September 14, 2017
(+++) GETTING DEAD AND GETTING OVER IT
They Both Die at the End. By Adam Silvera. HarperTeen. $17.99.
Graveyard Shakes. By Laura Terry. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Tear-jerking to the point of being laughable, melodramatic to the point of being utterly undramatic, Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End is pathetically desperate to be with-it and to make IMPORTANT POINTS about, you know, life and death and relationships and family and all that stuff. Written with Hollywood-cinematic storytelling flair, which means the whole book is essentially a series of unbelievable coincidences and politically correct handling of characters, They Both Die at the End tries so hard to appeal to teenage readers that its manifest absurdities are almost forgivable. Silvera really, really wants to be taken seriously, you know? So here’s the plot: there’s an outfit called Death-Cast, a kind of telemarketing service for people’s last days, that has bored, low-level, mistake-prone workers call random people (or maybe not random, because how many people die every day and how many phone calls can telemarketers, real live ones rather than robocallers, actually make?) and tells them they will die that day. Death-Cast (which also, natch, has a Web site) is always right, never makes mistakes, and exactly what it is and how it knows and where it gets the information and why it does all this is never even hinted at because, you know, this is an important book where the focus is “what would you do if you knew you only had one day to live?” Silvera apparently thinks that’s an original idea. But since it isn’t original, even in the slightest, Silvera has to conjure up things to make it seem original. So in addition to Death-Cast itself, there is the Last Friend app that Deckers (those who got the call) can use to connect with some random someone with whom to spend their last day, or however much of the 24 hours they actually get, which either Death-Cast doesn’t know or doesn’t bother to tell them, because, you see…well, just because. So this is the story of two Deckers named Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio who meet through the app and fall in love for the last time (it is apparently important to Silvera that the boys be gay/bisexual, although he never says why). The two teens are of course super-different but find they have a deeper connection somehow, not spiritually (there is nothing the slightest bit spiritual here) but in their inmost personalities, which have been damaged in different ways but which are ultimately similar because that is, like, you know, the human condition and all that. The one thing Silvera does well here, among all the ones he does badly, is to show the monumentally coincidental ways in which the things Mateo and Rufus do affect people they do not know and never will. For example, there is Deirdre, who “works at Make-a-Moment, where she’s charging Deckers for thrills and fake experiences, fake memories,” and who is about to jump to her own death when she sees the boys (whom she does not know) riding on a bicycle on the street below – so she “makes the right decision and lives.” Ah, yes, “this day has some miracles” – yes, Silvera actually writes that, putting the words in Mateo’s part of the multifaceted narration, specifically in the chapter where Mateo and Rufus go to Clint’s Graveyard, a place for Deckers where the woman welcoming people and checking their IDs says, “Sorry to lose you,” the same words the Death-Cast telemarketers use on their calls. Then there is Dalma Young, whose chapter, like many others, begins with, “Death-Cast did not call Dalma Young [or whoever] because she isn’t dying today.” Dalma is the creator of the Last Friend app and is “in town meeting with developers from both Twitter and Facebook,” which apparently have not yet snapped up this spectacular enhancement of life in a world where a shadowy unknown organization is fully aware of everybody’s death day. Anyway, Dalma sees two teen boys – Mateo and Rufus, of course – run past her, and that makes her contemplate what her own Last Message would be if (when?) she gets the Death-Cast call. You know, when you think about it, Romeo and Juliet could also have been titled They Both Die at the End. But Shakespeare’s work, unlike Silvera’s, has warmth, depth, style, meaning, sensitivity, and an understanding of the human condition.
Silvera’s work barely squeaks into a (+++) rating by virtue of skillful writing and pacing and some clever use of its omnipresent coincidences. Laura Terry’s graphic novel, Graveyard Shakes, lacks the narrative intensity and writing quality of They Both Die at the End but is, all in all, a better book – albeit for preteens and young teens rather than for the older teenagers targeted by Silvera. Terry takes some of the tropes of ghost stories and boarding-school stories and kids-who-don’t-fit-in stories and weaves them together into an attractive mixture that hangs together better than might be expected from its uneasy mix of plot elements. The story is set at tony Bexley Academy, where home-schooled farm girls Victoria (the older, slim, organized, wants-to-fit-in one) and Katia (the younger, chunky, messy, doesn’t-care-what-anyone-thinks one) have been admitted on scholarship. Katia refers to the other students, all of whom are wealthy and stuck up, as “sparkly show ponies,” and makes up a song about them that she sings, loudly in the cafeteria, resulting in humiliation to Victoria, who has already been denigrated for wearing her favorite tasseled hat. But readers already know something is odd before this scene occurs, because there is a prologue in which Little Ghost, the ghost of a small boy, flies through the earth beneath a graveyard and encounters one of those traditional mad-scientist/magician types, a man named Nikola, who is keeping his son, Modie, alive by stealing lives from other children – one every 13 years. It is clear that these two unrelated stories will come together soon enough, and they do. Victoria tries out for soccer and it goes badly. Katia plays piano in a chamber-orchestra tryout for which Victoria has signed her up, and she turns out to be enormously talented; but the other kids will not accept her because of her appearance and mannerisms (“she does look pretty weird” and “you flop around like an angry squid when you play” are two of the comments). Katia storms out of the audition, tells Victoria she has no intention of fitting in, and ends up in a real storm – a snowstorm. And that leads to her being captured by the evil Nikola and his three ghost henchmen (the leader being actually and improbably named Hench), since it is now time to steal another child’s life to prevent Modie from “fading.” While none of the story makes a lick of sense, it is nicely managed by Terry and drawn in an attractive variety of styles and colors – deeper reds and ochres contrasting with blues to highlight the differences between moods and locations, for example. Victoria’s search for the missing Katia takes her to the graveyard, where she encounters Little Ghost and, after getting over her fright, joins forces with him to rescue Katia. Modie eventually becomes a ghost himself – as he has wanted to do for a long time, being stopped from passing on only by his fanatical father. Modie and Little Ghost end up interacting with a band that Katia forms (she plays a keyboard) as the living kids rehearse in the graveyard, with Victoria watching. Nikola departs to “try to make up for the terrible things I’ve done,” leaving Modie with Little Ghost and the living girls, and everything ends reasonably cheerfully. There is nothing deep, and nothing that tries to be deep, in Graveyard Shakes, but Terry does a nice job of gently raising issues of conformity (an issue for Little Ghost as well as for Victoria and Katia) and how one shows love (Nikola with Modie and Victoria with Katia are both misguided, albeit in different ways). The fact that the messages here are soft-pedaled rather than used as cudgels to insist on their importance is scarcely a flaw in this graphic novel – indeed, it is a big plus, allowing the book to come across as entertainment with some depth rather than as a hard-edged, self-important lecture on what is supposed to be meaningful in life.