Dave, John and Amy recount what seems like a fairly straightforward tale of a shape-shifting creature from another dimension that is stealing children and brainwashing their parents, but it eventually becomes clear that someone is lying, and that someone is the narrators.
The novel you’re reading is a cover-up, and the “true” story reveals itself in the cracks of their hilariously convoluted, and sometimes contradictory, narrative.
(Via Book Depository)
Here’s what I expected from David Wong‘s What the Hell Did I Just Read?: a boyish romp through nihilistic philosophy and loads of gratuitous violence, eldritch horror, existential dread, and dick jokes.
What I got: exactly that, but with more thoughtfulness.
Just before the release of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, I reread the first in the series, John Dies at the End. I found it as good on the second read as on the first, but the difference four books (and countless articles at Cracked.com) can make in a writer’s skills and priorities shows. Wong (or Jason Pargin, really) has put his platform to work in order to touch on a few social issues, set against the background of absurdity.
I still don’t know for sure what happened in What the Hell Did I Just Read?, because as the synopsis and the title suggest, our narrators are incredibly unreliable this time around. (They may have always been. Who even knows?) It would have been easy to give readers a new logic-defying adventure characterized by the IDGAF attitude of David, John’s occasional wild narrative inputs, and Amy keeping up with the usual lunacy. That’s how it looks at first — just another fun time with our trio of badasses.
But unreliability, I think, is the point of the narrative. Real life is messy and noisy and confusing. Stories get convoluted when one person tries to cover for another, your friends prove somewhat untrustworthy, and, like internet comment threads, nothing gets tied up in a neat, satisfying bow. Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.
You tend to hear “it’s about the journey, not the destination” as a consolation for an unsatisfactory conclusion. By the time I tumbled to the last page of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, that phrase is exactly what I was thinking. As I mulled over the events of the narrative, I realized that, as in life, what happened along the way was far more important than the end. I had fun and that was what mattered.
I won’t spoil, but there are two “along the way” events I really cared about: Amy’s role in this unholy trinity and the issue of David’s mental health. Both of them indicate Wong’s changing social issue stances.
My favorite part is that Amy gets to have her own agency, her own (contradictory) opinions and desires, things she does outside of hanging out with David and John, actions that impact the narrative, and even acts as the household provider in her and David’s dynamic. Things women don’t often get to do in fiction, despite them being daily realities for us all. Things Amy didn’t get to do much in the previous two books.
My next favorite is that, while Wong has never forced David into taking action about his depression before now, he finally takes a dig into the resistance depression sufferers often show toward psychological improvement, using David and company as his mouthpieces to get the message across to his readers. He’s made no secret of David’s mental health issues, but here he brought it to the forefront instead of letting it stagnate in the background.
Overall, I’m pleased with Wong’s execution of this newest installment, particularly since it takes the frightening and makes it familiar through the lens of relatable characters who could, at this point, be any of us.
Goodreads rating: 4.43 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars