In her essay "Fireworks and Burnt Toast" (The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara L. Masih, 2009), Vanessa Gebbie characterizes the moment a reader finishes a piece of flash fiction as the launching of a rocket. Afterwards, she says, "in the reader's head are connections, pictures, discoveries, memories, sadnesses, understandings, anger, empathy . . . you carry on. The list will be as long as there are readers, because the story was a door into a larger space."
Though Daryl Gregory's We Are All Completely Fine is not a piece of flash—indeed, it's a novella, clocking in at just over 180 pages—it is a horror story about pieces, and itself seems to be a piece of something larger (the aforementioned door, perhaps, or at the very least a window).
A group of people—each a survivor of at least one terrible, inexplicable trauma—comes together for group therapy sessions, led by a psychotherapist who believes the seemingly unbelievable supernatural bent of their stories. There's Stan, an elderly man whose claim to fame is having been partially eaten by cannibal serial killers in the seventies; Greta, who never speaks and bears an intricate web of scars all over her body; Barbara, a middle-aged mother and survivor of a serial mutilator who carved scrimshaw-style into her teenage bones; Harrison, a monster-fighting hero whose glory days have been lightly fictionalized and whose judgment masks his insomnia; and Martin, a teenager who seems to be addled by his immersive, augmented reality gaming glasses but is actually haunted by something much deeper. They are all victims of specific, seemingly unrelated ordeals, whose accounts have been dismissed or minimized by other people, and sometimes by themselves.
They clash immediately on the page. Stan won't stop talking, Greta won't talk at all, Martin won't take off his glasses, and everyone tenses like they're about to be hit. As they continue to meet week after week, their stories begin to emerge. Each person's story hints at something much larger—their own pasts, their own worlds, even their own books—and soon begin to connect to one another. It isn't long before the complexities of the group manifest outside of their intimate circle, and violence strikes, and strikes again.
Certain members' stories become more illuminated than others. Harrison largely remains in the shadows—a supernatural hunter who's tangled with some of the creatures his groupmates have faced—and seems to primarily function as a way to (without fanfare) acknowledge the reality of their experiences. The fact that some of these tangles have been made into books and terrible TV movies without his consent is interesting, though underexplored. Martin's story too feels incomplete, and Stan, though his personal story is horrific in detail, seems to function mostly as comic relief: bellyaching, quipping, attention-hoarding, and gun-slinging in turn. These last two characters seem the most interesting when they are incongruously thrown together—Martin is forced to live in Stan's house to avoid homelessness—and Odd Couple-style humor ensues.
The characters who emerge most fully—whose backgrounds are given heft—are Barbara and Greta. Greta is the survivor of an all-female cult, whose well-earned misandry ended in a massive fire that killed all members besides her. Before their deaths, however, they spent Greta's entire life performing elaborate scarification on her skin, creating the pattern that lurks beneath her long sleeves. Barbara floats through her days with her husband and sons, leading a private life in an apartment where she struggles to paint and lingers in the bathtub with a mirror suspended above it, observing her body and thinking about the man who once cut her open and carved something into her bones—"I left you a message," he promised, before leaving her—something MRIs and X-rays will not reveal. The tension between these characters is palpable: Greta's scars are obvious, and when she eventually talks about them, almost a point of pride. Barbara's relationship with her own body is much more complicated. "Greta was so lucky," Barabara thinks while lying in the bathtub. "What had been done to her was right there, written where anyone could see" (p. 37). This relationship echoes many of We Are All Completely Fine's motifs: what is hidden, what is revealed, and what is connected. (The image of a spiderweb surfaces several times, not by accident.)
There also seems to be a Lovecraftian haze floating over We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison occasionally refers to Dunnsmouth, the site of a supernatural event so large it mimicked a hurricane, and it seems to be a direct nod to fictionalized Massachusetts town in Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), even echoing its theme of the uncertainty of one's own sanity.
On, then, to We Are All Completely Fine's most interesting choice: Each chapter begins in the collective first person—we, us—and then dives into the point of view of a different character. "We had been so careful with her, in meeting after meeting, because we believe her to be the most vulnerable of us" (p. 53), one starts. "We were not yet a fully functioning group" (p. 69), confesses another. Again: "We were a team of professional insomniacs" (p. 148). In these moments, the voices are indistinguishable from one another, a chorus. This pleasurable stylistic gesture serves a fascinating purpose—creating a group mind that throbs and thinks above all of them, a collective voice that bookends their individual stories. It syncs beautifully with the plot, and also speaks to a larger point about group therapy, about the amalgamation of experiences. And as the plot progresses, the identity of the we becomes a crucial thing indeed:
We. Such a slippery little pronoun. Who is in and who is out? If we say "We lost one of us," the number included in the pronoun changes in midsentence. To Martin the word was like a variable in a computer program, a running counter that had a different value depending on when you looked at it. But the problem was more difficult than that; the definition depended on who was doing the counting. (p. 128)
Ultimately, We Are All Completely Fine is a tight, fast read that skims a little too lightly over its own plot. I was taken with some of these characters and almost all of their stories, but this novella felt slight. I can't voice all of my complaints without giving away some major plot turns, but I do feel like the collective voice of the group could have been used to greater effect—to reveal more about these characters. In a way, this slightness reproduces life—after all, there is no way to know the complete stories of the people around you, whether they're family or coworkers or members of your therapy group. You only ever get a fraction of their experience. We are strangers to everybody.
But the best fiction isn't the experience of reality reproduced; it's verisimilitude. I would have comfortably believed these characters with more of their stories unveiled—and I would have felt more satisfied at the book's conclusion. When it was over, I still felt like I was peeking through a peephole. It is not often I suggest a book should be longer than it is—indeed, I find that I am usually suggesting to the opposite—but I would have welcome a three-hundred page exploration of these people, their monsters, and ours.
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, AGNI, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Richard Yates Short Story Prize in 2011 and a Millay Colony for the Arts residency in 2014, and she is the 2014-2015 CINTAS Foundation Fellow. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.
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