Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin; Atria Books; 256 pages; $26
During a Zoom call with some writer friends, one mentioned a recent Publishers Weekly announcement about a novel set during the global pandemic. The general consensus was no one was ready to read fiction dealing with COVID-19. For most, the past year has been full of anxiety, loneliness, and emotional instability—not to mention some also facing our mortality and the brevity of life. But it’s precisely because Emily Austin’s debut novel, Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead, tackles these themes (full of humor and sans-pandemic) that makes it such a great 2021 summer read.
After getting into a car accident, twenty-seven-year-old Gilda goes to the emergency room, where she’s clearly a frequent flyer. This time there is actually something wrong with her—she’s broken her arm—but Gilda asserts she’s fine and more concerned she has a vitamin deficiency. After a panic attack, she decides to check out an ad for mental health support. But when she arrives at the address, it’s a Catholic church and the priest thinks she’s there for a job. Gilda is a gay atheist, but is also broke after losing her bookstore job, so she becomes the new church receptionist. Gilda then tries juggling her concerns over her brother’s alcoholism, trying to maintain her relationship with the woman she’s seeing, and a fake persona as a good straight Catholic girl, all while being preoccupied with death and solving the mystery of how the former church receptionist died.
The novel is pieced together in snippets—memories, conversations, and scenes—but the seemingly unrelated narrative arcs tie together and the story builds to a compelling, if a bit outlandish, climax. But outlandish works here. Throughout the novel, Gilda points out the absurdity of life—things like marriage, religion, and our bodies. Her insights are often morbid, but hilarious:
It turns out the crackers I stole are the body of Christ. After eating more than half the bag, I googled the cracker brand and learned that I paired marble Crack Barrel cheese with God’s transubstantiated body. I
had originally googled the crackers so I could leave them a review. I planned to write: BORING. Whoever
created these is unimaginative. These crackers are tasteless and bland.
One aspect of anxiety is noticing what others see, but don’t zero in on. Anxiety can make you hyper-focused on details and Austin plays with this facet throughout the novel with her signature brand of humor:
I read the posters plastered on the wall to distract myself from the fact that every passing moment brings me closer to my ultimate destination. (Death.)
One poster is titled: THE HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS! The odd use of an exclamation mark is what drew
my eye. The model hired to pose for the poster is grinning so aggressively that I can see every single one of
her enormous teeth. I am staring into her beaming eyes, wondering how I too can achieve happiness. Does
living a life unburdened by the fear of catching HPV result in that level of euphoria? If so, shoot me up.
Despite what becomes a significant plot, Austin’s debut is indeed character-driven. Or, some could argue, anxiety-driven. But like anyone battling mental illness, Gilda is not her anxiety, though it tends to run the show. Except it’s in this intersection of her symptoms and her personality that her character is revealed:
Sometimes I fixate on how disgusting humans are. I think about how we do things like litter and invent nuclear bombs. I think about racism, war, rape, child abuse, and climate change. I think about how gross people are. I think about public washrooms, armpits, and about all of our dirty hands. I think about how infection and disease are spread. I think about how every human has a butt, and about how disgusting that is.
Other times I fixate on how endearing people are. We sleep on soft surfaces; we like to be cozy. When I see cats cuddled up on pillows, I find it sweet; we are like that too. We like to eat cookies and smell flowers. We wear mittens and hats. We visit our families even when we’re old. We like to pet dogs. We laugh; we make involuntary sounds when we find things funny. Laughing is adorable, if you really think about it.
Because the novel is so character-driven, the plot almost sneaks up unexpectedly, which makes the pacing a little wonky, though not vexingly so. While the ending comes a bit abruptly, Gilda’s journey feels genuine. We see what Gilda cannot: despite her constant mishaps and sometimes devastating mistakes, she is a good person. Her imperfections and neuroses are relatable, especially since the very things she’s wrestling with internally—loneliness, anxious thoughts, and trying to make sense out of the ridiculousness of life—are ones we’ve all dealt with on some level this past year. Packaged with plenty of humor and an off-beat plot, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is the kind of novel that’s perfect for summer—it’s smart without requiring too much brain power. Not a mindless read, yet an entertaining one.