Title: The rest of us just live here
Author: Patrick Ness
Genre: family/mental health/psychological
Review: Patrick Ness’ book The Rest of Just Live Here turned out to be completely different from what I expected – but in a good way. This YA follows the narrator, Mikey, his friends, and his family as they try to get through their last months of high school. This is a story about all the kids in high school who are not Scoobies, Gryffindors, Cullens, or Chosen Ones. There is some romance, but the aspect of this book that is probably going to be of most interest to the Bitchery is its compassionate and insightful treatment of mental illness.
Mikey lives in a small town surrounded by woods. In every generation, there’s some weird supernatural conflict, but most people are never a part of it. Those who are part of the weird happenings are called indie kids. They pretty much stick together. Everyone else, um, just lives there. Basically, think of all the extras in Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer who are just going to their lockers to get books so they can pass their finals. Sometimes they are menaced by bad things or caught up in an attack on prom, but for the most part, they stay firmly in the background of events and they stay as oblivious as they can manage to be. This book is entirely about the regular kids who live their lives in the background of huge, epic events that they know very little about.
Mikey struggles with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. In the past, he had gotten treatment and gotten better, but with the pressure of graduation approaching he’s getting “stuck in loops” again. There are a ton of stories happening in the background of Mikey’s story. His friends all have their own stories happening, some of which are only hinted at. We know what’s happening with Mikey’s friends because of things they say to him, and all these stories are pretty intense. His sister is battling anorexia, his best friend is gay and also is “three-quarters Jewish, one-quarter god”) and his long-time crush is supposed to join her missionary parents on a trip to the Central African Republic after graduation, which she’s not happy about.
The other story within a story is the story of the indie kids. Mikey occasionally sees something that involves the indie kids, but most of their story is hinted at in italics in the beginning of each chapter. For instance, Chapter One begins,
“Chapter the First, in which the messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate.”
We can’t follow the whole story through these vignettes, but we can get the general shape of it. The indie kids are trying to stop some kind of massive hostile takeover of our world, but they don’t try to involve anyone else and no one else wants to be involved.
The regular people of the world seem sad that indie kids die a lot, and sometimes something happens that makes them feel afraid or that causes them to get hurt. But for the most part, it’s accepted that the indie kids have their own story, and regular people stay out of it and never discuss it. One thing that’s interesting about the book is that for the most part, it doesn’t present this approach as cowardice. Instead, it uses the framework as a way to show that real, mundane life is genuinely, legitimately difficult and scary:
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 things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while they know that the world makes no sense but they’re trying to find a way to be happy anyway.
From this point on, I’m going to discuss the book’s treatment of mental illness, in a spoilery way. Mikey has anxiety, which manifests as obsessive-compulsive disorder, which primarily manifests as counting (he counts the corners of things) and hand washing. Eventually, there’s an entire chapter in which he meets with a therapist. I restrained myself from quoting the entire chapter, but I’m gonna quote a ton of it because it’s so important, not just in the context of the book, but for everyone to hear. The first speaker is the therapist and the other speaker is Mikey (Michael).
“Michael, do you think cancer is a moral failing?
What kind of cancer?
Don’t play. You know what I mean. Do you think a woman who gets ovarian cancer is morally responsible for it?
Do you think a child born with spinal bifida or cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy is at fault for their condition?
No, but –
Then why in heaven’s name are you responsible for your anxiety?
Because it’s a feeling, not a tumor.
Are you sure?
You think I have a tumor?
No, no, no, no, no, no. Not what I meant. A feeling is pride in your sister. A feeling is fear at the concert that makes you act. A feeling is embarrassment or shame. A feeling may or may not be true, but you still feel it.
And anxiety is a tumor on your feelings?
Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for it’s consequences; you’re responsible for treating it. But Michael, you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.
You realize I’m now going to obsess over having a tumor.”
I’m sorry. Ill-chosen words. But if you’re going to obsess about something, obsess about your obsession being a treatable disorder. Obsess about it not being a failure of something you’ve done or something you didn’t do or some intrinsic value as a person that you fail to have. Medication will address the anxiety, not get rid of it, but reduce it to a manageable level, maybe even the same level as other people so that – and here’s the key thing-we can talk about it.
My initial reaction to this chapter was that it was absolutely amazing and it made me cry. My second was to think that while it’s an awesome chapter, it derails the plot – all of a sudden all the action stops and we are just sitting in this office. Then I realized that this, Mikey’s battle with anxiety and OCD,is the plot. I kept thinking that at some point our heroes would join the indie kids in their fight because I was still thinking of this book as one which is ultimately about the indie kids’ story. But it it’s actually about surviving and thriving in a mundane life, and getting help for the things that require help, and supporting your friends and family and letting them support you. This therapist visit is like the climactic battle in a war movie, and Mikey wins, not because he is magically cured but because he figures out that it’s OK for him to deal with his anxiety as an on-going medical issue. By the way, the question of a magical cure does come up, but that’s something I won’t spoil.
At first this book reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry Onbecause it’s another book that deconstructs the “Chosen One” trope. However, in Rowell’s book, Simon actually is the chosen one, and all the characters are active participants in a massive drama. It also reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Zeppo,” which follows a night in the life of Xander. Xander is the only one of Buffy’s friends (“The Scoobies”) who lacks a specific power, skill, or role, and he’s left out of that apocalypse of the week (they send him to get donuts). However, in that episode, Xander has his own action battle to conduct, and he saves the day in an unrecognized but still actively heroic way.
In this book, our heroes never get very caught up in the indie kids’ crisis except during some very scary moments where they are caught in the crossfire. It’s simply not about being heroic in that sense. Instead, it’s about the fact that,
Sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.
This is a truly remarkable book. I loved the characters and their relationships. I loved the unexpected yet completely realistic outcome of Mikey’s crush on Henna. I loved the tension between the teens and the adults. Of course, I adored the way the book talks about anxiety. But I have a confession – I totally want to read the indie kid version now, even though I know how it ends.
Buy it here:
Also see: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness