One of my favorite narrative conceits is stories within stories. I love books that wrestle with the idea that the story I’m reading is a story, and that it’s subject to change depending on who tells it and how. Even better, I love it when the characters themselves confront those same ideas, because what are we if not the protagonists of our own story? Don’t we all attempt to reconceptualize our own lives so that they make slightly more narrative sense than the tangled mess that is reality?
All this means I should have been head-over-heels in love with Patrick Ness’ new YA novel The Rest of Us Just Live Here, a book whose main conceit is: what about all those kids in fantasy stories that aren’t The Chosen One?
In this book, the “indie” kids are the ones who are constantly saving the town from various magical or supernatural crises, sometimes even dying in the process. No one questions it—it’s part of life, and that’s the role they play. And all the normal people may have to deal with blowback and aftermath of the indie kids’ shenanigans, but hey, at least they’re normal—their lives don’t play out in the trope-infested way of Chosen Ones.
Mikey, his sister Mel, and their friends Jared and Henna are normal high school seniors all set to graduate and leave their small Washington town. Each of them have their own set of troubles. Mikey’s OCD is getting worse, he still hasn’t told Henna he loves her, and his and Mel’s family is as dysfunctional as ever. Henna has her own fears about what the future holds for her, and Jared…well, Jared’s the grandson of a deity who’s in charge of cats. He has a different set of issues on his plate.
To put it another way, this book most closely resembles what an episode of Buffy might look like told from the perspectives of Sunnydale High School students in the midst of the latest vampire/demon/supernatural attack, with Buffy and the Scoobies saving the school (and the world) on the periphery.
Like I said, I should have been one of the target audiences for this book. Not to mention that Patrick Ness also wrote the Chaos Walking Trilogy (these reviews are from my earlier, now-abandoned book review blog), and he’s a smart, talented writer. The problem is, this really cool idea—writing a story that explicitly tackles supernatural YA tropes about teenagers in high school fighting evil while trying to live a normal life—remains just that: a really cool idea.
For the latter, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a deliberate choice on Patrick Ness’ part, to make the indie kid snippets uninspiring. After all, one of the themes of this book is that any person’s life, no matter how ordinary it may feel compared to others, can be extraordinary just in trying to get through whatever it is you’re struggling with and making sense of life’s constant (yet mundane) craziness. But then it feels like these dull, boring snippets of the indie kids getting caught up in preventing magical warfare were included for the sole purpose of making them dull and boring. Because the point is that the indie kids and their story are, for once, on the periphery of the “normal” people: Mikey, Mel, Henna, and Jared.
Basically, The Rest of Us Just Live Here made me not give a damn about the indie kids anything they were doing, which I’m taking to be the point. But if an author is going to include anything in a story, I want it to be there for a reason! A reason that’s not “I’m including this element just to point out how it doesn’t matter.” If I, as a reader, am not meant to care about the indie kids and the magical conflict, but it’s included in the book, (meaning it does play a narrative role in the story Patrick Ness is trying to tell), then it feels like I should care…EXCEPT I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO. You included something in this book explicitly for me to not care about it!!!
The more I type this out, the more frustrated and annoyed I get.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is an ambitious experiment, and it did not work for me. For a book to effectively address storytelling tropes, it needs to actually engage with them instead of briefly pointing and making a snarky comment before moving along. And this book never moved far beyond simple acknowledgement of their existence. Mikey and Mel and Henna and Jared’s stories were strong enough to stand on their own. Which makes me feel that the indie kids were shoehorned in because that’s the story Patrick Ness wanted to tell, and nothing was going to get in the way of that. So it goes.