And again I find myself sitting on the fence. This time around: was it a respectful usage of personal problems, i.e. something that raises awareness about contemporary psycho-sociological issues? Or just a means to a way, i.e. an inappropriate usage of said personal issues to achieve commercial success? But I get ahead of myself. It’s best I describe the things I do know about Daryl Gregory’s 2014 We Are All Completely Fine, first.
We Are All Completely Fine outlays the mental and social issues of five people dealing with trauma in engaging, generally realistic (if not extreme) fashion. A video game channeled through his sunglasses, a teenage boy has grown dependent on the zombies and post-apocalyptic background details the game overlays upon his view of the world. An elderly man with hoarding problems was de-limbed by a family of cannibals and now lives in resentment in a wheelchair. Images carved on her bones, a woman is haunted by a scrimshander—a bone etcher. A writer wrestles with demons not only in his fiction, but in his real world, as well. And a young woman with ornamental scars covering her body, attempts to deal with her past in a cult. Meeting once per week in group session, the five slowly open themselves up, revealing their backstories to the others, all the while the trouble from their traumatic pasts leaks through into the real world.
On a word by word basis, We Are All Completely Fine is highly readable. Gregory does a great job not only describing events, but capturing a lot of contemporary society’s post-post-postmodern angst and paranoia; the psychological issues the characters are dealing with come straight from 21 st century western media. Almost all are turned up one notch beyond realism toward sensationalism, but it’s fiction, and individually, the events have probably happened at some time in history. The slow reveal, leading to the intense climax, and into the denouement, really grab the reader.
Where the novella goes astray is in its usage of the setup. Approaching the narrative fork in the road (How do I resolve the character’s stories I’ve created: in meaningful or pulp fashion?), Gregory chooses pulp. With this decision, the novella veers from potentially relevant to just more entertaining, purposeless horror. The empathy one has for the five people quickly fades once they realize they are part of a fabulation intent on inducing discomfort and fear in the reader rather any sort personal of resolution; it’s just an intrusion of the supernatural into the real world. Yawn…
I realize for some readers Gregory’s decision to go the (irrelevant) horror route is a positive one. There are those who don’t want fiction to intrude upon their real world; they want the cheap thrills of fear. Thus, if you are such a reader, take my critique as a recommendation; Gregory wrote an engaging horror story, and you can stop reading this review now as I take the critique one degree further.
We thus go back to the fence: do Gregory’s sympathies truly exist with his characters and the real-world issues they are dealing with? Or has he simply taken advantage of them to sell a story? I can’t help but think the latter given We Are All Completely Fine arcs from relevant to irrelevant. From another perspective: if I were to write about a person suffering from down syndrome, and then in the course of the story parallel their suffering to demons with no purpose beyond sensationalism, e.g. allegorical value, etc., what would you think? Would you think me empathetic—that I was offering some kind of artistic salve to those dealing with down syndrome? Or that I was just trying to make a buck?
I’ll let you read the novella for yourself... and if I missed something - that indeed the story shows compassion to the issues it utilizes - do inform me.