A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me a YouTube link to a music video called “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury”, because “you like sci-fi, right?” It’s a fascinatingly weird song in which Rachel Bloom (the singing/song-writing genius behind it) repeatedly begs the greatest sci-fi writer in history to do her. Despite being more of a Vonnegut fan myself, I felt an unexplainable kinship with this girl.
I quickly became a fan of her TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. For those who are unfamiliar (watch it. Seriously. Do it, now.), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a musical comedy/drama that mixes fun musical numbers with surprisingly accurate portrayals of mental health issues. I think I enjoy it so much because it manages to destigmatize mental health problems without glamourizing them; rather falling into the common TV trap of showing tortured artists being plagued by depression or brilliant geniuses with adorable social anxiety, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows mental illness for what it really is: an illness.
Anyway, I’m not here to review a TV show that ended last year. I’m here to talk about Rachel Bloom’s new book, I Want to be Where the Normal People Are.
I’d been looking forward to reading her book since it was announced, and with a title like that, I was expecting it to be an exploration of Rachel Bloom’s own journey with mental health (which she’s always been very open about), you know, a real heavy book that I could disappear into for a few days.
Halfway through the book, I was disappointed.
Rather than the introspective self-examination I’d been expecting, the book was more of a collection of essays that bounced around from subject to subject with little rhyme or reason. It got deep in places, but moments later we’d be back to fantasy theme park designs or Harry Potter fan-fiction. It was like being inside Rachel Bloom’s brain, but brains don’t have ongoing narratives, they’re just a confusing mess of thoughts.
Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed this cheerful little book under different circumstances, but I’m not particularly cheerful these days. Working from home has made me isolated and irritable, which is making it increasingly difficult to write. I miss my family. I’m tired all the time. Thoughts of the future fill me with dread. The most interesting thing I’ve got going on right now is my mood swings.
And then I got to the afterword.
Holy shit, that afterword.
The voice was different. Just as I’d felt kinship with Rachel Bloom’s silly nerdiness when I’d watched her Ray Bradbury video a few years earlier, I suddenly felt kinship with Afterword Rachel (and right now, that’s a very bad sign).
Afterword Rachel was speaking to us from 2020. In one long run-on sentence, she described the week in which she gave birth during a flurry of pandemic hysteria. As her daughter took her first breaths through a ventilator, one of her closest friends was also breathing through a ventilator, fighting Covid-19 in a different hospital. Days later, he died.
She remarked that the title of her book had now taken on a different, more desperate meaning. Afterword Rachel still wanted to be where the normal people were, but now she was referring to the carefree people back in 2019, when life was easy, and we hadn’t lost so much (or so many).
I Want to be Where the Normal People Are ended up being a demonstration of who we all were in 2019, and who we’ve all become in 2020. Sure, we’ll get a vaccine some day and life will hopefully return to “normal” again at some point, but I don’t think any of us will ever be the same again.
Perhaps I’ll re-read this book in a few years’ time, when things are normal again (because I suspect it’s a really good book under ordinary circumstances). Maybe then I’ll be able to enjoy it for what it is. For now, I’ll keep on re-watching old Crazy Ex-Girlfriend episodes and pretending I’ll be returning home to see my family at Christmas.