It’s hard to know where to start with the young adult novel, We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach. The premise of the book is that a large asteroid, Ardor, is more-than-likely going to make contact with earth (on April Fool’s Day, no less) and “unleash the force of more than 10 billion nuclear bombs. If that happens, an estimated 66.6% (and yes, that number is critical in the book) of the population will die. The novel follows four main characters who eventually identify as part of a karass — and yes, Wallach does have them reference Vonnegut — and we see the story unfold their points of view.
There’s Andy who’s identified as one of the burnout/punk rock kids in school, whose parents seem to be mostly absentee. Andy’s best friend is a person named Bobo, and at some point before the beginning of the story, they created a suicide pact — only Andy didn’t follow through, and Bobo never forgave him.
Anita is painted as a girl who has always bent to the will of her (quite willful) right-wing parents. However, early in the novel she moves out of their house and moves in with Andy — although previously they weren’t even friends. Like the other main character girl in the story, we don’t really see Anita as having other friends.
Peter, at first, seems like the stereotypical popular boy in school, and for a portion of the book is dating a girl named Stacy. However, Peter starts to realize that there are some irreconcilable differences between him and Stacy when he takes her to volunteer at a not-for-profit restaurant. He becomes increasingly enamored with a girl he made out with the year before, Eliza. He’s also fiercely protective of his younger, Misery (aka Samantha) who is dating Bobo.
Eliza is hard to pin down as a “type.” Her father is dying of pancreatic cancer, she goes to bars and picks up older men and brings them home with her, an attempt to reclaim her identity when the school decides she’s a slut because she made out with Peter while he was dating someone else. She’s also a photographer, and her blog Apocalypse Already, which starts off by documenting the militarization of their Seattle high school, goes viral. Her only friend in the story has already left for college.
The story weaves throughout these characters, as the weeks until Ardor might strike, are counted down by sections in the book, and the picture of pre-Apocalyptic Seattle are grim, but unsurprising: people stop going to work, there’s looting and arson, martial law is instituted and after a “riot” a bunch of people, including Eliza (and Misery & Bobo) are taken to a detention facility where they’re held indefinitely.
Part of the beauty of this book, however, emerges as Wallach allows the true selves of major and minor characters to come through, as the characters come to the realization that this might really be the end. For the most part, the characters present themselves as inherently good. They look out for each other, demonstrate varying levels of selflessness, and humanize themselves and each other. But a handful of characters present differently. This book deals with attempted rape, with incredibly violent assault, with murder (and the question: is it ever justified?), with police brutality, with arson, with abduction. Most of the violence, however, occurs offscreen and Wallach does this with artful uses of both space breaks and sentence structure.
I applaud this choice because it both allows the reader to imagine whatever it is we’ll imagine and also downplays the intensity of the violence in much the same way that Wallach downplays sex. It doesn’t all need to shown or told, and this provides characters with a certain level of complexity (and privacy) we wouldn’t get if he tried to show or tell us all.
I mentioned earlier that the 66.6% figure was important. Two characters are religious/come from religious families. One minor character in the book is tattooed with an image of Ardor rocketing toward Earth as well as with a hellscape, and it’s telling that he also acts as a minor god (or devil) within the plot. Wallach is never so heavy-handed as to be like look at my devil number, look at it, look at it, but he doesn’t need to be — the characters do this for us, and in the end, Eliza who is not religious, creates a spur-of-the-moment philosophy based on a Creator and mercy, as a way of showing compassion to someone who desperately needs it. I could spend a lot of time on this symbolism, but not without providing major spoilers (so perhaps that will be a different blog post).
Part of what’s masterful about this book is that the characters are able to grow, and to allow each other to grow, in the space of just weeks (the beginning of the book is 10 weeks before Ardor is due to strike Earth). And, Wallach doesn’t neatly wrap the book up, which allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the decisions the characters have made and if those decisions were worth it. This seems like an especially good choice for a young adult novel with complex main characters, and I’d recommend this book to young adult readers and adults alike.