It feels like we’re particularly susceptible to bouts of immersive fantasy during our teenage years. We read about superheroes that fly over the earth, handsome boys who are immortal vampires or girls that discover they have extraordinary hidden powers. Personally, some of my favourite books to read as a young teen were Terry Brooks’ Shannara series which contained quests amongst dwarves, gnomes and trolls. Later, I eagerly read Anne Rice’s vampire series as did my boyfriend at the time. He liked to imagine himself as Lestat and signed his notes to me with this name. Obviously, part of the appeal of these fantasies are imagining ourselves greater than what we are and breaking out of our humdrum lives. In his new novel “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” Patrick Ness takes the radically different and clever perspective of a character that is decidedly un-heroic (in any save the world sort of way) and he has no aspirations to become a hero.
Mikey is months away from graduating from high school in a remote town in Washington state with his tight-knit group of three friends. He’s secretly-not so-secretly in love with one of this circle, Henna, but she has a hard crush on a boy who has newly transferred to the school. Amidst the build up towards prom, moving away and the inevitable goodbyes, a strange series of events have been taking place in the background. Beams of blue light keep appearing with destructive force and indie kids keep dying. While an otherworldly quest to prevent the world from being invaded by a group of “immortals” takes place, Mikey and his friends are just trying to get on with their lives and deal with all the real world issues they face such as alcoholic parents, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and the death of siblings.
What’s brilliantly funny and smart is that Ness heads each chapter with a short summary of what the chapters would contain if this were a standard young adult fantasy novel. It lists how the indie kids get swept up into the background’s dramatic fantastical tale with powerful amulets and romantic trysts with immortal princes, but then the actual chapter contains details of work shifts Mikey takes at the restaurant where he’s a waiter or taking his little sister to a popular boy band’s concert. I enjoyed how the stories ran in parallel to each other where Ness pokes gentle fun at the fantasy genre and satirizes the grandiose self-centredness of the indie kid characters striving to become heroes.
Ness has a great knack for describing the intense feelings which harangue teenagers the most: all the insecurity, patches of cynicism, overflowing passion and boredom of young adulthood. At one point Mikey states “I felt like I was waiting for something to happen. Which has to be the worst part of being young. So many of your decisions aren’t yours; they’re made by other people.” Who hasn’t felt this frustration at the tedium of waiting for change and indignation at some stage of their teenage years? Even many years later I can still recall decisions being made on my behalf when I knew there were better options for me, but I wasn’t allowed to make my own choices. What’s more there is an indignant sense of knowing you’re being seen by older people as just a teen when you have more awareness than they think you have. There is a particularly heartbreaking scene of self-exploration between Mikey and his therapist. This novel describes so well the intelligence and sensitivity of teenagers, but also their fragility and naivety.
Another thing I particularly admire about Ness is the way he portrays the ambiguous sexuality of his narrator. Mikey casually wonders at a couple of points if he might be partly gay as his best friend Jared is gay. They’ve “messed around” and have strong feelings of friendship towards each other. However, all of Mikey’s sexual fantasies and romantic yearnings are towards girls so he reasons he probably isn’t. What’s refreshing is his complete openness and natural disinclination to label himself as anything. Equally, sporty Jared (who turns out to be a divinely talented person that prefers to be ordinary) harbours nothing but feelings of friendship towards Mikey whilst struggling with his own private burgeoning sexuality which he finds difficult to share.
The overriding feeling this wonderful novel gives is that it is okay to be ordinary. It’s okay not to have everything figured out and to stumble back while you are trying to move forward. One of the characters sums it up best when he declares: “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.”
The supernatural is ironically made into something so ordinary that what’s more compelling are the domestic struggles of these teens making the tricky transition into adulthood. “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” is a brilliantly constructed novel that is intelligently and straightforwardly written with humour, wit and a tremendous amount of heart. I wish I had Mikey around to look up to when I was teenager rather than vampires or goblin-fighters.