The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
The problem with writing about unremarkable and average people is that they are unremarkable and average. In what is basically one long novel-sized homage to Xander from Buffy, Patrick Ness tackles what it is to be the underdog in his latest novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here.
Mikey lives in a nondescript American town, trying to navigate the pitfalls of high school. There have been various catastrophes in the town’s history: a vampire invasion, a plague of soul-eating ghosts. When Ness mentions a time where the kids were bravely fighting cancer, it becomes obvious that he’s giving a sly nod to all the other YA franchises out there. Yet he chooses not to focus on the Bella Swans or the Katnisses or the Harry Potters or the Buffys. The focus of our story is the everyman, which in this case, is Mikey.
Mikey has acute OCD, and his sister is recovering from an eating disorder that nearly killed her. Their father is an alcoholic. Mikey’s best friend Jared is gay, and is struggling to be open about it with his friends. His mixed-race best friend Henna is being forced to go to Africa against her will with her missionary parents. So, I get what Ness is trying to do here. Teenagers have to come to terms with their normal, everyday problems, and this is heroism in its own way. But seriously, wasn’t he laying it on a little too thick? It seems like he had a checklist of every possible trial and tribulation a young person could face, and assigned them all to every character. Trying to portray “normal” teenagers with “normal” problems has backfired, and we are left instead with over-angsty caricatures that are dealing with more issues than most will do in their lifetime.
The backdrop to all this “normalcy” is the town’s next crisis: the world is being invaded by the destructive Immortals, and only the so-called Indie Kids (the Buffys and the Katnisses) can save it. Mikey and his friends encounter sudden deaths, mystical eruptions of blue light, zombie deer and brainwashed policemen. Oh, and their school explodes. Yet these supernatural occurrences are left pretty much unexplained, and the group gets on with their lives impervious to the background action. While the Indie Kids battle literal demons, our cast of motley misfits are battling demons of a far more metaphorical kind. Their total nonchalance towards the fantastical goings on is most definitely not how your average teenager behaves. Add to that the fact that the supernatural elements of the story are left completely without explanation, and any semblance of believability is lost.
The concept of The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a good one. There seems to be a mass turning towards diversity in YA literature, and focusing on ‘the little guy’ certainly ticks that box. After all, there is usually only room for one superhero, and that does not encompass your average reader. But in his desperation to represent regular, troubled teenagers, Ness ended up with an angsty caricature that was far from the norm.
It does sound like he went overboard trying to make his point.
Seeing major story events from a side character’s point of view can be interesting for a chapter or two, but an entire novel seems a bit much.
It was a wonderful book. I remember thinking “these kids have heaps of problems,” but it didn’t detract from the plot, or the humour, or the connection with characters. Such a great depiction of getting help for mental illness as well. I read the book as a satire/parody of YA tropes, with the characters’ “nonchalance” being pragmatism – keep their heads down and graduate. I think that’s a realistic metaphor for teen/young adult (even adult) behaviour in the face of a confusing world.