A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life, Robert McGill (Coach House Books 978-1-55245-444-2, $21.95, 220pp, tp) June 2022.
Content warning: The following review contains multiple references to self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Robert McGill’s new novel, A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life, has a doozy of a premise. What if people could be flat-packed into boxes like cheaply made furniture? It’s the sort of gloriously gonzo “Big Idea” that lends itself to a satirical story about the ills of late-stage capitalism and the commodification of every aspect of our lives. That’s not the direction McGill takes, though. Instead, he presents us with a thoughtful, provocative novel about mental health and the harm inflicted by an unquestioning loyalty to family.
Reagan is seriously considering taking her own life. She is in near-constant pain due to a track-and-field stress fracture that won’t heal, she’s been rejected by every college she’s applied for, and she recently broke up with her girlfriend, Lucinda. “There was no Hail Mary left or last ditch,” Reagan tells us. “Just misery on misery.” Rather than end things via conventional means, Reagan orders a flatpack person on the Dark Web. They originate from Eastern Europe, where the only “cure” to a plague – the dreaded worm – is to deflate the human body, fill it with a noxious green fluid, and then send the resultant flatpack to North America. For several years, they were all the rage, walking, talking tabula rasas for those seeking a companion, a helper, a servant. That is until the discovery that flatpacks seep a poisonous gas with a tendency to kill the owner. Although they were ordered to be destroyed, some survived the cull, with one of those flatpacks now sitting in Reagan’s lounge room: “tubular and wrapped in clear plastic, like a chub of ground beef.” Once inflated, it should take a few days for the gas to kill Reagan, providing a euphoric buzz as it rots her brain. But after 24 hours, not only does Reagan feel fine, but her new housemate, answering to the name Ülle, is beginning to recall snippets of her past as she searches the internet for someone called Jari. If that’s not disconcerting enough, a second flatpack person, a male, that Reagan most definitely did not order, is rolled out on the dining room table, ready to have life blown into him.
The novel switches between Reagan’s story, set in near-future Canada, and the tale of Ülle and Jari (written as a letter to “little one”) that takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe in the recent past. Given the heaviness of the subject matter – starting with the novel’s opening line: “Reagan decided that living wasn’t for her, maybe” – the chapters involving Reagan’s adventure with the flatpacks are written with a surprisingly light touch. That’s not to say that McGill underplays Reagan’s deep depression and suicidal ideation – we’re regularly reminded of why she’s decided to end her life – but the early scenes involving Ülle’s birth (she calls Reagan “Mama”) are both tender and funny. Similarly, there’s a farcical quality to Reagan’s building frustration at not dying while at the same time caring for multiple flatpacks and a nosey ex-boyfriend desperate to know why she won’t leave her house. Much grimmer in tone are the chapters concerning Ülle’s and Jari’s burgeoning love story. Here we learn of the horror and destruction inflicted by the worm, leading to the death of Jari’s wife and children (Ülle was the family nanny) but also a country facing “Famine and lawlessness. Blackout for days. Hospitals made charnel houses. Packs of feral dogs roaming the boulevards, howling in the night like devils.”
As the plot unfurls, as Reagan finds herself – somewhat ironically – in a fight for her life, we see how steadfast loyalty to family can make a bad situation worse. For Reagan, it’s her devotion to her drug-addicted father, who, she’s compelled to chase after when he abruptly leaves the rehab centre he’s been admitted to. For Ülle, it’s helplessly watching her lover, Jari, follow the cruel, selfish orders of the family’s matriarch, Mormor, even when it’s clear he has the worm and his only hope is to be flatpacked. The empathy with which these relationships are portrayed makes up for the fact that McGill’s world-building is sketchy: Canada, for instance, seems fine, both economically and socially, despite the worm wiping out most of Eastern Europe. I also wasn’t convinced by the explanation as to why Reagan isn’t affected by the flatpacks; it felt a little hand-wavy, given the gas the flatpacks exude kills Reagan’s cat and renders her ex-boyfriend unconscious (after minimal exposure). These concerns are minor, though, when compared to the compassion McGill shows for his characters and for executing an ending that completely wrong-footed this reader.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review and more like it in the September 2022 issue of Locus.
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