Monday, January 2, 2012

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

When I sat down to start reading A.S. King's Everybody Sees the Ants, I thought I was just going to read a little bit to get started, and then put it down to go do something else. I should have learned from my similar experience with Please Ignore Vera Dietz, because three hours later I had finished the book and was screaming "Where was this book a decade ago, when it would have been infinitely more helpful?"

I'm pretty sure that particular feeling is just the occupational hazard of reading young adult books when one is not a young adult. In this case, it was brought on by the fact that Everybody Sees the Ants is less of a book about bullying—it feels like a disservice to try to sum it up that way—as it is a book about being young and male, and trying to figure out what that whole business of "being a man" is about in a society with strictly enforced gender norms. Especially when your particular experience of "being male" lies outside those gender norms.

It's also a book that's not afraid to raise these kinds of complex questions in the midst of reality-bending dream trips to Vietnam and snarky, culture-deconstructing talking ants.

A little bit of explanation may be in order: Lucky Linderman is off to California over summer vacation with his mother to visit his uncle and aunt as a direct result of the strange confluence of a strained parental relationship and concerns that Lucky may be suicidal. The latter concern is due to Lucky's decision to theme his survey-his-classmates assignment around suicide, a topic he found fascinating for intellectual reasons and which the school administration interpreted as a cry for help. The story of that assignment and its year-long fallout is told through backstory chapters while Lucky works through that fallout—and his other issues—over his extended vacation.

The former concern stems from his father's unwillingness to accept the loss of his own father—a Vietnam War POW who has long been presumed dead—and is mostly dealt with through Lucky's dreams, where he joins his grandfather in his POW camp and attempts to free him every night. Lucky usually fails (and his grandfather has a curious tendency to never have the same grievous injury twice), but usually his grandfather succeeds in passing on some kind of advice for Lucky's real life each night (along with whatever it is Lucky was holding when the dream ended, from sharpened spoons to chicken nuggets). It's a complicated story structure, but it holds together well and never gets confusing as all three storylines follow a common thematic thread wherever they intersect.

Aside from King's penchant for dispensing wisdom in the most irreverent manner possible, my favorite part of the book are the little surreal moments: Lucky bringing important objects given to him by his grandfather in a dream through to reality the next morning, the ants relentlessly mocking anyone and everyone. They're just weird enough to be recognizably unreal, but not excessive enough to move the book into the realm of fantasy. I'd call it "magic realism" but that label doesn't fit; I always think of magic realism as being a bit more ethereal than this book is. What it does do, however, is propel these bits straight into the realm of "blatantly obvious symbolism", and the more of that any given book has, the more I'm going to like it, if only because I love sitting around and explaining to everyone in a 500 yard radius whatever I derive from that symbolism.

And this may just be the adult in me speaking, but I absolutely love that King lets her adult characters be just as complex as her younger characters; there's no absentee parents or parental ciphers here, but adults that are going through the same problems that Lucky is going through, or feeling the repercussions from their choices about those same problems they made when they were younger. It's the sort of detail that's strangely comforting: the knowledge that these problems don't magically disappear just because you're older, and that everyone faces them, is as likely to be heartening as it is depressing.

If I can descend a bit into nattering about symbolism, these problems aren't the ants—the ants appear for everyone who's felt the crush of societal norms pushing against them, telling them to accept something or behave in a way they don't feel is "them", but they don't add to the suffering so much as highlight the absurdity of the situation, or offer sarcastic moral support.

And little ant-sized howitzers, if it comes to that.


Unknown said...

What an outstanding review! Entertaining, informative, funny - I just sent the link to my mom (a librarian) bc you completely changed my mind regarding a book that I previously had no interest in reading! Did you see that it made the Cybils short list?

BookChic said...

Great review! I loved A.S.'s first book and have this and her second (Please Ignore Vera Dietz) in my TBR pile. I really need to get around to them!

Matthew MacNish said...

Sounds brilliant. Thanks!