While events in the past year have left some hoping for a “return to normal” in the coming months, others must continue to cope with a very different day-to-day life, including those affected by the consequential uptick of mental health crises. So how do we collectively and individually begin to confront the reality of our situation and move forward? This is perhaps the overwhelming question weighing on the protagonist of Emily Austin’s debut novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead.
Enter Gilda, a twenty-something atheist lesbian plagued by morbid anxiety. Bystanders diagnose her with “thinking too much” or imposter syndrome, while multiple visits to the emergency room with an aching chest leave her with empty referrals to psychiatrists. Gilda then stumbles upon a flyer (“ARE YOU FEELING LOW?”) for free mental health support and visits the listed address, where her attempt to seek help inadvertently lands her a job as the receptionist of a local Catholic church. What’s more, the former elderly receptionist, Grace, may have been murdered and Gilda herself becomes tangled in the mystery.
The story unfolds through Gilda’s macabre, yet darkly humorous interior monologue as she helplessly attempts to make others happy despite her own declining mental health. To do so, she must pretend to be an antitype of herself: a normal, church-going, heterosexual young woman. But on the inside, Gilda cannot help but fixate on the pain and death surrounding her; the thought of fortuitously causing others any inconvenience or harm is debilitating. Austin skillfully writes in short bursts with restrained, mordant prose to produce a breathless quality analogous to the character’s frequent panic attacks.
Between catching up on the Bible and hiding her new girlfriend from Catholic churchgoers, Gilda adopts her late predecessor Grace’s persona via the church email to delay sharing the news of Grace’s death with her old friend, who is unaware that the former receptionist has vacated her role. Gilda is soon enmeshed in a blanket of associative guilt and clues which prompt her to undertake an amateur investigation of Grace’s death. To justify the absurdity of both her existence and her situation, Gilda reasons: “Of course I’m a fraud. The fact that I’m able to carry myself through life without being crushed beneath the psychological weight of being alive proves that I’m a con artist. Aren’t we all con artists?”
Indeed, as Gilda becomes mired in a facade, a feeling of detachment overcomes her emotions and her relationships. Austin establishes a motif of an inanimate gaze that follows Gilda’s intrusive thoughts about death throughout the novel, such as when she first begins to take notice of her younger brother’s “glazed over” expression or while staring into her own “lifeless eyes” in the mirror. The colorful bunnies which decorate the cover of the novel are, in fact, a reference to Gilda’s first encounter with death at age ten when she discovers her beloved pet bunny Flop dead in his cage, “Eyes wide open. Dead.” This image parallels the all-seeing gaze of Jesus situated in the church in a crucified state. Austin does not shy away from the irony of her protagonist’s unraveling in a long-standing religious institution that is supposedly designed to provide support, comfort, and meaning to human mortality. Many of Gilda’s actions create a self-imposed martyrdom, resulting in her double life.
Yet despite brushing away piles of dishes and forgetting to reply to text messages in her depressed state, Gilda’s most endearing quality is her active perception of the troubles and feelings of those closest to her. She is desperate to protect the fragile thread which connects her to her nuclear family. Her volatile younger brother, Eli, is a borderline alcoholic and artist whose identity and work are often obtuse to their parents. Gilda, of course, can see what her parents cannot: Eli’s troubles can’t be resolved by turning the other cheek. It’s worth noting, however, that all of the supporting characters are rendered in Gilda’s perspective, so her parents and other characters, with some exceptions, lack the idiosyncrasies which might make them more three-dimensional. The same could be said of the setting of the novel, which holds few signifiers of place.
Nevertheless, Austin’s limited descriptions also allow Gilda’s story to be an accessible, though exceptional, scenario for the novel’s audience. In both fiction and reality, choosing to be blind to certain issues for the sake of maintaining routine is a common response to unmet expectations, sudden changes, and other disturbances. The need for normalcy is to ignore everything until it goes away. Gilda is certainly guilty of this need, and the liberties she takes with her own identity to maintain her dual selves eventually leads the police to implicate her in the murder investigation of Grace’s death. Even Gilda admits she can’t blame her parents for their deliberate ignorance, noting “I understand wanting to pretend everything is okay when it is not.”
Ultimately, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is about the fragility of being human and surviving in a world that can sometimes feel overwhelmingly sad and troubled. The close of the novel may leave readers on a hopeful note, but there’s little to suggest all the loose ends in Gilda’s life have been or could be tidied. “Normal” must then account for the things that occupy our everyday life, including our mortality and livelihoods, and the things which threaten and define them. Austin’s timely debut reassures its readers that having a big heart and being vulnerable in a fear-inducing world is neither a crime nor a sentence.
by Emily Austin
Published July 6, 2021
Caitlin M. Stout is a writer mostly found in Chicago. She holds an MA in Writing and Publishing and a BA in English from DePaul University. Her fiction has appeared in Motley. She is the managing editor of Arcturus, as well as a daily editor at the Chicago Review of Books. You can find her on Twitter @caitlinmstout.