WARNING: The following post discusses details of Tommy Wallach's novel, We All Looked Up which may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned!
In my previous post about This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, I discussed how the author utilized the point-of-view of multiple characters and a compressed timeline to increase tension and drive the central conflict of the novel. As I am currently contemplating a new idea where a similar multi-character perspective could help drive the plot, I have been reading works that create suspense much in the same way. In this aspect, author Tommy Wallach’s novel We All Looked Up also uses a shortened timeline and multiple perspectives in attempt to propel the narrative to enhance conflict. However, the two-month timespan of Wallach’s novel often feels unnecessarily stretched out and the obscurity of the ending leaves readers feeling as if they’ve taken a journey to nowhere.
Primarily, Wallach’s novel is plagued by having too many possible protagonists which forces him to work really hard at developing a conflict suitable enough to drive the action of the novel. Essentially, readers just passively observe the characters waiting for a comet to either hit the earth or not. Since one of the main antagonists is the approaching comet itself; therefore, not only do readers deserve to know what happens to the characters, but a solid story structure demands it. The fact that Wallach’s ending does not attempt to answer the question it spends two hundred pages developing is frustrating to say the least. Suspense is a wonderful device when utilized effectively, but here it feels like a tool to merely keep the reader interested and hoping the payoff will be worth it in the end. At times Wallach’s novel teeters between the author’s attempt at creating suspense and the reader’s frustration at waiting for something (anything) to happen.
Early in the novel, Peter (a protagonist among many) has a conversation with one of his teachers which would appear to set the pace of Wallach’s tale; but it is simply a tease. This conversation explores the notion of what a good book should be able to do and ironically exposes what Wallach himself is unable to achieve in his own work. The teacher tells Peter:
“The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world. You’re part of this cosmic community of people who’ve thought about this thing, whatever it happens to be” (Wallach 11)
Unfortunately, a closer examination of this ideal is not explored to fruition in the story itself. The concept that a novel should explore things in a new way is certainly not groundbreaking and Wallach’s drawn out narrative explaining how the characters are dealing with the notion that a comet MIGHT hit Earth seems thin in hindsight since the ending (or lack thereof) is never fully revealed. While the young adult audience will certainly be intrigued by the subject matter – the possibility of civilization as we know it ending – they will likely be just as frustrated with Wallach’s frequent attempt at over-analyzing, incessant philosophizing, and at times downright preachy approach to the fragility of humanity.
Young adults read for many of the same reasons that adults do; however, they are only just beginning to ask the big questions and authors have a certain responsibility to take this seriously while giving them room to explore their own hypothesis. Wallach’s authorial intent at first seems clear from the above passage: seeking to explore the big questions. But since his attempt at suspense revolves around how the characters change (or not) while waiting for the comment, it should also build to a sufficient crescendo for the reader. Furthermore, the secondary and tertiary characters are not sufficiently developed in a meaningful way and fail to add to the plot progression but rather extend it almost annoyingly.
Later in the novel, Wallach continues to weave a philosophical tone that saturates his attempt at progressing the plot. He points out that “Socrates believed that in a perfect world, every person would be doing the thing that they were born to do” (113). Now, while some may view this as the incidental musings of authorial intent, it becomes almost laughable when consideration is given to the fact that the characters do not have any real purpose at all aside from their inability to control what may or may not happen to them.
Even if the reader acknowledges that in life, endings are not always expected or fair or even clear – the journey of the characters still needs a sufficient payoff in fiction. While we may never know why something happens, this novel fails to explore the event actually happening at all which feels like a terrible waste of time. If Wallach intended to make a statement about the pointlessness of life, he could have at least given his novel the gift of that singular idea. Instead, he teeters – often taking one step forward and another three back. Readers want to see something happen or feel the ending has sufficiently satisfied the characters’ arc. Instead Wallach’s own work drones on while also echoing the “mistaken belief that anything [can] last forever” (330). By leaving the big questions unanswered he actually illegitimatizes the characters and the journey altogether.
It is also worth noting that the story ends with the characters “praying for mercy” (370) – literally. This creates more questions without answers and results in nothing but frustration. Where did God enter the picture? If not God, then to whom are they praying? And most importantly – did the comet hit or miss them? This journey of self-discovery hinges on the characters discovering something – anything! And what began as a series of questions ends with even more. At least, one thing is consistent and that’s Wallach’s abstract approach to tangible ideas: the pressure of unfulfilled dreams, the end of the world, the human connection.
Essentially, for a novel to leave the reader with a sense of completion, there has to be a sense of completion in the work. So, I fundamentally believe the best, most realistic novels are the ones that force us to face a problem and deal with the aftermath the best way we (and the characters) know how. In the end, if this is also left obscure, suspense, character motivation, and the very progression of the plot seems to be all in vain. And no matter the topic, no reader wants to feel as if their time has been wasted.