerned with “loving people properly”, as the quote I opened with puts it: this concern is embodied by Mike, Henna, Mel and Jared, and the complex web of emotional ties that bind them to each other. Love in its many incarnations, they realise, “is not the answer to everything, but it’s the one thing that’s going to make the questions more bearable.” Each of these characters carries their own differently shaped burdens, and one of the challenges they face is how to juggle their own needs and other people’s, especially when these are at odds, with delicacy and sensitivity. Dehumanisation needs to be resisted even in love: it’s much too easy to forget that people have inner lives and motivations every bit as complex as our own, and that all we can offer each other is understanding and love.
This is why this scene between Mike and Mel killed me (there’s far more to it in context, but still):
I get some salmon and rice on the fork. I lift it up.As did this one, between Jared and Mike:
And I feed her. Mrs Choi and our grandmother sleep, the room is quiet, that middle bed between them empty, empty, empty, and I feed my sister her lunch. We share our craziness, our neuroses, our little bit of screwed-up-ness that comes from our family. We share it. And it feels like love.
“Here’s what’s important, Mike.” He takes a long time screwing the lid back on the moisturizer. “What’s important is that I know how much you worry about shit. And what’s also important is that I know a big part of that worry is that, no matter what group of friends you’re in, no matter how long you’ve known them, you always assume you’re the least-wanted person there. The one everyone else could do without.”Before I finish, let me highlight one more thing that I loved: that Mike and Henna sleep together, and that the sex they have isn’t a promise but is full of tenderness anyway. We can be close to people — emotionally, intellectually, sexually, or in all these ways at once — without heteronormative couplehood being the inevitable end goal of this intimacy, and without whatever we share being a failure or a waste if it doesn’t lead to that. It’s lovely to see stories that recognise this, and that resist the idea that shame or regret are inescapably linked to sex.
All I can do is swallow. I feel like I’m naked all of a sudden.
“Even when it’s just you and me,” he says. “I know how you worry that you need me as a friend more than I need you.”
“I’ve known it since we were kids, Mike. You’re not the only one who worries.” He play-punches me in the chest, leaving the flat of his first there. “I wouldn’t have made it without you. I got my dad and I got you and I need you both. More than you know.”
I swallow again. “Thanks, man.”
“I’ll tell you about everything when I can,” he says. “I promise. I want to. But talking about it, even with you, would change it and I can’t risk that yet.”
They read it too: Capricious Reader, you?