Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review - Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Short review: Lucky Linderman is a teenager with problems - a father who is a turtle, a mother who is a squid, an aunt who is zoned out on pills, an uncle who hides in his weight room, and a long-missing grandfather who he visits in dreams in a POW camp in Laos. And everyone thinks he's the problem.

A suicide poll
A face ground into concrete
A lost grandfather

Full review: My brother maintains that no one can write a teenager as well as J.D. Salinger. I believe that my brother is wrong. No one can write a teenager as well as A.S. King. No one captures the combination of confusion, anger, boredom, and intense, bewildering feelings like she does. And in Everybody Sees the Ants, King's talents are on full display as she recounts the story of Lucky Linderman, a persistently bullied teenager whose morbid investigation into suicide results in a panicked reaction from his school and the adults in his life. Lucky is also afflicted with apparently uncaring parents and haunted by the memory of his grandfather - who disappeared in Vietnam before Lucky's father was even born.

Lucky Linderman is a fairly ordinary high school freshman. He's not big, or strong, or popular, and doesn't possess any of the other attributes that serve to make a high school kid stand out in a way that makes the experience more tolerable, and consequently he gets pushed around by Nader McMillan, a bully who has been tormenting Lucky for years. Lucky's parents don't get along - not so much because they fight, but rather because they both seem so indifferent to one another, and in their cold war, they generally seem to simply neglect Lucky. On the whole, however, Lucky is generally no different than many other teenagers who get dragged to the pool all summer so that their mothers can swim laps to work off their frustration.

Like most teenagers, Lucky makes mistakes out of foolishness and naivité, but in Lucky's case, his mistake is a very public one: As part of an assignment that requires taking a survey and presenting the results, Lucky decides to poll his fellow students about how they would commit suicide if they were to do it. This provokes a reaction from the school administration, which quashes his project and calls in Lucky's parents, both of whom react in very different ways to the supposed crisis. Lucky's mother, who he calls "the squid" presses forward with her regimen of relentlessly swimming laps to avoid dealing with the problems in her life, while his father, a chef whom Lucky calls "the turtle" reacts by spending much more time at work, pulling in his head in the hope that the difficulties will pass him by. Lucky's father tells him to deal with Nader's bullying by simply ignoring it, advice that simply boils down to "hunker down in your shell and it will pass". And everyone has their own idea of what Lucky "should" do, even the ants that speak to him, acting as something of a Greek chorus.

The ordinariness of Lucky's outer life creates a stark contrast with his inner life, which is dominated by the memory of his deceased grandfather. Early in the book Lucky recounts his activist grandmother's dying request to Lucky, asking him to help her missing husband find his way home. This is, obviously, an impossible burden to place on a child, and it profoundly affects Lucky, who has recurring dreams of going to the jungles of southeast Asia on "rescue missions". It is these dreams that skirt the border between fantasy and reality, as Lucky tries to rescue his missing grandfather while receiving advice from a man he has never met in the flesh. One might be tempted to dismiss these dreams as delusions or wishful thinking, but during his sojourns in the Laotian jungle his grandfather always seems to pass along some snippets of wisdom and every time Lucky wakes up, he has something tangible that he "brought back" from the dream world. These artifacts are what adds an intriguing ambiguity to this element of the book: Is Lucky merely imagining himself working to rescue his grandfather, or is he really engaged in a spiritual extrication?

Eventually an act of everyday heroism results in retribution that leaves a visible scar on Lucky's face. despite being willing to endure Nader's bullying himself, Lucky simply cannot stand by while Nader bullies someone else. This precipitates a larger crisis in Lucky's family that results in his mother taking him with her to visit her brother in Arizona, which is, as Lucky explains, the only place she could arrange for them to go on short notice that had a pool. Once there, Lucky discovers that the screwed up nature of his family is not unique. His Uncle Dave spends his time away from home or isolated in his garage weight room while Lucky's Aunt Jodi is addicted to bad food, the Dr. Phil Show, and pills that she may or may not need. Lucky is drawn to Dave's seemingly manly pursuit of muscles and his allegedly sage advice concerning women. He is, at the same time, repulsed by Jodi's intrusive but well-meaning meddlesome attempts to "fix" him. But as the story progresses, Lucky learns that the lives of adults are often just as confusing and screwed up as his.

But Lucky's story really develops when he forms a friendship with Ginny, a beautiful older girl (in the sense that a high school junior is "older" than a high school freshman) who has a career as a model and a contract to advertise shampoo. Lucky is somewhat awestruck by Ginny, considering her worldly and wise in a way that only a high school freshman can consider an upperclass high schooler to be worldly and wise. And while Ginny's life seems to be perfect at first glance, her family is, in its own way just as screwed up as Lucky's and she harbors much of the same confusion and resentment that he does. While she expands Lucky's horizons, in part by introducing him to the clandestine production of The Vagina Monologues she is performing in, and in part by her singular public act of rebellion, she is at best an unreliable guide to adulthood.

Ultimately, Everybody Sees the Ants is the story of Lucky blindly groping towards his own identity. For much of the book, he is defined by others. The adults around him see him as a suicidal kid. Nader sees him as a target. His grandmother sees him as a means of freeing her long-lost husband. For his dreamed grandfather, he is a means of salvation. For Uncle Dave and Aunt Jodi, he is a project - someone who they can fix. It is only when Lucky realizes that everyone else sees the ants too and are no better equipped to cope with life that he is able to forge his own path. In some ways, the story is about choosing which advice to take and which parts of your past to honor, but it is also a story about letting go of things that keep you from moving forward. No one is able to capture the brutal and glorious paradox of growing up like A.S. King does, and this book is a brilliant, tragic, and touching example of her doing exactly that.

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