April 12, 2016

Reading In Tandem: A.S. King's I CRAWL THROUGH IT

Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple ...we're not telling!)

We were excited when our blog buddy, Melissa @The Book Nut, volunteered to head up the team to organize the Kansas City KidlitCon for this autumn. She's interested in local authors, and capably got on the ball to secure A.S. King as one of our keynote speakers as soon as possible. Since through the years we've been working our way through various A.S. King books, including THE DUST OF 100 DOGS, PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, and most recently, GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE, we thought we'd grab a new one, in celebration of A.S. King being our keynote. We'd heard a lot about this book. I CRAWL THROUGH IT has been described as one of the author's more "surrealistic" landscapes.

Two writers,
& Two readers,
With one book.

In Tandem.

Four talented teenagers are traumatized-coping with grief, surviving trauma, facing the anxiety of standardized tests and the neglect of self-absorbed adults—and they'll do anything to escape the pressure. They'll even build an invisible helicopter, to fly far away to a place where everyone will understand them... until they learn the only way to escape reality is to fly right into it.
We read library copies of this book in the treehouse. You can find I CRAWL THROUGH IT by A.S. King at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.

tanita: Welcome to another edition of Tandem Reads! Our last Tandem was, uh...June of last year, where we reviewed a Stephanie Kuehn scary book. Our irregular little series is a lot of fun for us, despite the fact that we don't seem to do it too often. Today, spoilers kind of abound -- in an oblique way - for this book, so be forewarned: it was just hard to discuss without getting a bit specific, but we hope it's not too much. You'll certainly still need to read the book. Well, okay then! Let's just jump in - a very offbeat novel with a beginning that required ... a little concentration to figure out what was going on.

Aquafortis: This book actually took me a long time to get into--I'd say about a quarter of the way into the book before I really felt connected to the characters and what was happening...or not happening. I think the trouble for me was that there was not as much in the way of action in the first part, and more character development. And because the characters were so enigmatic and their world so strange, I was never entirely sure WHAT was happening. I have had trouble in the past connecting to magical realism, so it could well just be me...maybe that's part of it.

tanita: ... you are not alone. I feel you on the novel's beginning. I kept thinking, Okay, the helicopter: is this an existent thing, or a non-existent thing?? Only on Tuesdays? WHAT!?
I expected to flail in this novel - and possibly fail and drown - but because of more recent of King's works, I didn't expect it to go too badly. I mean, I struggle with magical realism, period. I remember reading The Dust of 100 Dogs, my first of A.S. King's novel for YA, and not knowing if I'd properly followed the narrative. I jumped in and was like, "Wait, Pirates??? Wha??? DOGS!?" It was... kind of a shock! And yet: there's an entertainment factor in just letting go and letting her tell the story. Kind of like letting a child sweep you into their narrative where there are some inconsistencies, but it's not your job to point them out or to define reality for that kid. (NOT that I think A.S. King writes at all childishly. Just a par example.)

Aquafortis: Yes, the helicopter was a snag for me. I kept going back and forth, thinking, it is REAL--no, wait--it's not real--it's invisible--no it isn't... I might just be one of those people who isn't comfortable with not knowing. (And you might already know this about me...) I still don't know what the heck the Place of Arrivals was, though. I guess my problem there is literalness, and the desire to try to interpret things in light of the real world. It's hard for me to take this kind of thing at face value, because my tendency is to analyze and assign meaning...

I did notice something interesting, which is that the parts of the book that seemed...REAL...were heightened for me. The closer we get to the end, the more of these flashes of reality there were, and so I connected with the story more as it progressed. I started to feel for the characters more when they seemed to be doing real things in the real world, after spending so long in a place of randomness and imagination, a place of questionable believability.

tanita: I believe that maybe The Place of Arrivals... doesn't matter. I mean, it's not a place you have to go by helicopter, but it's more the place where the characters, uh, arrived? It was Away. They wanted to go Away, and they did. And, as often happens when you go Away and don't have a serious plan about it -- but you carry some stuff on you, and you're vulnerable and a teen, someone can take your crap. You have to hide it. You have to pretend. And, maybe they met some artists. Maybe those artists were... not as cool a commune/collective place as they had once been, and it had become scary. Maybe a real adult woman - fearing for their safety - thought, "to heck with this, they need to go home and I'm taking them." Or, maybe the adults were incidental and imaginary. SO hard to tell. And, at the end of the day, it's not the adults' story, really.

Aquafortis: It reminds me of the "other minds" problem--how do we ever truly know ANYONE is really there or if they're figments of our imagination? And on some level, everything IS filtered through our own minds, and so the story at hand at any given moment IS what is real for the person telling it.

tanita: That sounds both wonderful... and terrible. Kind of life life...

Aquafortis: In the end, bizarrely enough, the character who seemed to exist most in the real world for me was China's dominatrix mother--also the news reporters, who seem to kind of come from some "outside world" and serve to remind us of what appears to be people's interior, imaginative lives spilling out all over the place.

tanita: The character with whom I connected all along was China Knowles. Poetry... it's supposed to be ineffable anyway, so the sort of cryptic, disconnected characterization from the others allowed me to sort of snag onto her earlier. I also felt like the Unspeakable Thing made her cryptic nature make sense: SOMETHING happened with Irenic (& wth kind of name is that, anyway? she should have mocked him in her mind for it) Brown, and it was A Thing that could not be spoken of: again, making China's obliqueness easier to take. (and I agree about her mother -- the swirling sense of shame in China that her mother and father have alternative lifestyles coupled with their horror to find out that ... they thought they were doing Parenting okay, and that pain and shame had snuck in on their watch.)

Aquafortis: I liked her too. Not only because China is the writer, the observer, but her way of dealing with her past traumas felt more familiar, I suppose. Not in a literal sense, but swallowing one's self in order to not-think about certain things, in order to keep the world at bay--I think most of us know how that feels. And so China, and the things that happened to her, felt more real to me.

tanita: The one I couldn't deal with was Lying Lansdale. I just... argh. Her character by turns scared and worried me. The Man Behind the Bush - forces her to take a kiss and a letter. What was that!? I was ...upset. The question seems to swirl around - including with China - is she trampy, or is she in trouble? Hard to tell. (Also, the letters...? I want to assign meaning to those, but...)

Aquafortis: I know!! Lansdale. She was the character I understood the least, felt most distant from--maybe she was less developed as a character, or maybe I simply wasn't clear on what was driving her. I just kind of wanted...more...something. I wanted to know her more, but she seemed like, at most, a side player in the lives of Stanzi and China. And yet she's also the one who connects most directly with the "outside world" in a way, with the news man. I'm not sure what it all means.

And yes, the letters! I kept wondering, if I go back through the book and write down all the letters that the Bush Man gave them, would it spell out a secret message? But I was too lazy.

tanita: HAHAHA! Talk about assigning meaning. I think it would spell the same gibberish Stanzi wrote on her test papers...

I want to talk about the student test thing. ALL OF THIS is supposed to have taken place because of test stress. I just didn't relate to that. I went to a ridiculously laid back little school - which was private, yes, but which never put undue stress on those tests because, well, we weren't expected to go to any college but a private Christian liberal arts college or somewhere else private and small, and most of those are ... easier to get into, if you cough out a wad of change. So, I didn't get test pressure in the same way that kids who are a.) super smart like you or b.) who went to big state schools like you did/do. So, tell me how realistic the school pressure thing felt to you?

Author photo courtesy of the author's website.
Aquafortis: can't help but say obviously there IS something to the idea of test stress. And it's something you and I did not have to deal with because we did not go to school in the No Child Left Behind days. So I'm hesitant to look to my own personal experiences for insight--also because I was one of the weirdos who kind of liked taking tests because I was generally good at it.

In thinking about this, though, I remembered that my AP/IB Biology teacher my senior year showed us a video about Harvard Med School and how kids were constantly under pressure and committing suicide from stress and so forth. And, in looking back, I feel like I had a lot of teachers like Mr. Carroll who really cared about their students and about the learning experience.

...but this is all simply to say that my experience may not shed much light on the pressure felt by the kids in the book. I actually wanted that aspect of the story to be explored more--I wanted to SEE why it was a thing, who was exerting the pressure and why exactly, because it can be something that is extremely politicized...and yet it is not universal to feel this sort of pressure--I would venture to say that's true even now with tests taking a much larger role.

tanita: Okay. So, in the end, I CRAWL THROUGH IT was weirdly enjoyable, but my enjoyment isn't the question, really: I wondered how and if Actual Teens (TM) would relate. Teen Me... aka "Me From the Past" would have been confused by this, but would probably have stuck with it because a.) A.S. King a "cool kids" author, b.) I personally enjoyed reading things no one else had read, in hopes it was obscure enough to make ME cool.

Aquafortis: I'm honestly not sure what Teen Me would have done with this one. I was decidedly less interested in literary fiction, but...maybe, depending on who handed it to me, or if I'd already read/enjoyed her other work. I CAN think of teens who would, though, connect with it. And maybe there is something generational, something having to do with living in a world of school shootings and test pressure that makes the old fears, like an eccentric naked man behind a bush, seem familiar and old hat and even comforting in a way. Maybe when the world seems to make less and less sense, a story in which reality is amorphous is just...the way things are.

Conclusion: A challenging, plot, a surrealist narrative, filled with relatable yet deeply quirky people whose choices - or lack of them - will leave you thoughtful or provoked. Disturbing, enigmatic, ambiguous - this has all the earmarks of a good Tandem Read. Thanks for joining us as we reviewed this notable and memorable book from A.S. King.

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