23 April 2015

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Sometimes, I'll read a book that challenges me. It'll take me a while to finish, and it'll take me a while to figure out what I really think about it.

Tommy Wallach's WE ALL LOOKED UP was one of those books.

It's a simple enough premise: an asteroid is on collision course with Earth, with a 66% chance of striking it.

We've seen that before, plenty of times. It's a story we keep coming back to. So what does WE ALL LOOKED UP have to add to the story?

Plenty, as it turns out.

WE ALL LOOKED UP follows four high school seniors in Seattle through the Earth's (possibly) final days: Peter, the popular, successful jock who finds his life feeling strangely empty; Eliza, the photographer who was branded a slut after Peter kissed her in the dark room a year ago; Andy, the slacker who hasn't ever found anything worth living for; and Anita, burdened by her parents' unreasonable expectations but wanting, more than anything, to be a musician.

It's fitting that they're all approaching graduation: the end of high school can feel like the end of the world. Everything can feel like the end of the world when you're a teenager, for that matter.

The story plays out over the weeks before Ardor is scheduled to hit (or miss) Earth, as society essentially collapses around the kids. There is no last-ditch effort to launch a rocket full of bombs at Ardor; there are no "contingency plans." In this, WE ALL LOOKED UP transcends its genre immediately: this is not a story about saving the world. This is a story about facing its end.

All four kids were richly drawn, and even though there were times I wanted to smack them for being stupid and selfish, their motivations were clear, even if I didn't like them. The end of the world played out so realistically. WE ALL LOOKED UP never turned to anything other than unflinching honesty about what might happen: the collapse of public services, martial law, suspension of habeas corpus. Both the best and the worst of humanity came out of the woodwork, and the kids faced it all, finding love and meaning along the way.

I didn't always like the turns the plot took; there were some that made me angry and some that broke my heart. But every page was earned, every twist well-founded. Things could not have turned out other than they did.

On the back, Andrew Smith (who blog readers will know is probably my favorite author) compares it to Stephen King's THE STAND, which is kind of weird at first but then totally makes sense. I felt the same way after reading THE STAND, in fact: glad to have read it, but conflicted. Happy but sad.

Also, WE ALL LOOKED UP had the most amazing chapter wherein one of the characters drinks tea made from hallucinogenic mushrooms. It was trippy and surreal and absolutely awesome.

I can't say I loved WE ALL LOOKED UP. My reaction to it was much more complicated. It was beautiful and gut-wrenching, but it was difficult, too. I never fell in love with any of the characters. I don't think it was a problem with third-person narration—indeed, I don't see how it could have been done any other way—but I never really connected with any of them. I don't know if their experiences were too far removed from my own, or if I was just in a weird place when I read the book, or what. I felt like there was something keeping me out.

WE ALL LOOKED UP wasn't quite for me. I feel bad saying that, because it's a great book—it just wasn't right for me.