Everybody Sees the Ants (by A.S. King)

12 12 2011

In many ways the test of true authorship is a writer’s second published work. If the first is good, that could just be a fluke, or it could be a genuine attestation of talent which then ought to be affirmed by that Hard Second Book.  And if that 2nd work is really the touchstone for all other work of an author, then A.S. King has her work cut out for her. Topping a book like Please Ignore Vera Diet, Michael L. Printz Award and praised by almost everyone who read it,  is not an easy thing to accomplish. For the cat it’s a book that is very – *very* – high up the List of Ultimate YA Novels. Amy King did the clever thing with Everybody Sees the Ants: she showed enough (stylistic and other) similarities to Vera Dietz to lure her fans, yet didn’t take the easy way out and added a few historical and other layers and came up with an almost universal story about bullying.

Lucky Linderman may have the unluckiest life imaginable. Lucky’s grandfather never came back from the Vietnam War leaving his father scarred for life, escaping any real problems his son and his wife have today. His mother just pretends that things will be OK by swimming away her troubles, when they clearly won’t. This time around Lucky got in trouble with an unconventional research question for his social studies class: “If you decided to kill yourself, how would you do it?”. On top of that Lucky has been bullied by Nader McMillan since almost forever, until now things have definitely gone one step too far. Lucky and his mom decide to take a trip to Aunt Jodi and Uncle Dave in Arizona to be away from bullies and their dysfunctional family life for a while, and maybe sort things out truly and effectively. But then, there are those pesky ants that Lucky sees almost everywhere, commenting on his lousy life, and then there are also the dreams, in which Lucky time and time again has to save his grandfather somewhere in a jungle in Vietnam…

In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, King already experimented with some unconventional points of view (the town pagoda remains a favorite!), but in a way the point of view throughout The Ants might be even harder to pull off for her: that of a 15-year-old teenage boy. It is probably not very obvious to relate to a teenage boy’s thoughts (which yes, are obviously often of a sexual nature) if you’re a forties-something woman, and write that down in a believable manner. However, the ease with which Amy King talks about getting boners in the presence of nice looking girls like Ginny suggests she’s a pro at it (and the cat says this in the nicest non-sexual explicit way possible 😉 ).

Not just in point of view does Amy King choose the road less traveled, also when it comes to narrative sequence and structure, she does the more daring thing. In The Ants she mixes up realistic fiction with magical realism (the ants, the dream sequences) and historically relevant facts about Vietnam POWs and MIAs. What is more, it never seems convoluted nor do the dream sequences for instance interrupt the narrative flow of the story (which is often the case when you have dream sequences in movies or TV-series). And in a way, the cat even wanted to encourage the ants and have them say ‘Kill her, kill her, kill her’ whenever Aunt Jodi felt the need to comment on Lucky’s life (Aunt Jodi = freaky, scary, psychotic!) and the fact that “he’s clearly depressed”, “he should take some pills”.

Lucky Linderman is not the luckiest of teenagers at the start of the novel. Being bullied is only part of his troubled life. It is clear that his parents do not know how to deal with their sons’ problems and insecurities either and it has started to affect their relationship as a couple and as a family, which was already in trouble. I guess, Lucky’s parents just don’t know how to be parents and cope with what life throws at them. And if Lucky’s attempts at saving his grandfather ever want to be successful, he will first have to try and save himself, with the help of his parents.  Before Lucky will be able to act and move forward, even stand up to his aggressor, he will need to understand. His parents will need to understand. His bully will need to understand. His friends will need to understand. He may not be there yet, but he knows: it gets better.

Everybody Sees the Ants may not be Please Ignore Vera Dietz, but A.S. King has definitely passed the test of talent. The Ants is a multi-layered, relevant, universal and deeply important book.  Oh and it’s darn funny too! Get it!

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