[Extremely minor spoilers for the movie submarine (weird huh), and very minor/vague spoilers about The Rest of Us Just Live Here]
I always hear people say that teenagers feel things too strong. Maybe the phrasing of that’s unfair, perhaps they don’t mean it as any kind of insult. But I do get the impression teenagers are supposed to feel things more intensely than ‘grown-ups’, no matter how small or trivial that thing is. Patrick Ness is a writer whose books are often about teenagers, and I think he’d agree that things feel big when you’re young. What he captures better than anyone else, though, is the reality of those feelings, the truth of them.
There’s a line in Richard Ayoade’s submarine where two parents tell their son that none of this will matter when he’s thirty-eight. Later on, their son confronts them, saying that he thinks it will. It’s a film that achieves something similar to this book; it presents a life and its problems, and treats them as the highest stakes in the world. Our lives often aren’t fantastical or wild, and yet the emotions we experience feel as intense and strong as if they were. The movie Submarine respects the turmoil its main character feels, even while remarking on the impermanence of it. The Rest of us Just Live Here respects the turmoil of its readers in a much more heightened way, a way that only a book can.
I love things that play with the medium they take. A videogame that requires you to unplug your controller, or a movie that pauses itself, that sort of thing. I love it because it feels so unique to itself, like no other kind of entertainment could do anything quite like it. I’ve not found much of that in books before, and certainly didn’t expect to find it in a Patrick Ness book. I love his stories, he’s my favourite author, but from what I’ve read of his I feel that his writing is so effective thanks to its immediacy. It reflects the emotions and feelings of its characters right this second, with no distance or rumination. It’s true to the situation, and incredibly engaging because of it. So I would have thought some strange, fourth wall breaking play on the medium would have taken me out of the story, and wouldn’t have worked at all well in one of his books. Here, though, it works.
The Rest of us Just Live Here, after all, isn’t just one book. Its two tales that start off unconnected, and for the most part remain that way. One story, the main story, is an angsty teen drama. Not much to differentiate it from any other teen drama, except for Patrick Ness and his brilliant brain. The second story, that plays out alongside the main event, tells us of heroes, of teenagers who are running around fighting aliens and monsters and whatever else is around. They live exciting, insane lives, lives that would be perfect fodder for a story. And yet, this second story, the one with all the explosions and action, is restricted entirely to the chapter headings.
Chapter headings are great. They give you a little hook, keep you guessing as to what the chapter might contain. But here, they’re used the same way a character speaking straight to the camera is in a TV Show. They’re used to highlight something about the story, to emphasise it in a way only a book can. They tell a story all of their own, in bitesize chunks, taking place somewhere the main characters aren’t.
This second story, about crazy things happening to awesome people, is a perfect way to tell us it will all matter when we’re thirty-eight. It will, even if they say it won’t. Because here we are, reading a story about teenagers with teenager problems. Here we are, watching people fall in love and get jealous and struggle with their anxieties and brains and lives. Here we are, reading a book about mostly normal people, doing mostly normal things. This is the story we’re reading, not the one about the kids fighting monsters. It will matter when we’re thirty-eight, it does matter, because this book could have been about anything in the world, and yet it’s not. It’s about our stupid, boring, weird little lives, not a vampire in sight. All that crazy stuff the exciting people get up to? We don’t have room for that. They can get on with their insanity. I’m here, and now, and I care about today and next week and next year, and all the stupid little things that’ll make me smile and that’ll make me cry. Which is fine, I think. After all, Patrick Ness might write a book about it, when he has a perfectly good adventure story to tell. But it’s this story he thinks is worth telling. The small story. Because it’s not small, really. It’s as big as it feels, and to be quite honest, it feels pretty big.