The asteroid is a great plot device. It hurls toward Earth indiscriminately, which makes it an uncomplicated villain that requires no motive. And unlike a terrestrial disaster, its impending nature gives the story an overriding sense of dread and inevitability.
The offending asteroid in Tommy Wallach’s debut young adult novel, We All Looked Up, has two months until it reaches Earth’s trajectory — a prospect that upends the lives of, among other people, several high schoolers living in Seattle. This is basically Melancholia for teens.
The book alternates among the perspectives of four people, a bit like Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, but with characters who are actually nuanced and interesting. Anita, the Princeton-bound straight-A student, suddenly wants to make music. She enlists the help of aimless stoner Andy, who suddenly doesn’t want to be a stoner, really. Eliza is the loner art kid branded the school “slut.” And of course there’s Peter, the popular jock, who finds that his ability to handle high-pressure situations on the basketball court hasn’t totally equipped him to deal with the end of the world.
“We’re basically living in a Vonnegut novel now anyway,” says Andy. (It wouldn’t be a young adult novel without a heavy-handed literary reference.) Andy believes the four of them are in a karass, a kind of cosmic linkage — an idea that Andy learned about from Cat’s Cradle. Reminder: He is the stoner.
We All Looked Up doesn’t read like Vonnegut, but it does focus on four teenagers who are very likely to adore Vonnegut and stick them in a Vonnegut-esque situation. There’s a 66.6 percent chance that the asteroid will collide with Earth, which means that all four characters straddle the precarious line of living every day like it’s one of their last while hedging just enough in case everyone survives.
Throughout the novel, the asteroid is referred to by its name, Ardor. It’s strange that we name big storms and hurricanes, as if it’s an attempt to humanize them. But perhaps it just makes them easier to forgive. It’s Eliza who is the most thoughtful about their imminent doom: “Even Ardor — a white freckle on the blushing face of the sky — was deserving of her love, because the asteroid was doing nothing worse than what it was meant to do.”
Wallach’s novel elevates the mundane but universal adolescent identity crisis to a kind of existential crisis. While there is plenty of high school drama — a love triangle that eventually turns into a love square — Wallach writes with a patience and emotional maturity that is often lacking in books aimed at the teen set. We All Looked Up also has all the makings of a John Green–scale blockbuster. On top of its crossover appeal, the novel’s film rights were optioned way back in September, and Wallach also recorded an accompanying album that is destined to be reblogged to infinity on Tumblr.
Denton Little’s Deathdate is another young adult book centered on a similarly morbid concept, but handled with a much lighter touch. At birth, everyone is given their “deathdate” — the exact day when they will die. Denton Little has spent his entire life knowing when it will be over. That day, of course, is the day of senior prom.
Deathdate is a lot of fun. Denton wakes up after his first night of drinking, having blacked out from peach schnapps (high school!), certain that he has lost his virginity to his best friend’s sister instead of his girlfriend (high schoooool!). From the beginning, Deathdate cleverly flips the get-laid-before-prom trope and focuses on Denton’s moral dilemma about whether he tells his friends what happened or just takes the whole thing to the grave with him.
If Wallach used the threat of looming death to make his characters more meditative, Lance Rubin has used it to draw outsize reactions from his. Most of Deathdate’s scenes are driven by dialogue, much of which is witty banter between Denton and his friend Paolo. Deathdate also makes a dozen jokes per page — some funnier than others, but pleasingly good-natured at all times. (“My parents always said that my bank account — $312.88 — and my belongings — even with my extensive movie collection — didn’t merit creating a will.”) In fact, everything about the novel is bighearted. Denton is more concerned with those around him than with his own demise.
Deathdate isn’t necessarily interested in world-building, but Rubin does invent a lot of clever customs. Funerals are held the day before the deathdate, so the person can witness all of his eulogies. Then there is the Sitting, a fascinating ritual where family and close friends hang out with the to-be-deceased until he finally passes.
The best young adult books wrestle with identity. They’re immensely readable because they’re character-focused, and they evoke a familiar, inevitable character transformation from adolescence to adulthood.
“I wish you were at least going to make it through prom,” Denton’s girlfriend says.
Deathdate or asteroid or not, I think every teenager just wants to make it through prom. To survive high school — figuratively or literally — is to come of age.
Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen) is the editorial director of Oyster and the editor of the Oyster Review.