Review Monday: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY FINE by Darryl Gregory
A support group for survivors of paranormal trauma.
Sounds a bit trite, no? The gimmicky use of two popular topics. A trope.
In Daryl Gregory’s hands, not so much.
So, so, not so much.
Novellas are a tough form: longer than a short story and thus subject to more expectation in terms of character development and actual plot, but by virtue of being shorter they are necessarily both more dense and condensed. The easiest way to craft such a story is the much reviled info-dump method, resulting in a work that reads less like a story and more like an extended laundry list of traits and events. Fine for an outline, but not so much for a completed work. Much, much more difficult, in many ways, than writing a novel simply by virtue of having to kill more of your darlings and participate in the utterly ruthless culling of words crafted with care and desperate writer sweat.
Gregory nails it.
How, you ask?
He chooses a setting in which the organized layout of backstory makes perfect sense, converting what could be an info-dump into an active story. One of the main tasks of a support/therapy group is to give those who need it a forum in which to discuss events that brought them to where they are. One can’t affect change for the future without understanding the past. If that were Gregory’s only tool, We Are All Completely Fine would still feel like those notes you write yourself at stoplights so you don’t forget the creamer and tampons. Gregory, however, does it in such a way that the characters learn about one another in the same “real-time” as the reader; this draws the reader into the story, makes her an active rather than passive listener, an unseen but welcome member of the group rather than a voyeur.
Group and Individual Moments: We see each of the characters both in the group setting and in his or her own environment. They aren’t devices for the collective or cliched lone wolves. This gives each of them impressive depth even though each of the scenes is relatively short. More than hints, less than full exposition, Gregory allows the reader to fill in some gaps with his or her own imagination, another way he invites the reader to engage.
Switching back and forth between multiple first person POV voices is quite the task when one has 500 + pages to do it; Gregory does it several times in 180 pages and does it without causing the reader any confusion or giving the slightest bit of pause. It isn’t that his characters have vastly different diction or voices; they don’t and they.. well, don’t. One doesn’t necessarily know who the new speaker is immediately but there is no question when the speaker has changed. It’s a subtle shift, perhaps of cadence or punctuation, or some other minute detail I haven’t been able to identify even under the microscope of I-need-to-figure-out-how-he-did-this-so-maybe-given-several-decades-of-practice-I-could-partially-replicate-it desperation.
Plot Bombs are Well Placed, Effective, and Subtle in Their Misdirection: The first I saw coming in a vague sort of way, but when the moment arrived, I was blown away and a little overwhelmed because of the manner in which it was revealed, both horrific and reverant, their marriage powerful and affecting. The second… I thought that was going one way and it went another way entirely that left me comically agape and extremely satisfied.
Because I always have to pick some sort of nit, I could have done with a little more action. The big climax is crazy kinetic and overwhelming and intense and I could have done with a little more of it.
In all? 4.5 fingers on the hand of glory.
Go forth. Read.