Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Out-of-Body: The Trap by Steven Artnson

The last day of summer break before my seventh grade year was the first time I ever got punched in the face.

"Why are we spending the last day of vacation trying to help Carl?" I complained, wiping sweat from my brow as we four (me and my twin Helen with our best friends Alan and Nicki) pedaled along. Every kid around Farro was anxious about Carl. He was the worst bully in Johnson County and he'd gotten twice as bad this summer. I was terrified of him and plenty nervous about scouting around his secret hideout. But I was willing to, mainly because Carl was Alan's brother, and Alan was my best friend.

There was another reason I was out here today-- Helen's best friend Nicki. I had a crush on her

Henry is a worrier, and he's right to be afraid of encountering Carl in his hideout. Just as Henry crams the damp books hidden there into his rucksack, Carl appears and gives Henry his first black eye with one mighty punch. Helen jumps on Carl's broad back with a choke hold and in the melee', the four of them manage to escape on their bikes, with Carl bellowing strangely after them:

"I'm going to live forever!"

Carl's words make no sense to Henry, but that night Henry opens his rucksack, and one of the books, Subtle Travel and the Subtle Self by Abe Moller. intrigues him as soon as he reads the first page.

"You think you are one person in one body, but that is a fault of perception. In fact, you are one person in two bodies. Your second body: weightless, massless, flow--the subtle form. Learn: the physical sleeps; the subtle awakes."

The secret to awakening this other self requires repeating a series of numbers, Fibonacci numbers, as Henry learns, while falling asleep. Henry tries it.

Looking down at myself I saw that my arm, which I'd balanced upright, was lying on my chest. My body was sleeping peacefully. I could see the black eye starting up where Carl had punched me.

When Henry follows the book's directions to rise from his sleeping physical self he finds that he sees everything in the dark in a new way. Henry shares the secret with Helen, Alan, and Nicki, and while their physical selves sleep soundly, they set out to discover the link between the mysterious book and the missing Carl.

At first walking the night together as spirit forms in great fun, but soon what the friends discover is more strange and threatening than they could have imagined. The subtle world has its own practitioners and its own system of order, policed by NFTSA, the National Flux Travel Security Association, threatened by its prophet, Abe Moller, whose goal is to find a way to live forever, free from the inevitable death of his physical body. And, as Henry and his friends discover, Carl, the not-too-bright bully of Farro, Iowa, is unfortunately Moller's chosen guinea pig.

Steven Arntson's The Trap (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) combines his spot-on setting in rural Iowa in 1963 with a sort of hypernatural uber-world, part The Da Vinci Code, part Maxwell Smart's KAOS. Arntson deftly handles the juxtaposition of the very real small town world of  four early adolescents dealing with peers, alcoholic and unemployed parents, and the all-important fall prom date with an amoral but irresistible plane of existence that promises the hope of eternal life. Fans of the supernatural will recognize that the novel's quick conclusion begs for a sequel that reveals more of the rationale behind the author's subtle realm.

"An amazing blend of mystery, romance, science fiction and social commentary," says Kirkus in their starred review.

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