hi AS King fan who is totally confused and disappointed! Shall we have a chat so you can decide if you want to finish the book? Or if you’re done, figure out if you even liked it?
You are probably reading this review because your head is filled with wtf, and you want to know are you crazy. You’ve loved Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Ask the Passengers and Everybody Sees the Ants, so you are totally down with how AS King plays with the idea of “reality”*, but this new book just seems a bridge too far. Nothing makes sense. It’s hard to get a grasp on these characters, or the rules of the story. You get that King is being experimental, but you came with a certain set of expectations about what a King story feels like. And this story just feels TOO weird and fractured.
So here is my advice, which is only spoilerish in the sense that because I stuck with it to the end, I figured some stuff out for myself, so you reading my thoughts might rob you of the experience of figuring things out/interpreting things on your own:
1) There’s a line near the end of the book where a character is laughing about how weird their town is. So I decided that all of the odd characters and absurdist behavior of the powers-that-be at the school can be taken at face value within the rules of this story-setting. At the beginning I assumed that one or two of the main character teens were individually delusional and narrating the story “unreliably” because they were having a break with “reality”* and that was their coping mechanism. And to some degree this is true, but I think one of the points that King tries to make is that we are collectively delusional. Other reviewers have said that they think King’s surrealist metaphors here are a gimmick that don’t work, and I found that to be true for most of the book UNTIL I decided to stop taking them as only metaphors, and accepting that they were “actually” “real”*. So in other words Dali’s melting clocks can both be metaphors and actual melting clocks, if that makes sense. Asia’s inside out body can both be a metaphor, as well as a thing that was “really”* happening.
2) *you gotta give it to King that she’s made her life’s work poking at the concept of “reality”, which I can only assume is always in air quotes in her head. Which I kindof agree with. So be prepared for some metaphysical shizz.
3) Another clue that King is interested in our collective delusions or our collective behavior as opposed to the idea that one individual is out of step with “reality” is this story of Fuenteovejuna that one of the characters share about 2/3 of the way through. It’s the story of a medieval town in Spain that basically takes collective action or possibly collective responsibility for an act of vigilante justice. It’s not clear if it’s a Spartacus situation or a Murder on the Orient Express situation, but the idea of a collective reality is definitely there. So for those of you trying to figure out who was sending the bomb threats to the school, I think the allegory of Fuenteovejuna is the best answer you are going to get.
4) Finally, this is really the first book of King’s where it is collectively narrated. Yes, in Vera Dietz, you had a few characters narrating but the story was ABOUT Vera. This story is not about one character. It is about a group of four teens, about a town, about a culture, about a collective reality that often seems absurd.
So my 4 hints above might help you understand/appreciate what King is up to, but will you like it? Of course I cannot answer that for you.
For me: I liked it. From an intellectual perspective. Emotionally, not so much. Even though the characters are all dealing with trauma and all have moments of transformation or redemption, the collective story made it difficult for me to connect with any of the characters. And I hate to say it, but having read so much YA about so much trauma, I didn’t really find anything new here. Yes, the way the story was constructed was very very very different. But in terms of what it had to say, I didn’t find much new to think about or feel. I also just didn’t particularly enjoy some of the grotesqueries in the book – appreciated them structurally, but I didn’t enjoy them.
Finally, I want to talk about the cover and the jacket and how it seems like the book is “about” the collective delusion of forcing students to take standardized tests to assess them. It’s definitely a theme in this story, but I do not think it is THE theme. King isn’t really taking a hard stance on anything, I don’t think, except that: we all individually and collectively create delusions and realities; there are no answers; people forget to ask questions.
I’m so happy to see blog posts here again!