Twelve individuals, previously unknown to one another, hop on a meandering, rickety, cross-country bus to California, with the intent of committing suicide together once they reach San Francisco.
It all starts when Mark, the organizer of the bus trip, posts an internet ad inviting suicidal individuals to join him for a fun filled road trip, culminating at the Pacific Ocean, where they will drive the bus off a cliff and die together happily. They have to sign a contract: that on the trip out they will each post their stories and their reasons for committing suicide onto a private server, to be kept confidential until after they are all dead. Their thoughts will then be released to the world.
But no trip turns out entirely as planned. The novel will introduce us to a cast of young characters (all but one are in their twenties.) There is Mark (a failed writer and organizer of the trip,) Karen (a woman with a debilitating and painful neurological disease,) Zeke (a hopeless drug addict whose closest friend is his dying cat,) Lisa (tortured with bi-polar disorder,) Shanelle (an obese woman bullied for it all her life,) Vaughn (the only senior on the bus, a 65-years old widower with a secret guilt,) Tyler (with only weeks to live because of a terminal illness,) Peter (a strict rationalist who has decided that suicide is the only logical decision for him,) Theo (a non-gendered, gentle, idealist who cannot handle the harshness of this world and looks forward to a utopia on the other side that they have conceptualized in their writings,) Dylan (the bus driver and only member of the party who does not plan to commit suicide– he will drive them to San Francisco, but then let one of the others drive the bus over the cliff, as they want a non-suicidal person doing the driving until they arrive at their destination, for the obvious reason that they may not make it to their destination,) and finally, the only couple to get on the bus, Jim and Theresa, who decide to commit suicide because Jim is Black and Theresa’s father has threatened to kill him if the two of them get married.
Along the way they sing, argue, get on each other’s nerves, get drunk and high, fall in love, think about whether they really want to go through with suicide, post their thoughts on the server, discover new things about each other and themselves, trash an abandoned shopping mall, run up credit cards, get into brawls with locals along the way, and have two trip-changing run-ins with the police. Five of the twelve get kicked off the bus by consensus of the rest.
The implied author of the novel only appears on the first couple pages, giving a rational for releasing the “material” that will constitute the rest of the book: journal entries of the bus riders, emails, text messages sent while on the trip,, voicemails, and transcribed recordings of their conversations. The author’s intent for releasing all the material is to give readers an objective understanding of why people commit suicide.
The craft of the author is quite good. Having a book composed almost entirely of emails and text messages works well. The reader develops an affinity for almost all the characters. There is no single protagonist in the book, but ten. The suspense is compelling all the way till the very end of the novel. The story shows how the suicide theme is inextricably connected with other topics: religion, mental health, physical illness, humaneness for end-of-life issues, the afterlife, revenge, love, freedom of choice, responsibility to others, fate, self-empowerment, guilt, victimhood…
As a reader, I read the novel through the lens of my own experiences, feelings, and values. As a pastor, I’ve had parishioners commit suicide and been asked to preside at the funerals of others who killed themselves. I have worked closely with a couple hundred people who had serious mental health problems and pondered how much control they had over their own choices. I had a friend who committed suicide. I’ve had low points in my own life that were a challenge to me—but not been suicidal. I’ve been self-aware of my own inclinations against it for myself. I have strong opinions about the death penalty, and see some suicides as a form of a self-imposed death penalty. I believe that some people, by life-style choices, are subconsciously committing slow suicide. I see the humane side of assisted suicide in some situations. I have been in the room where a man blew his own brains out– and struggled with what I saw. I believe in the resurrection. I am repulsed when people condemn others, even for the worst of sins, and have struggled my whole life to control my own spirit from judging those who offend me (including some of the characters in this book!) I have a strong conviction that we all live with illusions in our lives, and that we (and those affected by us) are best served by becoming disillusioned fast as possible. And I believe that we sometimes lock our own selves into living a story we don’t like, refusing to take alternative paths when they present themselves. In fact, my vocation in retirement is to help individuals and organizations change the trajectory of their “stories.” I try all the time to convince people that a different story IS possible for them and that there are practical steps that can be taken to effect those changes.
I come now to my one criticism of the book: while its plot is wonderful and original, its story is thin. What is the difference between plot and story? The plot is what we witness as we look on from the outside. In the case of Straczynski’s novel, the plot consists of the highways, the parties, the arguments, the tears, the lovemaking, the text messages, the chase scenes… This novel has a great plot.
But if the plot is what we see happening from the outside, the story is what we see happening inside individuals, often not known unless the writer delves in and reveals what is inside: the pain, desire, determination, doubts, plan-shifting, conflicts, loyalties, discouragement, hope, confusion, growth… The story chronicles the inward journey a protagonist makes. It includes what the character wants, the obstacles to getting it, the changes that have to be made along the way, the response to tragedy, the silent choices made, and the differences between the inner life of the character at the beginning of the story and the inner life at the end. We see how the story affects the plot, and visa versa.
Generally, in a good novel, the protagonists think they know what they want, but as the plot moves along, they are forced to discover a deeper, often hidden desire that begins to displace the earlier goal. For example, in most romance movies, the story starts out with an engaged couple. Then the plot forces one of them to realize that there might be a better future in store with someone else. The awakening person slowly becomes enamored of the “better match” and faces a crisis over who to pick. The plot and storylines of romance movies are all similar (with only a few exceptions.) In a compelling story, character may not always make the wiser or more life-giving choice, but they at least come wrestle with it. In a happily-ever-after story, the protagonist always makes the choice that makes our positive selves happy. In a tragedy, the protagonists is incapable of making what we would consider the “better” choice.
In Straczynski’s novel, the characters are all enamored with suicide. They think it’s what they want to do. This is where the story of Together We Will Go disappoints. Great plot—but the promising storylines don’t deliver as much as they could.
Only two characters of the 12 really seem to grow in self-understanding (Tyler and Shanelle.) Several characters have ideas of a utopian paradise, luring them to exit this world and get to a better place. They are never challenged in the novel. But their fantasies challenged me. As a theologian (and Christian) who believes in a realm of justice and joy beyond death itself, I do not object to the characters’ pictures of utopia. What bothers me is that they assume that life ‘on the other side’ has no connection, wisdom, or strength to offer ‘this life’ in all its pain and challenges. They believe in a better world to come that has no impact on our world now, except to make it easier to leave. I wish someone would have appeared in the novel to press the “heaven-bound” suiciders with better questions.
The twelve travelers have numerous experiences that give them openings for reassessing what they want. As I said above, only two will incorporate those experiences into a better self-understanding and then allow that new understanding to guide them forward. The rest will either meet an unexpected fate decided by others, or they will snap back to their original suicidal plan without having any deeper understanding of themselves in relationship to suicide.
All of the characters have had a hard life, including Dylan, the bus driver. All but Dylan have responded to life’s troubles by locking themselves into a story that will eventuate in suicide. Too many of them stay locked inside their own stories. (I won’t spoil the plot for you—you will have to read the book to find out if any of them commit suicide—or all of them.)
Are they committed to suicide, or are they obsessed? Are they being true to themselves, or are they refusing to honor those aspects of themselves they have not yet had time to discover? Are they within their ‘rights’ to take their own lives, or are the rights of others in their lives more compelling? Are they simply being truthful and realistic about the limits of life in this world, or is their whole mental construct an illusion? Is it right to challenge a person who has longed for suicide– should we not live and let live, tolerate different opinions and respect the decisions of others, no matter how uncomfortable they make us– or are we ethically compelled to talk a suicidal person down? All the characters in the book casually respect the suicidal decision of all the others, as though that’s what all enlightened and modern people should do. By what ethical principles is such behavior justified?
The characters on the bus never meet anyone who probes the deeper questions. But in real life, those of us who face the realities of suicide (either by our own thoughts or by the thoughts of people in our orbit) need something deeper than the characters of this novel provide.
I give it five stars out of five, even though it is lacking what I have defined as “story.” I’m giving it full credit because it does such a good job of kicking the deeper questions back at us. And in the end, we are the ones who have to wrestle with them better, not the fictional characters of this book.