After reading Becoming Superman, the biography of J. Michael Strackzynski – talented writer in several mediums and the unparalleled creator of my favorite TV series ever, Babylon 5 – I knew that I would not want to miss his first (and hopefully not the last!) foray into novel writing: even though the core concept for Together We Will Go is an unsettling one, I knew beforehand that I could trust JMS’ skills in dealing with such a touchy subject with empathy and a lot of heart – and my faith was more than rewarded.
Failed writer Mark, who just received his latest rejection, reaches the conclusion that “the only good writer is a dead writer” and therefore plans to leave this world behind, but not alone: he buys a bus and places an online ad for equally inclined people to join him in a coast-to-coast journey at the end of which they will launch the bus down a cliff, ending their lives. While on the road they will provide for individual diaries of the experience, to be uploaded before the end: Mark’s way of gaining posthumous recognition as a writer.
If Mark’s reasons for ending his life sound somewhat thin and peevish, some of his companions are dealing with very serious issues: Karen suffered for most of her life from chronic, unbearable pain; Lisa is the victim of a bipolar disorder that turned her existence into an uncontrollable mess; Tyler has an untreatable heart condition that literally turns him blue from lack of oxygen; Shanelle has been cruelly bullied because of her size; Vaughn is a recent widower saddled with a terrible secret. And then there is Zeke, an addict beyond the point of no return, whose only companion is the cat Soldier, whose days are numbered; other people (for a total of twelve) board the bus, but the ones I mentioned are the main characters whose diaries help us to know them better and start to understand their reasons for letting go of everything.
The diary format of the novel, which includes not only journal entries but also emails and text messages, gifts the narrative with a strong sense of realism and allows the reader to see the characters from the double perspective of their own thoughts and of the other travelers’ opinions, which in some cases can change radically from the ones in their first meeting. Together We Will Go is indeed strongly character-driven, and each one of the bus’ passengers looks and sounds unique and three-dimensional, their entries ranging from the maudlin to the utterly funny, in the style I have by now come to expect from JMS’ unrivaled writing skills.
From the outside, this story might look like a romanticized incentive to suicide, but I want to say up front that it’s not: it’s rather an analysis, performed with great sensitivity and consideration, of the reasons that might drive a person to take their own life, and along the the way I was not only able to connect with the characters on a deep level, I also started to hope that they would change their minds, thanks to the discoveries they were making about themselves and to the bond they came to establish with their travel companions. It’s quite touching – and at times heart-wrenching – to understand how these characters have suffered a form of loneliness and isolation because of their troubles, be they physical or psychological, and to see how their common suffering, and common goal, is creating a sense of family despite the short time they have known each other. Or maybe it’s thanks to the awareness of their limited remaining time that they are able to connect so deeply, having shed most – if not all – of the trappings that life can impose on people.
As I wrote at the beginning, suicide is a risky subject to place at the core of a story, but I believe that JMS managed to maintain the balance between the position of the characters, in their determination to choose when to end their lives, and that of a reader who might be understandably dismayed at a choice perceived as an unwillingness to keep on fighting. The author is not new at handling this kind of quandary, and once again he’s able to present both points of view in a balanced, not-judgmental way: if you are familiar with Babylon 5, you might remember some episodes in which equally controversial themes have been the focus of the narrative (Believers and Passing Through Gethsemane are the best examples) and have been left for the viewers’ individual consideration.
Still, despite the underlying bleakness there is a definite thread of hope in the story, not only because of the way the journey turns out for some of the passengers, but because of a final consideration by one of them: it’s a long passage, but I firmly believe it’s worth quoting it in its entirety.
The reason so many people are vulnerable to suicide is because they think it could never happen to them, so they don’t know what to look for, what feelings could lead to making that decision […] so anybody reading this will know exactly what it feels like to make that choice from the inside out. For some people maybe it’ll be be like a flu vaccine, giving them a little piece of the real thing so it immunizes them, so they’ll know what that impulse feels like when it comes, and maybe they won’t be as vulnerable because now they can recognize that feeling for what it is instead of being ambushed by it. And maybe they won’t make that jump, or at least they’ll know enough to wait and think about it some more.
Together We Will Go is a story that seamlessly alternates drama with humor, playfulness with deep emotion, and remains a compelling read from start to finish: given the touchy subject at its heart, I’m not sure it could be a book for everyone, but I can state with total assurance that it’s one that will make you think and leave its mark on you – in a very positive sense.