Patrick Ness’s inner teenager is strong – something the twice-Carnegie-winning author used to great effect in his outstanding Chaos Walking trilogy and, more recently, in his foray into the afterlife, More Than This. In his latest, more playful YA novel, Ness introduces us to Mikey, an anxious 17-year-old whose supple tone – at once wry, perceptive and intimate – keeps the pages turning. Mikey worries about the things everyone on the verge of adulthood worries about: love, relationships, sex, popularity, parents, the future, not to mention what it all means.
He has a lot on his plate: his father is a drunk; an eating disorder nearly killed his sister; his mother is preoccupied with work; his grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease; his feelings for his best friend Jared and the beautiful Henna confuse him. No wonder he struggles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But as if this weren’t enough, in Ness’s alternative world, Mikey also has the “Immortals” to contend with. He is hoping that the gods won’t blow up his school – again – or that if they do, they’ll at least wait until he’s graduated.
By turns hilarious and poignant, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a novel that requires you to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. In a narrative that features zombie deer, a demigod of cats and mountain lions, and mysterious pillars of blue light, Ness clearly has enormous fun with the fantasy tropes beloved of his audience. It is not straight satire, although there are satirical elements, his principal aim being to turn the ubiquitous “Chosen One” meme on its head. He neither denigrates nor condescendsrather, he constructs a story that puts “the chosen ones” in their place, consigning them, literally, to the margins of the action.
“The indie kids, huh? You’ve got them at your school, too. That group with the cool-geek haircuts […] who end up being the Chosen One when the vampires come calling […] They’ve always got some story going on that they’re heroes of. The rest of us just have to live here.”
The running joke is that while diverse paranormal manifestations – while gods, vampires, soul-eating ghosts and so forth occasionally walk among us, the lives of regular mortals play out centre stage, as vital and fascinating as anything that might happen to the Immortals. The epic stuff mostly takes place in the wings, wreaking collateral damage here and there, but (other than the odd killing) it is nothing that the cool indie kids can’t handle. Ness achieves this by subverting the chapter summary familiar from period novels, confining the travails of the chosen ones to a bare outline while the body of the chapter is devoted to the more earthly concerns of Mikey and those he loves.
As Jared says: “Not everyone has to be the god who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can … trying to make their lives better, loving people properly.”
The story of Mikey’s tentative steps towards maturity is affecting, while Ness’s insightful portrayal of his wide-ranging anxiety taps straight into many teenagers’ uncertainty about who they are and what the future holds for them. “We share our craziness, our neuroses,” says Mikey. “And it feels like love.” In this smart, funny and entertaining novel, Ness, who is never afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, successfully challenges the notion that real life is elsewhere.
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