On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today.
Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.Amazon
So… last week’s book was Song of Achilles, and as a joke when my daughter asked me about it I said, “It’s really good even though I know that they both die at the end…”
Which, yeah. Greek tragedy and all.
So then it was time for the next Gay Novel… because, in the month of June, I went out of my way to read #LGBTQ books for #Pride and at one point I had made myself a stack of books that fit that category and was just working my way down the stack… and this was the next book.
Why THIS Book?
The lists I have found while trying to find MALE gay books have been less than impressive. I am not sure why. I know statistically women read more than men when it comes to novels, but this just seems really out of wack. (Maybe a future blog post…)
Anyway. I had already read many of the books on the “male gay novel” lists I was seeing online (Read Aristotle and Dante, no review but I remember it being okay. Read Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda -and watched the movie and talked about them both on my podcast, Read Call Me By Your Name… ok, that’s a lie. I gave up around 30% because I didn’t like the writing style)… and I wanted something new (at least to me) so at one point I bought a few and then placed them face down in a stack so I could just read the next one without having to think and process and pick. And this optimistically titled novel is going to be my Achilles chaser.
Atmosphere / Writing Style
The book is set in contemporary times but with this one big difference… There is something called Death-Cast that calls to tell you that you are going to die on the day that you die. More on this in a second. Otherwise… it is modern-day (well, 2017, pre-covid) New York.
Another New York book, but this one gets exempted from my anti-New York book rant because it doesn’t matter that it is New York. It could just as easily have been in San Francisco or Dallas or even Fresno. New York is not a character in this book, it is a setting and it is fine… it keeps itself out of the spotlight. Thank goodness.
Anyway, Death-Cast. Society has had Death-Cast for a while so there are Death-Cast created differences between this world and our world. There are people called Deckers (the soon-to-die) and because capitalism is what it is, there are entertainment experiences for sale to these Deckers as well as apps and message boards and special hashtags… It is surreal. The blending of what we actually have in our world with the tweaks in this world because there is this one big change is really well done and makes the story really believable while keeping you slightly off-balance because there are several fundamental things that are different. It is extremely well done.
I spent zero time not believing that Death-Cast was real because the world that was built around this premise is so well fleshed out and authentic.
Tiny tangent/warning: I read the book the day after recording the episode of my podcast where we talked about the book and film Minority Report which also deals with the whole “you are fated to… die/commit murder” thing and so there is a chance that my brain is just a bit fried from thinking about predestination and fate and time paradoxes…)
Oooo boy. Ok. So we have two main characters (more on them in a sec) and we get first-person narration from each. They take turns telling us what is going on both in their heads and around them. Cool. BUT THEN… we get third-person omniscient narration about a whole slew of other secondary (and lower) characters. At first, I didn’t like this. I wanted to get back to the main story of Rufus and Mateo… but as the book went on I started to see the layers and overlapping ripples that each of these random people had with each other and our main characters. In the end, this chorus of other voices helped to flesh out the world as well as provide necessary information to the reader that the first-person narration of our two main characters just couldn’t do. It is a pretty big risk to play with narrative structure in this way, but Silvera obviously knew what he was doing because it became more than just clever writing and ended up being vital to the point of the book. Pin in that.
As I said, most of the time we are getting the interior monologue of either Mateo or Rufus and Silvera does a great job of making each of their voices distinct and authentic. They are fleshed out and real. They are fully formed and multi-dimensional. The slang seems legit and the motivations real.
I loved them both and I loved a few of the side characters we get introduced to as well.
Plot / Pacing
Once you buy in that these two know that they are going to die and have chosen to spend the day together, the rest is pretty easy to follow. The tension doesn’t come from IF but WHEN and HOW and… (sob) WHO FIRST? There are a few hurdles tossed up to create some rising and falling tension, but really this is a rushed and drawn-out goodbye to the world, to each other, and to the people that they will never get the chance to be. Yeah, I said both rushed and drawn out. I meant it. There is never enough time when you know that time is ticking away.
One thing that helped with the pacing is that there are timestamps all over this book. It centers us even as we, as readers, can tell how much of the book is left by the weight in our right hands. This might actually be a book better read on a Kindle where you can ignore the little percentage across the bottom telling you **exactly** how much time/life there is left.
I wasn’t prepared to like this book as much as I did. It is technically speculative fiction because of the Death-Cast but thankfully Silvera never tells us how or why Death-Cast works. We don’t see the inner workings. We know no more than the characters. We are unsettled and fearful just like they are. There are so many questions left unanswered… just like in real life when someone dies… all the potential, all the what-ifs, all the future is just… gone. The plot device of Death-Cast serves its purpose but is not the point of this book, and I really like that it stayed a tool but let the story be the story.
The point of this book is that we all die so we better do the work of living. And that we can touch the lives of others without ever really seeing those ripple effects… but just because we don’t see those ripple effects doesn’t detract from the importance of them. We will never know what effect we have on others and what mark we really leave on the world, but we can strive to do good and leave things (and people) better than how we found them. The end results don’t matter as much (because again we probably won’t see them). What matters is that we try without the expectation of knowing how it turns out. This is both comforting and really humbling.
The emphasis for the characters stays on the idea of time and living your life and the inherent tragedy of human mortality. The question of “what would you do if today was your last day” is taken to the logical and illogical extreme and the results are… so so tragic that it is painful to even think about.
Yea, I cried. Kinda a lot.
A year and a half ago, one of my closest friends died due to suicide. I often wonder if he knew that morning, that it was his last morning. I wonder if, during our last phone call, he thought “this is my last phone call with Kay.” I keep thinking that he must have made a mistake. Who would eat oatmeal as a last meal? Who would bother to make a to-do list on the day they are going to die but only do half of it? Who would make plans for three days in the future if they knew they wouldn’t be there?
I don’t have the answers and I know this is a tangent no one asked for, but this book hit me where I live, so to speak. Especially the bits where they talk about a parent getting the call for their child. I just… I just can’t even think about that.
The book manages to evoke crushing despair while still being a beautiful love story… because it is… it is a beautiful love story, not just between the two boys, but a love story about life and how we need to suck the joy from our lives with every damn breath we are privileged to get to take.
Is it better to know that you are going to die so you can say goodbye but then have to wait in a limbo place for it to happen and be constantly reminded about all the things you are not going to get to do… or is it better if death comes as a surprise and your end is maybe not full of angst? What about for those you leave behind?
There is no good answer. Thankfully this book isn’t about giving us Silvera’s answer, but more about making sure we really wrestle with the question.
Would I recommend it?
Yes… but carefully. I wouldn’t have been able to read it even a year ago. I am very glad I read it, and I might read it again someday, but it was hard to read with the shadow of so many COVID deaths hanging over my shoulder and the fact that one of these boys really really reminded me of my friend who didn’t get to/chose not to say goodbye.
And… just in case… Trevor Project… please… there are so many books to read and things to do…
OH.. one more one last thing. There is a trope in literature called “Bury Your Gays” that has to do with the fact that gay characters have to be punished for being gay by either having tragic lives, suffering, or -in a lot of cases- being dead by the end of the book/film. I LOVE that Silvera plays on that trope. It’s like… Ok… so yeah, they are gay (technically one of them is bi.. Yay bi representation!) and they will both die. But let’s focus more on the living part and the lives they touched. Let’s accept that death is the inevitable end and let you know about it via the title so that we can concentrate on other important aspects.
I just… I really really liked this book even though it made me ugly cry in public while wearing a mask.
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?