Saturday, 13 April 2013

Ask the Passengers, by A S King

After a great deal of mental resistance, I recently joined twitter (follow me @bookythought), and one of the first twitter feeds I looked at was John Green’s, on which he had posted the following comment: “People kept telling me @as_king's books are kinda like mine, but having read ASK THE PASSENGERS, I can report that in fact hers are better.” Which seemed like as good a recommendation as any.

Why oh why have I never heard of A S King before?

Ask the Passengers tells the story of Astrid Jones, a regular teenage girl growing up in a small American town, but with a secret. Actually, that’s not true, it’s not a secret. Rather, she’s in the process of figuring out who she is and who she wants to be, and her secret isn’t a secret because she’s not even sure if it’s true yet or not. She needs to reach a certain point of acceptance about it before the rest of the world should get a look in; this is, after all, her life and her feelings. The secret? She’s falling in love with a girl.

Astrid is smart and sensitive and she knows her own mind. She knows the difference between right and wrong; she knows how it feels to be pushed into things she doesn’t think are right and to do things she doesn’t want to do. She’s just trying to stand up for herself, but everyone else seems to think their expectations should come first. This is why, when she needs to escape the construct of her world, she sends her love to the passengers on the planes that fly overhead – she has so much love to give, but no-one else, right now, to give it to.

In a very John Green-esque way, King has intertwined a raft of interesting ideas through Astrid’s story, particularly that of the Socratic paradox, an idea introduced through Astrid’s humanities class, along with Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave and, as the ending draws near, the concepts of perfection and perception. Of the Socratic paradox - ethical constructs that seem to conflict with common sense - Astrid says,

The only way to disprove something that defies common sense is to ask why. Why would people desire evil? Why are people evil? Don’t they think they are doing good from their perspective? What is evil then, anyway? That’s exactly the type of thing Socrates was after. Making people think so they could find the truth.” (pg. 85)

And this is what Astrid wants too: to make people think. She wants to challenge the things that might otherwise be accepted as a given; she doesn’t want to put a label on herself, and why should she? Especially when it’s only others who will use that label; especially in a town where everyone likes to know everyone else’s business. What does it mean if she gay? Why does it have to mean something big, something groundbreaking? Why can’t it simply mean that she’s fallen in love?

It’s true that King’s writing has a similar feel to John Green, as do a whole raft of contemporary American authors who are just starting to trickle through to the UK book-waters (David LevithanMaureen Johnson, to name just two). Is she better? I don’t think you can say that any one of these authors is better than the others; rather, they each have a way of writing and tapping into the inner conscious in a way that British authors don’t quite match – it seems to be a style that is currently unique to the American culture, which is perhaps why it feels so fresh and exciting when these wonderful books arrive on British bookshelves. It’s like the teen version of ‘The Great American Novel’. And it turns out that King is a Printz Honor author, a prize that’s the rough US equivalent of the UK’s Carnegie Medal. Mental note: must read other Printz Honor authors.

King and Astrid together achieve what they set out to do: make people think; make readers think. And it’s achieved in a really beautiful way. It’s a story that is almost poetic; it flows and undulates, full of both hard edges and soft corners for the reader to work their around. Astrid’s family consists of a permanently stoned father, a hyper-intense mother, and a little sister who is desperate to fit in. Their behavior toward her, particularly her mother, is hideously caged and resistant. Following a particular incident about half way through the book, Astrid’s parents ask her if she is gay, but Astrid is unable to answer – not because she’s afraid of saying that word, but because she simply doesn’t know the answer yet. Instead of listening and being supportive, her mother’s response is, why are you doing this to us? Why are you lying? It riled me, made me want to get up on my soapbox, to support Astrid, to feel for her in a million different ways.

As other people’s words and stories and actions get blown out of proportion like Chinese whispers, all of a sudden Astrid is the bad guy in the room. Everyone wants someone to blame for the fact that – *shock, horror* – there are gay people in the town. And in this small-town world, Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave  seems even more relevant:

People chained in a cave are only able to see a wall. The wall has shadows cast from a fire they can’t see. They guess at what the shadows are. Their entire reality becomes these shadows.” (pg. 111)

People only see what they want to see, or what they think they know. It’s an almost impossible ask, sometimes, to get them to consider a new reality. Ultimately, I don’t think Astrid quite gets her parents to understand the new reality she is trying to present to them: that you don’t have to be one thing or the other. But she does find her own way around the mine, a way to be herself and to get them to accept her. She uses a label whilst simultaneously turning that label on its head, which is just brilliant.

Ask the Passengers is wonderful reading, compulsive and thoughtful, and I found myself sitting up until two in the morning reading, simply because I could not put the book down. And then the next day I went out and ordered King’s Everybody Sees the Ants, because I want to hear more of what this author has to say about the world.

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