One of Us Is Lying is set in a contemporary high school in Southern California. The students who attend Bayview High are millennials—a generation facing down a unique set of problems both serious and shallow, ranging from entitlement issues to financial uncertainty to social media addiction. Through each of the four major characters in the novel—Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, and Cooper—as well as the absent but “omniscient” Simon, author Karen M. McManus suggests that the insidious and often-dismissed or overlooked problems millennials face actually have the power to derail young peoples’ lives.
McManus focuses on a few major, stereotypically “millennial” problems throughout the novel: entitlement, social media addiction, and financial instability. Feelings of entitlement are a major problem for many millennials, who feel that the dreamy lives of wealth, luxury, and ease peddled to them by entertainment, media, and advertisements should be as easily attained as an Amazon order. For Simon, his feelings of entitlement—to popularity, adoration, and control over others—are ultimately his downfall. Once it is revealed that Simon orchestrated his own death as a way of getting back at “everyone who made him miserable” and bring down the “lemmings” he attended school with and hated so deeply, Bronwyn reflects on what the media has been calling Simon’s “‘aggrieved entitlement’: the belief he was owed something he didn’t get, and [that] everyone should pay because of it.” The idea that Simon, as the arbiter of Bayview High’s rumor mill, felt he was owed respect, deference, or even a place in the school’s highest social tiers, reflects a distinctly millennial form of entitlement; entitlement not necessarily to material wealth but to social clout and power, and to the status of “influencer” he felt he should possess.
The second major millennial issue the novel addresses is social media addiction. The novel opens with five students in detention for possessing a cell phone during Mr. Avery’s lab. Avery, a stickler for cell phones and other “screens,” has a deep-rooted hatred of social media that reads more as revulsion than disdain. Though he takes an extreme approach to trying to curb his students’ screen time, his indictment of all Bayview students as being overly obsessed with social media isn’t wrong. Throughout the novel, the characters’ obsessions with invented social media platforms (such as Simon’s About That app) overlaps with McManus’s invocation of real life internet “black holes”—Facebook, 4chan, and Instagram are just a few of the sites and platforms that have consumed several of the novel’s characters. As the Bayview Four come under greater scrutiny, their lives become even further threatened by the influence of social media; even as popular news shows cast doubt upon their innocence and suggest that they may have colluded to murder Simon, “fan pages” spring up on Facebook for Cooper and for Nate, and Bronwyn and Addy struggle with whether they should make their social accounts private or bask in the unfiltered, invasive national attention.
It’s commonly predicted that millennials will be the first generation who won’t do better financially than the generation that came before them—millennials disproportionately stare down student loan debt, low-paying jobs, and an unstable economic climate in which wealth is hoarded by a lucky few, while the majority of the nation struggles just to pay the bills. In light of this serious crisis, which is often reframed to shame or indict millennials for spending money on comfort, “self-care,” and frivolities (like the contentious but ubiquitous millennial symbol, avocado toast), McManus chooses to use One of Us Is Lying to highlight the very real financial difficulties that contribute to millennial angst and anxiety alike. Nate is the most primary example of this financial struggle in the novel. Though many of his peers at Bayview are well-off, Nate is hiding a very grim financial situation: his mother, struggling with bipolar disorder and addiction, abandoned his family years ago. Nate has been left alone in a crumbling house with his alcoholic father, whose addiction is so bad that hasn’t been able to function, let alone hold a job, for years. Nate can’t even think of paying the bills that are racking up day by day—he is focused solely on survival, and because his father’s unemployment checks simply don’t cut it, he has taken up drug-dealing in order to supplement his household’s meager income. Nate is stereotyped early on as a “criminal,” but his dealings in marijuana and narcotics are a survival mechanism. Another set of characters struggling with financial stability are Addy, her sister Ashton, and their mother, Ms. Calloway. Addy and Ashton have been told all their lives that they need to find and lock down a man whom they can depend upon for financial stability—their mother has impressed upon them that their beauty and sexual availability is of the utmost importance, and the only way they can hope to snag a husband. Ashton, who is a few years older than Addy, is stuck in an unhappy marriage with someone who looks great “on paper” but in reality treats her poorly. Addy who began dating at fourteen, just like her mother, is similarly stuck in a relationship with a boy who doesn’t make her happy but whose social capital is alluring and promises if not financial stability then at least social stability. As the novel progresses, Addy and Ashton find their way out of these stifling relationships, and choose to ignore their mother’s advice and instead lean on one another for support. In the end, Ashton rents an apartment in San Diego and offers Addy the chance to move in with her—though she predicts that things will be financially tight for them, they’ll at least be out of their mother’s house, and away from the oppressive ideal that they need a man’s support in order to thrive.
If “millennial problems” seem absurd and maddening, it’s because they are; never before have the shallow-seeming but all too real pressures of curating both public and private identities collided so confusingly with the very real issues of egomania, financial failure, and resulting depression and anxiety. Karen M. McManus uses One of Us Is Lying as a platform for showcasing and dissecting these issues, exploring how millennials live in a world that is increasingly focused on proving one’s worth through constructed identities while, behind the curtain, serious emotional, financial, and societal problems threaten to derail the livelihoods—and lives—of an entire generation.
Millennial Problems ThemeTracker
Millennial Problems Quotes in One of Us is Lying
A sex tape. A pregnancy scare. Two cheating scandals. And that's just this week’s update. If all you knew of Bayview High was Simon Kelleher's gossip app, you'd wonder how anyone found time to go to class.
"Old news, Bronwyn," says a voice over my shoulder. "'Wait till you see tomorrow's post."
Damn. I hate getting caught reading About That, especially by its creator. I lower my phone and slam my locker shut. "Whose lives are you ruining next, Simon?"
Simon falls into step beside me as I move against the flow of students heading for the exit. "It’s a public service," he says with a dismissive wave. […] “Anyway, they bring it on themselves. If people didn’t lie and cheat, I’d be out of business.”
The phone almost slips out of my hand. Another text from Chad Posner came through while I was reading. People r fucked up.
I text back, Where’d you get this?
Posner writes some rando emailed a link, with the laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji. He thinks it’s somebody’s idea of a sick joke. Which is what most people would think, if they hadn’t spent an hour with a police officer asking ten different ways how peanut oil got into Simon Kelleher's cup. Along with three other people who looked guilty as hell.
None of them have as much experience as I do keeping a straight face when shit's falling apart around them. At least, none of them are as good at it as me.
Maeve and I are sprawled on my bed watching the minutes on my alarm clock tick by until my debut as a national disgrace. Or rather, I am, and she’s combing through the 4chan links she found through Simon’s admin site.
"Check this out," she says, angling her laptop toward me.
The long discussion thread covers a school shooting that happened last spring a few counties over. A sophomore boy concealed a handgun in his jacket and opened fire in the hallway after the first bell. Seven students and a teacher died before the boy turned the gun on himself, I have to read a few of the comments more than once before I realize the thread isn’t condemning the boy, but celebrating him. It’s a bunch of sickos cheering on what he did.
"Maeve." I burrow my head in my arms, not wanting to read any more. "What the hell is this?"
"Some forum Simon was all over a few months back."
I raise my head to stare at her. " Simon posted there? How do you know?"
"He used that AnarchiSK name from About That," Maeve replies.
Sexism is alive and well in true-crime coverage, because Bronwyn and I aren’t nearly as popular with the general public as Cooper and Nate. Especially Nate. All the tween girls posting about us on social media love him. They couldn’t care less that het a convicted drug dealer, because he’s got dreamy eyes.
Same goes for school. Bronwyn and I are pariahs—other than her friends, her sister, and Janae, hardly anyone talks to us. They just whisper behind our backs. But Cooper's as golden as ever. And Nate—well, it’s not like Nate was ever popular, exactly. He’s never seemed to care what people think, though, and he still doesn’t.
It’s a mundane, innocuous conversation compared to yesterday’s lunch, when we caught up on my police visit, Nate's mother, and the fact that Addy got called to the station separately to answer questions about the missing EpiPens again. Yesterday we were murder suspects with complicated personal lives, but today we're just being girls.
Maeve's hand finds mine as Mikhail drops his last bombshell—a screen capture of the 4chan discussion threads, with Simon’s worst posts about the Orange County school shooting highlighted:
Look, I support the notion of violently disrupting schools in theory, but this kid showed a depressing lack of imagination. I mean, it was fine, I guess. It got the job done. But it was so prosaic, Haven't we seen this a hundred times now? Kid shoots up school, shoots up sell film at eleven. Raise the stakes, for God's sake. Do something original.
A grenade, maybe. Samurai swords? Surprise me when you take out a bunch of asshole lemmings. That's all I'm asking.
I'm not sure you could call it journalism, but Mikhail Powers Investigates definitely has an impact over the next few days. Somebody starts a Change.org petition to drop the investigation that collects almost twenty thousand signatures. The MLB and local colleges get heat about whether they discriminate against gay players. The tone of the media coverage shifts, with more questions being raised about the police’s handling of the case than about us. And when I return to school on Monday, people actually talk to me again. […] Maybe my life won’t ever be fully normal again, but by the end of the week I start to hope it'll be less criminal.
"Let's go back to what we know," Bronwyn says. Her voice is almost clinical, but her face is flushed brick red. “Simon was one of those people who thought he should be at the center of everything, but wasn’t. And he was obsessed with the idea of making some kind of huge, violent splash at school. He fantasized about it all the time on those 4chan threads. What if this was his version of a school shooting? Kill himself and take a bunch of students down with him, but in an unexpected way. Like framing them for murder." She turns to her sister. "What did Simon say on 4chan, Maeve? Do something original. Surprise me when you take out a bunch of lemming assholes."
I look up from the papers. "Why?" I ask, bile rising in my throat. "How did Simon get to this point?"
"He'd been depressed for a while," Janae says, kneading the fabric of her black skirt between her hands. The stacks of studded bracelets she wears on both arms rattle with the movement. "Simon always felt like he should get a lot more respect and attention than he did, you know? But he got really bitter about it this year. He started spending all his time online with a bunch of creepers, fantasizing about getting revenge on everyone who made him miserable. It got to the point where I don’t think he even knew what was real anymore. Whenever something bad happened, he blew it way out of proportion."
"Maeve, I don't care about Twitter," I say wearily. I haven’t been on there since this whole mess started. Even with my profile set to private, I couldn’t deal with the onslaught of opinions.
"I know. But you should see this." She hands me her phone and points to a post on my timeline from Yale University: To err is human @BronwynRojas. We look forward to receiving your application.
I think a lot about Simon and about what the media called his "aggrieved entitlement”—the belief he was owed something he didn’t get, and everyone should pay because of it. It's almost impossible to understand, except by that corner of my brain that pushed me to cheat for validation I hadn't earned. I don’t ever want to be that person again.