Ask the Passengers, A.S. King, Little, Brown & Co., 2012.
Sometimes, in my ponderings about writing a book of my own someday or when I’m thinking about that next tattoo, I think about epigrams. They stress me out. There are so many memorable and insightful quotes out there in the world, when it comes to choosing only one (or a few) to include at the beginning of a book or to etch forever onto your skin — how does one do it? Where do you begin? Yet people are able to find those exact right words all the time. A. S. King at the beginning of Ask the Passengers, for example.
I liked these quotes when I first opened this book, but when I went back and read them again when it was all over, I liked them even more. These quotes offer separate messages yet all manage to flow into each other perfectly. And they magically sum up the journey of our protagonist, Astrid Jones.
Here are a few things to know about Astrid Jones. She moved to a small town in Pennsylvania from New York City earlier in her life and even though it’s been years now she still doesn’t fit in. Maybe no one in her family does. To cope, her dad has turned into a massive pothead, which is preferable to her mother, a cold and childish bitch who wasn’t always a cold and childish bitch, who drove me to fits of rage throughout the novel. Her sister has jumped into the mold of trying to be the perfect small town girl, a role that distances her from Astrid even more. And even Astrid’s best friend is wrapped in lies, a secret lesbian who parades as the popular girl on the homecoming court with the perfect boyfriend during the week while hitting up the local gay bar on the weekends. To combat all the falsehoods she sees in her life, Astrid’s favorite hobby is to lie on the picnic table in her backyard, staring at the planes flying above, and she sends her love to the passengers. (Sometimes, we get to see the passengers receive it.) She sends all her to love to as many people as she can, silently, without hope or need for reciprocity. As she says, “It’s a good game because I can’t lose. Because if I give it all away, then no one can control it.”
This sending-love-to-planes thing might sound hokey, but maybe if we all engaged more freely in things that sounded hokey, the world would be a better place.
A couple other things about Astrid Jones: she really likes her Humanities class, and takes to talking in her head frequently to Socrates, although his single name makes her uncomfortable so she gives him a first one: Frank. Frank Socrates helps her out. She also has more in common with her best friend than her best friend knows, because she may or may not also be in love with a girl, one named Dee, who she makes out with in the walk-in freezer during her job on the weekends. This may or may not mean she’s gay, but she refuses to decide for most of the novel. Most of the novel involves her asking Frank why she has to be in one box or another in the first place.
I’ve been part of the queer community long enough to know that “sexual fluidity” can often be seen as a dirty phrase. As an excuse, as a cop out. So here’s a warning to those of you who feel this way: this is a novel about sexual fluidity. Except it’s also not. Astrid doesn’t spend her time focusing on questions as black and white as, “Do I like boys or girls?” In fact, she never really thinks about boys, at all. Mainly she thinks about boxes, about labels, about the need to “come out” as this one definite thing. When people ask if she’s gay and she says “I don’t know,” the only person who doesn’t either get angry or think she’s lying is Frank Socrates.
This defiance of labels is often seen as fear of actually accepting one’s gayness; and maybe sometimes it is, but does it have to be? Maybe it’s just a stage to an eventual deeper level of understanding of one’s self, but does that make it bad? Does that make it a lie? Believe me, there were moments during the novel that Astrid’s constant refusal to declare herself one thing or the other frustrated me, too. Because as human beings, we want things to be one way or the other. It’s easier. As Astrid says, that’s why Socrates was eventually forced to drink hemlock. Constant questioning makes people uncomfortable. When Dee continually pressures Astrid to “come out,” Astrid replies with this paragraph, which sends a message I believe we should shout just as loudly as we shout that it’s Okay to Be Gay:
“Still, it’s none of your business until I’m ready to tell you. Calling it a lie is wrong. And kinda hurtful. I really know what you’re trying to say, but try to think about it from my side. It just sucks that you’d hold my own confusion — which tortured me for months — against me. Seriously.”
Seriously. Let’s stop doing that.
I have probably already talked about this book for too long, but if you’re not convinced about it yet, let me tell you that A.S. King is a fantastic writer. As proof of this, her quirky chapter titles in this book are enough alone to make me love it. Here’s a sample of my favorites: “Aubergines, Foyers, and the Horse Who Lives Upstairs,” “Homecoming Friday is Jiggly,” “I Think the Raccoons Now Have Dysentery,” “OhShitOhShitOhShitOhShit Part Two,” and “Friday is Just Gross.” Come on, now. How could you NOT want to read a book that includes a chapter called “I Think the Raccoons Now Have Dysentery”? I would kill to write a book like that. But I didn’t; A.S. King did, and it was just released last week, and you should all read it.