Bette Adriaanse’s debut novel from Unnamed Press, Rus Like Everyone Else, establishes the author and artist as a creative force. Rus Like Everyone Else is thoughtful, intricately conceived, and an interesting philosophical take on time, how we view each other, and our own reality.
Rus Like Everyone Else begins with Rus, an abandoned man-child who has spent his life in a decrepit un-permitted apartment. Rus lacks basic skills that would have come from interaction with others over his 25 years. He begins to have problems when the government discovers his unpermitted home and demands back taxes. But Rus is not the focus of Rus Like Everyone Else. He is only one of myriad characters observed by an unnamed postal worker, who admits she knows more than the tenants along her route think she knows about them. She describes the compartmental lives she sees in the neighborhood, and reveals herself directly to the reader: “Behind that window sits a girl with a blond ponytail, looking back at you. That girl is me.”
Like the lives its narrator views through compartmentalized moments, the stories of the characters in Rus are revealed one bit at a time. Adriaanse writes in short chapters, each with a title that hints at what’s to follow. As the story unfolds and shifts in point of view and focus, these titles recall moments from earlier in the novel and begin to develop, themselves, into something deeper. What we think we know about reality is undermined by Adriaanse, and her structure helps her do this.
Adriaanse’s writing has a sly humor about it, as when one of the characters is told she has “mental problems.” Her doctor tells her, “When it happens to men it always seems much more interesting for some reason.” But Adriaanse’s wit never gets obtuse or interferes with the story. She writes about a cadre of characters each trying to survive in a lonely world. As the story evolves, it becomes clear that multiple motifs—reflections (literal and metaphorical) of the self, daydreams and nightmares, and a magical power we give to stories if we believe in them—are important in the lives of each character. In addition to being a writer, Adriaanse is a visual artist, and she writes with an artists’ awareness of repetition. Her story builds upon itself until the characters’ lives begin to intersect, and we feel (incredibly, and yet believably) as if we can’t tell reality from the imagined—or, rather, that since people will believe in either one, the distinction doesn’t matter.
Spying, seeing, and witnessing become important in the life of each character. “Is there someone you know so well that you can tell almost for certain what that person is doing at this very moment?” the narrator asks,
“Is he alone now, or with someone? Is he talking, walking, working, sleeping? Standing or sitting? Can you see him in your mind, how he’s holding up his hands, his shoulders? Can you walk toward him and watch his face from up close?”
Certain moments, such as when Rus tries to convince his new boss that birds are trapped in the air vents (his boss won’t acknowledge them because the employee manual says nothing about birds), feel reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s work. Over everything in Rus is the sense that the institution can become more important than the man, or that institutions (particularly government ones) are the driving forces that spark human interaction. Characters need each other to help navigate the systems governing their lives. Almost immediately after the government finds him, Rus attaches himself to a women—who, in turn, is looking to replace a lost lover.
“I thought we could figure this out together,” Rus said. He placed the letter on her register. “I can’t handle it alone, you see. I have never been in this situation before. I don’t feel like myself; I can’t even think clearly.”
People in Rus only see a tiny bit of the lives around them; they are constantly assessing how others can be of use to them or harm them based on only a hint of information.
One of the most intriguing things about Rus Like Everyone Else is how the author weaves together the consciousness of characters, dream characters, and characters on TV. By the end of the novel, these merge with each other, creating an alternate reality that blends with what characters know in the daytime. “The strange thing about nightmares is they don’t count,” the narrator says,
“You experience them as real, but because they are not real, they don’t count. You fall an endless fall, your stomach turns and turns, you are chased by people with knives in an abandoned building and you are more terrified than you have ever been. Have you ever had that? You’re sweating, your heartbeat is increased: your fear is real. But when you wake up, you shake it off and get ready for work.”
But it is clear that what happens in dreams is, in Rus, just as important as what happens when the characters are awake. Characters need resolution for their perception of other characters’ lives. When Mrs. Blue’s sitcom is canceled, the elderly woman goes off the rails. “Do you know what happens when you don’t end a story properly?” Mrs. Blue said in the phone. “They relive and relive the last page.” But her soap opera characters become conscious, and actually relive their struggles. Adriaanase’s take on reality in Rus is unusual and fascinating.
“Everything that is thought of starts to exist,” Mrs. Blue writes. “In the mind, in the words, and in the shapes. Nothing can ever completely be erased.” An unusual and fascinating tale, this debut from Adriaanse is a standout, and will leave you eager to read whatever she writes next.