I Crawl Through It
Everyone has an opinion about young adult literature. More accurately, everyone has an opinion on adults reading young adult literature. Critics say that it's indicative of a "generation" (spat out with a sneer and a drag on a cigarette) and their inability to accept adulthood. They think it's "creepy" and juvenile that adults would want to read books about teenagers.
Do you know what's really, really, unbelievably hard? Being a teenager. It's a relatively novel concept in human society. Girls and boys used to marry straight out of puberty and die when they were thirty. No dirty thirty for them. Adolescence was buried underneath backbreaking toil and baby-making and the struggle to survive. Or maybe you went and joined some guy's army and died on a foreign battlefield before your fifteenth birthday. All of the psychologically scarring, twisted, and practically unthinkable situations that high school and the surrounding years present to teens didn't exist two hundred years ago.
As a society, we've already given up on teens. People call them hoodlums and riffraff and losers and gangsters. Teen girls are sluts or airheads. You know what? If you continually tell them that they will fail, and construct society to your own advantage, you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy that will result in another Lost Generation. Only here the teens aren't suffering from mustard gas or machine guns. They've been told over and over how much and how badly they're going to fail. How what they do isn't going to be useful. How they're weak and ineffective. And then in the next breath, the news pundits/politicians/pearl-clutchers cry out, "But why is society failing? Where are our new leaders?"
Yeah, you threw them under the bus in high school when you took away their teachers and raised the price of education and sent the jobs overseas and decided to get so wrapped up in yourselves that your kids were left to fend for themselves.
And is it worth it, this pursuit of a better job or a prettier wife or a sleeker car or fewer wrinkles? I don't know many people who would unequivocally say, "I love my job!" and mean it. Jobs are ways for people to pay off debts that they got into to get the jobs. The employment ouroboros reigns. We're taught to stifle our passions and just work harder. We're forced to give up our autonomy to a company that will maybe pay us what we need to live. And that company can police you and patrol you and fire you on a whim. So you work harder to prove yourself to be needed. And when you work harder your soul dies a little bit faster. And you think about all that stuff that seemed so important in high school and you realize it was just society's way of telling you that your life is going to suck unless you standardize and shut up.
I Crawl Through It has been described as a surrealist novel. I can see why that label applies: this book has invisible helicopters and girls turned inside out so they're stomachs on legs and parents whose idea of a "vacation" is visiting all the sites of mass murders at schools in America. And yet, I see it as a book that approaches real problems in a unique way. It would be wrong for me to attempt to assign meaning to all of the wild and unreal things that happen in this novel. They'll mean something different to each reader; that's why they're left so open-ended. If you want a book that gives you answers, that gives you an ending with a bow and maybe a puppy on the side, this is not for you. If you liked Catch-22 (I adore that book), you'll love I Crawl Through It. In particular, the principal who escapes her office through a hole in the parking lot made me think of the CID man jumping in and out of windows, and I laughed. Comparing a book about the insanity and pointlessness of war with one about high school isn't as far off as you might think.
Going back to this mess of being a teenager, I think part of the reason adults read young adult literature is that we're still trying to process what happened to us in high school. People of my generation, in their late twenties and early thirties, went to school under circumstances that no parent could have predicted. We had lockdowns after Columbine to prepare for a shooter. We had fake lockdowns so that the police could bring in the drug-sniffing dogs and run them along the lockers. We had a pass to go to the bathroom, and another to go to the library, and our parents had to practically sign in blood to take us to the doctor. We didn't go to high schools; we went to juvenile detention centers with built-in educational systems.
And then there was September 11, 2001. When you went to the airport suddenly every crevice of your body was a potential weapons locker. Nail clippers became deadly weapons. This mass panic subsided into a low-level hum that permeated our lives. Bomb threats became routine. And we couldn't stop it; we couldn't rewind to make things the way they were. It's sick to think that bomb threats and lockdowns are our reality. That it's normal. That rape culture would grow into this vile, twisted behemoth, now with the opportunity for even more public victim shaming on social media! That a boy could be known for his "behavior," but a girl reporting a rape is just trying to get some attention.
So these characters A.S. King shows us--China, Stanzi, Gustav, and Lansdale--don't have to have a fully-fleshed out backstory. I don't need to know the color of China's eyes because maybe I am her, or high-school me was her. Or maybe I see myself in all of them. In this fight against the fill-in-the-bubbles testing, the endless bomb threats, the drills, the police, and the banality of life. When you're raging so hard that you break and no one even notices you fall to pieces. When parents are so wrapped up in themselves that they don't see their children self-destructing. When parents don't care.
Stanzi finds solace in the methodical motions of dissection. Frogs, pigs--it doesn't matter. She opens each preserved animal corpse up neatly, knowing what she will find and yet hoping to find something else. Stanzi loves Gustav, her neighbor who is a physics whiz and is building an invisible red helicopter to escape. Stanzi's best friend, China, presents as all the different parts of the digestive tract. Anus days are particularly uncomfortable for everyone involved. And Lansdale's compulsive lying causes her hair to grow, much like Pinocchio's nose. All of these teens are broken and hurt and trying to survive the hell that is high school.
When a guy who hides in a bush and hands out finely-made alphabet sculptures in exchange for kisses sets up on Gustav's street, the lands of the repressed adult and the oppressed teen collide in an extraordinary way. Running away from life isn't possible. We have to crawl through it as best we can. We slip and fall in the sewage and mire, but we keep crawling.
P.S. I thought I was the only teen with a crush on Hawkeye Pierce.
I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.