It's not often that we really reflect on the universe and all the spinning stuff out there that renders our lives practically meaningless (you know, except when NASA releases a mind-bending shot like this). That's why Tommy Wallach's upcoming YA novel, "We All Looked Up," is such a mind-warp. Not only does it force its characters to, well, look up and face what could be their imminent deaths -- said characters are also teens, and everyone knows we don't start ruminating on our imminent death until at least 30.
"We All Looked Up" is kind of like "Skins" meets "The Breakfast Club" meets Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia." It tells the tale of a bunch of high school stereotypes (who, of course, are much more than that) faced with a 66.6% chance that the world will end by way of an asteroid ironically named Ardor hurtling toward the Earth in a mere week's time.
Chaos, naturally, ensues -- becomes humans are wont to panic -- but, more importantly, the jock, the stoner, the brain, the slut and all the rest break out of their defined roles and find their own ways of looking toward the future (or lack-thereof).
A musician, Wallach also composed a companion record for the book, both out March 24. And, lucky for you, today we have an excerpt from the novel as well as a track from the record, "A Natural Disaster," for your eager consumption.
Check 'em out below and let us know in the comments: What would you do if you thought the world was going to end?
It had all started a year ago.
Eliza was working late in the photo lab, as usual. She spent most of her free time there, alone with her thoughts, her favorite music, and her vintage Exakta VX (a kind of reverse going-away present from her mother, who moved to Hawaii with her new boyfriend just a few weeks after Eliza turned fourteen).
It was the same camera that Jimmy Stewart used in "Rear Window," with a black leather grip and a polished silver band running down the center. The dials on top were thick with machine-tooled hatchings and spun with heavy, satisfying clicks.
Eliza kept the camera in a side compartment of her bag at all times, so she could get at it easily in an aesthetic emergency. Quick draw, like a cowboy with a six-shooter, always ready to capture that fleeting frame.
She believed photography to be the greatest of all art forms because it was simultaneously junk food and gourmet cuisine, because you could snap dozens of pictures in a couple of hours, then spend dozens of hours perfecting just a couple of them.
She loved how what began as an act of the imagination turned into a systematic series of operations, organized and ordered and clear: mixing up the processing bath, developing the negatives, choosing the best shots and expanding them, watching as the images appeared on the blank white paper as if in some kind of backward laundromat -- a billowing line of clean sheets slowly developing stains, then hung up until those stains were fixed forever.
And then there was the setting, crepuscular and shadowy, everything about it perfectly calibrated for creativity, from the sultry red glow of the darkroom lights to the still and shallow pool in which her prints rested like dead leaves on the surface of a pond.
If no one else was around, she could put her phone in the dock and blast Radiohead or Mazzy Star loud enough to make the room tremble with each downbeat, to erase the world outside. Immersed in that cocoon of sound and crimson light, Eliza could imagine she was the last person on Earth. Which was what made it so startling to be touched gently on the shoulder as she was examining a developing print for the first hint of beauty.
She whipped around with a hand out, as if slapping at a mosquito. A boy, bent over, holding his palm to his face.
“Ow! Shit!” he said.
She ran to the dock and turned down the music. The boy shook off the slap, unrolling his impossible height. Eliza felt annoyed that she recognized him, in the same way that you can’t help but recognize Hollywood actors on the covers of magazines, even if you despise everything they stand for. He was Peter Roeslin, of the Hamilton basketball team.
“You surprised me,” she said, angry with him for having been hurt by her.
He stood there in the semidarkness, tall and slim as the silhouette of a dead tree.
“Hey, what are those?” he asked, noticing the prints drying on the line.
“Pictures. Can I help you with something?”
He took her curtness in stride. “Oh, just the music. We’re having a meeting upstairs. Student council.” He leaned in close to one of the photographs.
“What are they pictures of?”
“I totally suck at art. I’m super jealous of people like you.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Why are they all black and white?”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t know. I’m just interested. Sorry.”
But now she felt bad for being so abrupt. “No, it’s okay. It’s just hard to explain. I think black-and-white photos are more honest. Color has no... integrity.”
That was the best she could do with words. To really answer, she’d have to show him how the blacks in a color photo were always tinted red or speckled with yellow. How the whites were creams. How the grays were so often contaminated with blue.
Eliza had always felt that fiction described reality better than nonfiction (or her reality, at any rate); in the same way, black-and-white photographs mirrored the world as she saw it more faithfully than color photographs did. Sometimes she dreamed in black and white.
“Look at that kid,” Peter said, pointing at one of the pictures. “Poor little guy!”
“Yeah, he’s kinda amazing.”
The photograph Peter was looking at happened to be her favorite. It had been taken outside a private elementary school just a few blocks from Hamilton.
By chance, Eliza had passed by just as the kids were struggling to arrange themselves in alphabetical order for a fire drill, and one boy had immediately caught her attention. He was smaller than the others in his line, and dressed about 10 years too old, in pressed chinos and a button-down shirt with a little red bow tie -- an outfit that wouldn’t have been cool even if he had been ten years older.
Every school had a kid like this. He stood in the very center of the line, exactly where he was meant to be -- a point of stillness -- as the students diffused into a buzzing, slow-exposure swarm at either end of the frame.
You could already see the tough years of puberty stretching out before him, a minefield strewn with awkward rejections on dance floors and lonely Friday nights. He was imprisoned within his upbringing. Doomed.
“I feel like that kid sometimes,” Peter said.
“Are you joking? In what possible way are you like that kid?”
“You know. Just keeping it together. Being good.”
“And what would you be doing if you didn’t have to be good all the time?”
She hadn’t meant it to sound flirtatious, but everything was flirtatious in a darkroom. Peter looked down at her, and Eliza felt her pulse quicken.
This was crazy. She didn’t know the first thing about him. And sure, seen from a purely objective standpoint, he was a handsome guy, but she’d always preferred the artsy delinquent types -- the ones who’d already ponied up for their first tattoos and would be walking walls of graffiti by the time they were 21. Or at least that’s what she preferred in her head.
In reality, she’d never had a serious boyfriend, and she’d lost her virginity practically by accident at a summer camp for blossoming artists, to a pale Goth boy who only painted wilted flowers. But standing there in the unnatural bloodred twilight, only a few inches away from a beautiful stranger who happened to be Hamilton royalty, she felt the inner twist of desire, or at least the desire to be desired.
“I don’t know,” he said softly. “I just get sick of it sometimes. Going to practice every day. Doing enough homework to get by. Dealing with my girlfriend.”
Eliza could picture this girlfriend. Stacy something. “I’ve seen her. Brunette, right? More makeup than face?”
Peter laughed, and even in the darkness Eliza could make out the moment when he realized he shouldn’t have been laughing. He distracted himself by looking back at the photos. “I wish I could do stuff like this. I wish I could...”