review of Adam Silvera’s novel They Both Die at the End

This is the second novel I’ve read in the past couple months that contains the following pattern 1:

  1. A hero abuses another character for bad reasons.
  2. Later, we learn something about the victim (which the hero wasn’t aware of, as far as we know) that makes them an unsympathetic character.
  3. The hero’s bad behavior is then downplayed.

In this case, I’m referring to the protagonist Rufus viciously assaulting and nearly murdering Peck because Rufus’s girlfriend Aimee had left him for Peck. Rufus does recognize this was a shameful thing to do… but he never grasps the seriousness of it. When Peck tries to have Rufus arrested in spite of the fact that Rufus has gotten a Death-Cast alert and has less than a day to live, Rufus acts like that’s a completely reprehensible and unreasonable thing for Peck to do, and expects Aimee to see it as proof that Peck’s a loser she should break up with. Rufus’s attitude comes across as basically, ok geez I shouldn't have tried to kill you but why are you being such a little b**** about it??? And the book… seems to agree with him? It’s infuriating. Rufus should spend his whole day in jail, it’s completely reasonable for Peck to want him to, and Aimee is a jerk for getting mad at Peck over that, even if Peck does turn out to be a jerk too.

My other complaint: The dialogue feels very unnatural, and the slang seems off (would the same person really use “mad” to earnestly describe one thing as “mad peaceful” and another as “mad cruel”?). But I didn’t know how kids talked even when I was one, so ymmv.

What I liked most was the ending. Silvera nailed it. The last line is perfect.

And the premise is definitely interesting: a mysterious company somehow knows who all is going to die each day, and informs everyone each morning (though there’s no way to avert the deaths). Silvera sprinkles a few interesting ideas about the ramifications of this throughout the book. One character imagines writing a story where there’s also a company that tells you when and where you’ll be reincarnated; I’d like to read that book.

I’d be remiss not to contemplate the core question the novel poses: What would you do if you knew you were going to die today? The character Mateo pushes himself to have adventures, get outside his comfort zone, and try to have all the life experiences he's missed out on. That’s a reasonable response, but I don’t think it’s the only reasonable response, and it’s not the one I’m most drawn to. There's no prize for checking items off a list of Major Life Milestones—no prize except the joy those experiences bring in the moment (which is valuable, don’t get me wrong!), and whatever future good experiences they lead to. If I'm dying the same day, the second half of that prize is radically diminished: there will be little opportunity for me to enjoy the memories of whatever I do or to suffer remorse for whatever I don't do. For me that reduces the relative value of self-focused activities compared with other-focused activities, like: having as many conversations with as many of the people who want to talk to me as possible; creating moments with them that they might look back on as meaningful; trying to dispose of my possessions in beneficial ways. (Of course, what I’d really do is very difficult to predict without actually being in that situation.)

Like the author, I sympathize with the character Mateo; as a teenager I let fear hold me back from a lot of things2. But for me, the motivation to “get out … and live” is not only the possibility that my time may be short, but also the possibility that my time may be long. If I fall into a rut where my typical day is unhappy, I could have ten to twenty thousand unhappy days ahead of me to suffer through.

Anyway, here’s a nice quote:

…affection from millions and intimacy from that one special person are completely different beasts.

  1. The other being The Spare Man (review). ↩︎
  2. Though in my case it was never fear of dying prematurely, but rather fear of rejection or embarrassment or sin. When I was religious, I wasn’t scared of death, because I expected to go to heaven afterward. Since I’ve stopped being religious, I’m not scared of death, because I expect to be free of all suffering and fear and regret afterward. Don DeLillo had a character in White Noise say, “We all fear death to some extent. Those who claim otherwise are lying to themselves. Shallow people.” But personally it’s all the stuff we’re forced to endure while we’re alive that I find truly terrifying. ↩︎