In the moments before one dies, one's entire life supposedly flashes before one's eyes. It is also claimed that drowning is a peaceful death. The opening to More Than This, Patrick Ness's latest novel, suggests that this is far from the truth.
In fact it is a moot point as to whether the protagonist of More Than This actually drowns. In two and a half exquisitely drawn out pages, he is rolled by the waves, strength diminished by the cold water, then battered against the rocks, the bones of his body broken one by one, his lungs gradually filling with water, until finally his skull is fractured as the current throws him against the rocks and he dies.
The prologue suggests that even if a drowning teenager doesn't review his life in an instant, time is nonetheless subjectively altered. A brief moment becomes an eternity as a life is snuffed out. And after the terrible exactitude of that death, the "afterlife" seems, perhaps appropriately, to be a little fuzzy. The boy drifts now in time, confused as to whether or not he is dead. On the one hand, this might be some sort of religious experience—limbo, purgatory, oblivion. Or it might be, and Ness hints gently at such a possibility, a hospital, with the boy perhaps on life support.
Such is Ness's skill as a writer that in a couple of brief chapters he has laid out a wealth of possibilities for the rest of the novel. It might be an extended flashback: how did the boy come to be in the sea. Or, this might be an adventure in a life beyond the corporeal. Or even, given the way in which Ness stretches time, a dream, though this seems almost too conventional. In the space of a few pages, Ness has teasingly guided the reader through a series of genre death tropes, yet it is impossible to accept the boy's awakening, when it finally arrives, as anything but the real thing. Perhaps it is the presence of the weeds.
Every yard is as overgrown as this one. Some that had lawns are now sprouting fields of grass shoulder-high. The pavement in the road is cracked, too, with more weeds almost obscenely tall growing right out of the middle, a few approaching the status of trees. (p. 21)
It is hard to believe that an afterlife or a dream will have weeds, or dust, or dirt. That these are all present hints at a new possibility: that the boy is the only survivor of an unspecified apocalyptic event. Yet his experience continues to be strangely dreamlike, slow-moving, intensely detailed, as he explores. The reader begins to wonder just how long Ness can keep this up before fascination turns to boredom, and as if sensing that, Ness shifts gear. The boy suddenly recognizes the house as his former home, the one in England, before his mother moved to the U.S. to escape. For him at least, all is suddenly clear. "He's died, and woken up in his own, personal hell" (p. 29). Overcome by exhaustion, he collapses.
For the reader, though, there is suddenly a new strand of story, one that is obviously not part of the boy's current experience. Four friends decide to steal a figure from a neighbor's Christmas nativity display. From this . . . dream the boy finally retrieves his name, Seth. For the reader, the story's pattern is temporarily settled as Seth moves between a present in which he must figure out how to survive in a world where there is no power, the water supply is dodgy, and he must scavenge for food, and a then in which he had a family and friends, though the family seems to have been blighted by an unspoken tragedy involving his younger brother, and the friendships are uneasy, not least because Seth has fallen in love.
The present-day story has, as various commentators have noted, a distinct flavor of Robinson Crusoe about it. Seth adapts to his new surroundings and learns to make his way in them, before discovering that he is not alone in this place. What sets this apart from other similar stories is the sheer quality of Ness's prose, the precision with which he evokes each moment of discovery and understanding as Seth tries to work out what has happened to him. This becomes even more striking once Seth meets Tomasz and Regine. "Survivors" like himself, it is clear that they also remember their own deaths but each is reluctant to talk about it. The delicacy with which Ness sketches the tentative development of the friendship between the three is breathtaking. This delicacy is similarly in evidence as Seth recalls his own previous life as a teenager in a U.S. town, and his adventures with H, Gudmund, and Monica, Gudmund's girlfriend, culminating in the theft of a baby Jesus figure. Running through this is Seth’s gradual realization that he is gay, that he is in love with Gudmund, and that Gudmund has similar feelings for him.
All this would be enough in itself to make a story but Seth is determined to find out what is going on, and it is here that the story finally starts to creak. It has moved from possible afterlife to dream to post-apocalyptic survival but now moves towards a possible explanation that seems surprisingly formulaic after what has gone before. Or rather, it is not the idea that falters so much as the actual mechanics of the storytelling. Much hinges on the presence of the Driver, a humanoid robot apparently programmed to hunt down living humans, for reasons that are not immediately clear; it is almost all the creature does, and after a while the inevitability of its behavior begins to grate. However, its presence leads Seth to a revelation about his own situation, though by "revelation," I really mean "recourse to disappointingly banal trope." Obviously, to go much further would be to reveal the story's ending so here I must stop.
I was disappointed by the ending, I can't deny. Having, in the early part of the novel, opened up so many ways of accounting for the situation in which Seth finds himself, to then narrow it down to the one that seems on the one hand the most hackneyed, on the other the least plausible, seems baffling. And yet even in this there is a most teasing philosophical problem, but one which, irritatingly, Ness seems to edge around. Maybe there are more volumes to come (and if there were, I doubt I'd complain) but even if that is so, one could wish this novel hadn't so much ended as fizzled out when it promised such a grand display.
Nonetheless, despite its flaws, there is so much about this novel that deserves praise. It is genuinely a pleasure just to immerse oneself in the prose. Ness writes smoothly but never glibly. The craft is evident throughout but it is not ostentatious. Even when the plot falters, the prose continues to shine. There were moments when it reminded me of such things as Jan Mark's Divide and Rule (1979), which from me is high praise indeed. Although I became disappointed in the way the story eventually unfolded, and mourn for the lost possibilities of the early chapters, right to the novel's end Ness still made me care very much about three troubled characters trying to make sense of their situation.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is currently working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation. She also writes a regular review column for Weird Fiction Review.