Death is a touchy subject. Depending on the context, bringing up death in conversation can be a delicate matter or an entirely taboo one. Sometimes, because of that taboo, we joke about it. And there’s a very specific, macabre way we crack jokes about death: mostly at the expense of the deceased.
But while Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead contains humor and discussions of death aplenty, it would be off the mark entirely to say the takeaway of Emily Austin’s debut novel is that death is funny. Morbid humor exists for a reason: to poke fun at our inevitable ends and lighten its emotional load. But the humor in the novel can’t quite be called “morbid,” either. Austin has done something remarkable—she’s written an utterly irreverent story with a narrator who’s fixated on death, but death is never the punchline and someone’s passing (or the thought of their passing) is never treated with anything but the utmost tenderness. And it’s really, really funny.
Told in fragments, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead contains a multitude of plot threads. The primary one follows an anxious, death-obsessed woman named Gilda who accepts a clerk job at a Catholic church while hiding the fact that she’s an atheist lesbian. She takes this job by accident—a deceptive flier advertising secular “free mental health support” directs her to the church, the kind of self-absorbed, coercive attempt at goodwill that Gilda is forced to deal with frequently.
When Gilda first arrives at church, the pastor assumes she’s here to interview for the receptionist job after their last one, an old woman named Grace, died under unusual circumstances. Gilda’s too awkward to correct him, and she takes the job without fully understanding what she’s getting into. It’s mostly busywork, but when she sits down at Grace’s old desk and powers on the dusty computer, she discovers a left-behind email inbox full of new messages. Most come from a friend of Grace’s who doesn’t know she’s gone.
And so long as Gilda’s nerves are frayed over anxious, intrusive thoughts about how she and everyone she knows will one day depart this earth, sitting at a dead woman’s desk while listening to a pastor preach about nothing but the next life is Hell on Earth. To make matters worse for herself, she begins replying to these emails by posing as Grace, simply to avoid upsetting the late receptionist’s old friend (they mention their husband had just passed, and Gilda fears that any added stress could prove too much for this poor stranger).
Gilda’s anxious first-person narration meshes well with the book’s fragmented style, which collects her scattered thoughts as they bounce from topic to topic. Most vignettes last just a few paragraphs unless there’s a long conversation or a particularly intense panic attack. Like any good fragmented narrative, the central story can’t be fully appreciated without all the extra plot lines that interweave and rattle each other: Gilda has to feign heterosexuality at this new church to please a host of smiling but domineering social conservatives; she’s dating a more confident woman who seems to really like her and Gilda just can’t figure out why; her brother is an obvious alcoholic with a death wish, and his carelessness with his own life infuriates Gilda; a neighbor’s cat named Mittens has disappeared after a house fire, and Gilda can’t stop worrying that this cat she’s never met might be dead. Through it all, Gilda obsesses over her own and everyone else’s impending demise. The following occurs after a brittle, elderly man insists on offering his bus seat to Gilda:
Whenever the driver brakes, the old man stumbles. I am nervous that he is going to fall completely. I imagine him losing his footing and propelling across the bus. I think about how old people have porous, fragile bones. I think about how old people can die from falling. I start to picture myself attending this man’s funeral.
I am wearing all black.
I am telling his loved ones that he died because of me.
“This is all my fault,” I explain.
There’s some ambiguity about what sets Gilda’s obsession with death in motion (while the book opens with Gilda in a minor car crash, the ER receptionist knows her by name due to her hypochondria), but Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is great at pointing out just how often we’re exposed to death. There’s no shortage of stimuli to set off her hair-trigger nerves: a missing cat, a recently empty chair, a person nearly tripping, the lion’s share of religious dogma, etc. Even if that last one is mostly told in euphemisms. As Gilda muses, “Losing someone to the Lord makes it sound like God steals people.”
Gilda’s mind often wanders off during unpleasant situations as a coping mechanism, to distract herself from it all with non-sequiturs, and there’s no shortage of weird humor to be mined here. At one point, while breaking some unfortunate news to her parents, Gilda’s mind turns to the potatoes she’s eating while her family explodes at her: “I once read that human beings can live solely on potatoes. A potato contains all the essential amino acids humans need to build proteins, repair cells, and fight diseases.” Or later, when an encounter with a cat provokes her lingering worries about her neighbor’s missing cat Mittens (which, again, she has never met), she stops and lets herself have a moment:
It’s strange to think of how small I am, and then to consider how much smaller cats are. In the grand scheme of things, I matter as much as this cat does. Worse than that, everyone around me matters as much as this cat does. Worse than that, I think this cat should matter. I think this cat should be considered incredibly important.
The marketing for Austin’s novel compares it to Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things and Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, and I’ll throw in a “for fans of Patricia Lockwood” on top of the pile. The irreverent jabs at browbeating patriarchs and their enablers is reminiscent of Lockwood’s Priestdaddy (which also involves lots of Catholics), and by coincidence, its fragmented style mirrors Lockwood’s recent novel No One Is Talking About This. But whereas Lockwood is more laid-back and reflective, Austin’s prose is sharp and restless—Gilda is freaking out, and not a single detail of that crisis gets left out.
Austin approaches the subject of death in a wry, humorous way that doesn’t diminish the endless anxiety it provokes in all of us. It’s not that death itself is funny, but the strings of panicked thoughts and overreactions are so relatable that it’s hard not to see our own anxieties here on the page, and there’s humor in that recognition. Gilda’s long internal monologues about possibly killing somebody on her commute aren’t funny because she’s freaking out about nothing; they’re funny because we’ve done exactly the same thing on days when we were just as tightly wound. Our panicked, exaggerated internal monologues aren’t things we often share with anyone, and seeing them presented to us in such an irreverent way is cathartic. “I am studying the ceiling above my bed, wondering how old my apartment building is… I wonder if anyone has ever died looking at this ceiling. I wonder if I will die looking at this ceiling.”
If you can pinpoint any moment in your life when you got yourself worked up over seemingly nothing and nobody else seemed bothered by it, then you will almost certainly find yourself somewhere in this book, because obsessing over questions of what matters most is poor Gilda’s lot in life. It’s hard to search for meaning in life (or in death) when it all ends the same way, and especially when you’re forced to deal with an endless parade of self-absorbed folks who obsess over everything except what’s important. Things like you or me or Mittens the cat.
But as Gilda fights to see value in everyone’s lives despite their cosmic insignificance, and to treat those lives with the tenderness they deserve, there’s an irony in how she forgets to value her own life in the same way. When she insists on pretending to be “Grace the departed receptionist” over email to spare a stranger some grief, when she tries her damnedest to protect her drunken brother’s well-being when he flatly refuses to do it himself, when she worries about a cat she’s never met, it all adds to this immense emotional load she’s already bearing.
Part of Gilda’s journey in Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is learning that none of these people would want her to live her life this way (the cat aside). As Gilda’s lies begin to unravel, so do all those frayed emotional knots holding her life together. Her family life, her love life, her fake church life, her chain of lying emails begin to bleed into each other and Gilda is left to clean up the mess. It’s hard, especially when people start to ask questions, and especially when the police get involved.
Some of those people she struggles to please the most finally become aware that she’s grinding up her own well-being to please them. And they care about her, too, and it’s tough for them to watch her break down for their sake. Ultimately, Gilda is faced with this question: if we’re only on Earth for a short time, regardless of what comes next, are you truly valuing “life” if the question itself makes your own life so damn miserable?
Such a morbid headspace is no way to live. It’s an impossible uphill climb to celebrate life while so deeply fearing death, even if (or especially because) death could be around the corner at any moment. Death may not be funny, but life most certainly should be. After all, everyone in this world will someday be dead.