“So I went around for the next few days with this mattress slowly getting bigger,” says McGill. “And in my mind, it felt like a stranger who was gaining their shape in my house. So my imagination went from there. I started to imagine a world where borders are closed to people, but open to shipments and the transfer of commodities … what if people were treated in this way?”
Described as “a new take on the dystopian plague novel,” the book represents expanded literary ground for McGill and reflects a trend of writers exploring different styles and genres.
“In the last 10 or 20 years, traditional borders between literary genres have broken down,” he says. “A lot of writers who are thought of as literary writers — and who I might have previously expected to write realist stories — are writing things that are weird and genre-hopping.”
The book’s main character, Regan, is a depressed eighteen-year-old distance runner who decides to end her life. She chooses to do this through an unusual new method available only on the dark web.
Arriving at her door all rolled up, but very much alive, is Ülle, a woman with amnesia who is supposed to facilitate Regan’s suicide. But Ülle’s memory begins to return, including recalling the shocking steps her government took to combat a deadly pandemic of parasitic infections which brought her to a new country and Regan’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, Regan is having second thoughts and finds herself wanting to keep both Ülle and herself alive. But the organization that brought them together has other plans.
I was very cognizant of taking this absurd premise and making it real by focusing on intimate relationships, by writing about ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems in an extraordinary situation. I found myself thinking about how these characters care for themselves and for each other.
Though the book takes place in a gloomy futuristic world, the story is very much about care — how people care for one another, and caring within relationships, particularly transactional relationships.
“I was very cognizant of taking this absurd premise and making it real by focusing on intimate relationships, by writing about ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems in an extraordinary situation,” says McGill. “I found myself thinking about how these characters care for themselves and for each other.”
The book also touches on McGill’s fascination with how transactions for goods and services — including care services — now take place with the touch of a button and entirely between screens.
“Being online, one can access care from others in some pretty incredible ways, connecting people across the world through caregiving and care receiving relationships,” says McGill.
“But at the same time, it's an open question as to whether or not we can leave behind our need for physically close personal relationships. At the moment, I would say that's going to be a hard thing for many people.”
Also brought into question are the nature of friendships and connections created through digital means, and how such connections can make us feel a part of something but can also make us feel very isolated.
“I do worry about the world,” says McGill. “The internet is this wonderful, hugely novel thing that is fundamentally changing how we interact. There are people I consider good friends who I have not seen in person for years, not just because of the pandemic, but because I can stay in contact with them through email and Facebook.
“But there is a risk of isolation, and I think while the pandemic certainly brought its own perils in this regard, I think such issues were already in play beforehand.”
Speaking of the pandemic, McGill is looking a little like Nostradamus.
I'm very lucky to have the chance to do a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about writing with my students. I get to think about how to make characters more vivid, how to make plots more distinctive and how to avoid cliches. These questions are both artistic and scholarly.
“I wrote this novel before COVID,” he says. “Having crafted the situation in which someone is stuck at home alone, and feeling vulnerable, and without options to connect with people felt increasingly ironic as the pandemic went on and lockdown measures came into place.”
Does McGill find it difficult to switch from academic instructor to creative writer?
“When I was writing the book, I took off my scholar’s cap and put on the cap of somebody who just has to worry about getting the characters right and making sure their relationships are complex, their psychology is interesting,” he says.
But at the same time, he’s quick to note that his day job helps keep his creative writing instincts sharp.
“I'm very lucky to have the chance to do a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about writing with my students. I get to think about how to make characters more vivid, how to make plots more distinctive and how to avoid cliches. These questions are both artistic and scholarly.”
But in writing A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life, McGill experienced, and enjoyed, the moments when he stepped back from being a literary academic and let his pure storytelling instincts guide him.
“I try to shut off the brain and just make sure that the story is one in which people will feel invested not just intellectually, but emotionally.”