A.S. King had an honor book last year (Please Ignore Vera Dietz), so I have been looking forward to reading Everybody Sees the Ants. This second book feels really different from Vera, although it has some elements in common: hints of magical realism and a thoughtful, intellectual center that acts as a unifying backbone to realistic, relatable characters.
The plot: Everyone seems to want to help Lucky Linderman, who came to school authorities’ attention by creating a school-wide survey on suicide his freshman year. He’s not actually considering suicide himself; he is, however, being ruthlessly tormented by Nader McMillan. Guidance counselors, teachers, his parents: all are well-meaning but don’t seem to know how to help or what to tell him. It’s only in his dreams, where Lucky is determined to rescue his grandfather (who is a POW/MIA in Vietnam since 1973), that Lucky attempts to deal with his daily life. But are his dreams only dreams? As Nader’s bullying escalates, and Lucky increasingly resents his distant, powerless father, Lucky starts to see the ants, a Greek Chorus-like group who comment honestly — and sometimes hilariously — on what goes on.
There’s a lot that I loved in this read: Lucky is an engaging narrator, and his tough, hurt, bewildered reactions to things are captivating. The shifts in time between chapters are effective, and the secondary characters are almost all complex and memorable. The ants are a conceit that really worked for me as a reader. The humor they bring to heartbreaking and upsetting situations provides a really nice balance; the funny artfully enhances the sad. I like the various connections that King weaves between bullies and wars, too. There are the public conflicts that we clearly struggle to talk about (still: Vietnam; today: Afghanistan and Iran) and the private conflicts that we can barely acknowledge. We can mostly-sort-of own our ambiguous feelings about sending young people to war but are ill-equipped to talk about the hurtful conflicts that they all experience on a day-to-day basis. (No, really ill-equipped; check out this blog and Op-Ed from danah boyd.) This is a book about hidden and public wars, and it’s thought provoking and emotional and powerful.
I had some issues with parts of it. Many of the secondary characters work well (Lucky’s parents, his aunt and uncle), but Nader (the bully) and Ginnie (possible love interest, kind of) feel thin to me. I think they’re both too important to the story to be so one-dimensional and uninteresting. Additionally, I felt that some of the narrative twists were not very surprising at all. (I’m keeping that deliberately general, since this is just out this month and I don’t want to spoil too much!)
And now we’re going to go for a side trip inside my head, because my next complaint is really all about me, me, MEEEEEE!
I really struggled with the dates in this book. Lucky’s grandfather is exactly my dad’s age. Which makes Lucky’s dad analogous to me. In fact, his dad is, according to the text, 3-4 years older than me. And while I would be biologically capable of having a teenage son, I do not. And while I have friends my own age who have children, none of them are teenagers. And while some of my friends who are 3-4 years older than me are capable of having a teenage son, they do not. And I realize that is completely anecdotal and that he wouldn’t be THAT young of a parent (he would have become a parent at 24), it’s…somewhat unusual. Worth remarking on, I guess I would say. And while I don’t believe that any teens are breaking out their calculators and doing this math, it felt off to me — off enough to me that it felt like an authorial intrusion. Even though I loved the thematic power and resonance that the Vietnam POW/MIA issues bring to the text, they started to feel shoe-horned in.
Since we started down this Sarah’s-head-sized rabbit hole, I guess we can continue. With so major a part of the novel feeling like an authorial intrusion, I started to feel it all over the book! Why isn’t Lucky saying anything—anything— about technology? Yes, he makes fun of Uncle Dave’s and Aunt Jody’s ancient computer, but that’s it. Does Lucky have a computer in his room at home? He never even (that I remember) mentions a cell phone. Does he have a crappy one? An awesome one? Why don’t I know this? And then the Vagina Monologues part only evokes a 50-something white lady, at least for me. So. Authorial intrusions. Which may only be in my head. Much like Lucky’s ants, I guess?
Frankly, I’d like to hear from people who disagree, because there’s really so much that I liked about this book. What did you all think? Did I miss some details? Am I overreacting? Pull me out of my rabbit hole!
Pub details: Little, Brown October 2011; review from ARC