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Book Review: We All Looked Up

By (March 27, 2015) No Comment

We All Looked Upwe all looked up cover

by Tommy Wallach

Simon & Schuster, 2015

There’s a bit at the beginning of Tommy Wallach’s debut Young Adult novel We All Looked Up that will make even the most tolerant reader of the genre groan aloud. It happens when tall, handsome Peter Roeslin, star student-athlete of Seattle’s Hamilton High, is contemplating the future:

And seriously, how sick was college going to be? Pledging some frat and playing ball all over the country and partying with his teammates and frat brothers every weekend. Stacy would be sure to get into SF State, so they’d see each other all the time. Then he’d got pro if he were lucky, or else get into coaching or something, and he and Stacy would get married and raise some kids and hit up Baja or TJ over Christmas breaks and buy a kick-ass summer place on Lake Chelan with a Jacuzzi. That was what life was supposed to do, right? Just keep getting better and better?

Contrary to the impression given by that passage, Wallach isn’t in his nineties. He’s in his early thirties and so has no excuse for such preposterous condescension; he’s young enough to recall clearly that the only teenagers who think any of the things he has Peter think are teenagers in YA novels. In real life, they’re cauldrons of self-doubt and tightly-focused narcissism; complacency is exclusively something older writers read back into a past that didn’t feature it.

Fortunately, We All Looked Up brims with more than enough intelligence and dramatic energy and lovely prose to compensate for what seems like the easy straw-man opening of a much earlier draft. In the remainder of the book, Peter is nowhere near dumb enough to think something like That’s what life was supposed to do, right? Just keep getting better and better? In fact, none of the book’s characters are dumb at all (although the villain of the piece, a bad apple named Bobo, comes close – convincing bad guys being an endemic weakness of YA fiction) – from anxious would-be singer Anita Graves to Peter’s sister Samantha (who goes by the name “Misery”) to Wallach’s standout creation, complex Goth-girl Eliza Olivi, all of the young people in this fantastic novel are smart and textured and complicated.

Which is just as well, since the future they face is the exact opposite of the bright picture Peter was envisioning. Wallach presents his cast of characters with the ultimate post-high school wake-up call: Ardor.

It’s ARDR-1388, an asteroid heading toward Earth on a near-collision course. Wallach insinuates it gradually into the story, with all his characters noticing a new sight in the twilight sky (“Against an eggplant-purple backdrop shone a single bright star, blue as a sapphire, like a fleck of afternoon someone had forgotten to wipe away”) but at first paying it no attention as they go about their lives. The school’s regulation astronomy nerd has plenty of exposition to dump about Ardor, but he’s not worried about, although he’s worried about practically everything else:

“This is the twenty-first century. The oceans are rising. Mad dictators have access to nuclear weapons. Corporatism and the dumbing down of the media have destroyed the very foundation of democracy. Anyone who isn’t afraid is a moron.”

But as Anton Chekhov pointed out over a hundred years ago, if you introduce a killer asteroid in the first chapter, you’ve got to do something with it, and in short order Ardor is revealed as a world-killing menace. Reprising the Morgan Freeman role from Deep Impact, President Obama takes the press conference podium and gives his version of Freeman’s “Life will go on. You will pay your bills” speech:

“I can’t sugarcoat the result of a collision. The asteroid is almost eight miles wide at its thickest point. If it lands, it will unleash the force of more than one billion nuclear bombs … When this danger passes us by, as I know it will, we cannot afford to have let fear run our country or ourselves, for even a single day. The only thing we can do now, the only American thing to do, is to continue on with our lives, hold our loved ones close, and trust that God will keep us safe.”

In a genius plotting move, Wallach never tells us whether or not such trust in God is well-placed; he ends his novel before Ardor arrives. He’s more concerned with the Lord of the Flies-style social degeneration that happens in the lead-up to collision, and in chapters that skillfully switch character viewpoints, we watch as savagery overtakes social order in the weeks leading up to the asteroid’s projected approach. The central characters don’t know for certain that their world will end, but they sure as hell act like it is, indulging in both heroism and villainy to exaggerated extents. Wallach pulls it off wonderfully, especially a kaleidoscopic climax that’s both exciting and wrenching (readers will never be able to read the term “Pyrrhic victory” without thinking of this book’s ending).

We All Looked Up has already been optioned as a movie by a Hollywood hungry for YA books to adapt for the big screen, so it won’t be long before hordes of teenage girls are treated to the sight of Ansel Elgort or Dylan O’Brien as Peter. Fans of well-done YA fiction shouldn’t wait, however: just look for the book with the wonderful Lucy Ruth Cummins cover.