A.S. King has penned an absorbing Rorschach test of a book that, as you turn its pages, manages to read you.
Billed as “surrealist fiction,” I Crawl Through It requires us to supply our own answers to the riddle of its teenage characters, who exist as abstracts of their emotional states: Stanzi, the girl who is split in two; China, who has swallowed herself and turned inside out; Lansdale, whose lies make her hair grow long; and Gustav, the boy whose invisible helicopter could help them escape.
Escape … what exactly? This is where King grounds her unorthodox characters in the painfully mundane. These are kids who deal almost daily with a series of mysterious bomb threats, all unfolding in the real-world shadow of madmen with assault weapons storming schools. There are characters grappling with sexual assaults they have tried to suppress, while others face the standard adolescent feelings of confusion and isolation that come with growing up and trying to find a place for yourself in the world. The school, meanwhile, can only quantify the worth of its weird and wonderful students through the boxes they check on standardize tests. In this stultifying and frustrating world, the question is not why these kids want to run away, but why doesn’t everybody?
King doesn’t make it easy on the reader. You have to be prepared to bring your own interpretations to the party, and seldom does she set up any dead-ends where the reader’s analysis is proven incorrect. There are no dumb questions, and only occasionally wrong answers.
Her narrators frequently present perspective-twisting comparisons that reveal themselves easily enough if you’re paying attention. One character describes her time “inside a television,” watching the worried faces of her friends and family as they view her in the box, but it doesn’t take long to figure out she’s looking at them from the window of a cell in a mental facility.
The significance of the helicopter is more protean. Maybe it’s simply an invisible aircraft, but I saw it as a metaphor for friendship, the thing that truly lifts you out of hard times at that age — although we often don’t see it until we desperately need it. (To stretch the metaphor, it turns out both can only take off when you bare yourself and throw away all the baggage we use to hide or shield ourselves.) King has written a philosophical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure where you don’t get to determine the action, but you do get to ascribe meaning.
The adults of the story live largely in another dimension. Not literally, although, hey, maybe. Their lives exist as parallel lines to their children and students. They’re not indifferent, just stuck on another wavelength — with one exception: A middle-aged woman named Patricia, who makes an appearance midway through the book and becomes a literal landing point for two of the fleeing main characters. Who is she? Why is she? How does her world fit into theirs?
Again, you make the call. I saw her as a symbol of these kids in the future, a life that has more control than that of a teenager but is still fraught with frustrations and complications. They come to her seeking escape, she comes to them for the same. I think it illustrates how we spend our whole childhoods trying to grow up and get away, and the rest of our lives yearning to go back.
I Crawl Through It presents the shattered perspective, the moment when young minds unspool like line from a broken fishing reel. Piecing it back together isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s worthwhile and keen YA readers will enjoy deciphering King’s puzzles. One I haven’t mentioned yet: the mysterious “bush man” who keeps rewarding the kids with handmade letters when he feels they’ve given him something of value.
I thought, “Odd. Who does that?” Then I assigned this book an A.