Monday, June 9, 2014

Something with a Capital S

We partied hard Saturday in celebration of Henry's first birthday.  I partied about as hard as I could on two hours of sleep.  I've yet to upload pics, so you'll have to wait to read about my long Friday night & even longer Saturday.  I'm still in a bit of a sleep deprived fog from the weekend's events & am not yet prepared to blog it all out.  What must absolutely happen now so that I can move on with life & clear some space in my head is for me to share my thoughts on John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.  I won't leave you in suspense: I did not care for it.

It's all the rage right now in the world of YA literature (that's Young Adult for those of you who don't waste time on Goodreads reading hilarious book reviews, which you should consider doing, by the way, because it's awesome).  John Green has been churning out YA novels for a few years & now they're making their way to the big screen.  Me being a permanent resident in the world of YA literature, it was inevitable that I'd eventually sample some of Mr. Green's work, & having done so, I've decided not to board the John Green train.

For those who haven't read the book or seen the recently released film adaptation, The Fault in Our Stars covers a few months in the life of seventeen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster.  Hazel has cancer, as does her love interest in the novel, Augustus (Gus) Waters, whom she meets at a support group for kids with cancer.

It's not the cancer that's off-putting.  I was aware of the book's subject matter before I read it, so I was prepared to experience cancer through the eyes of a teenage girl.  I actually decided to read it because I wanted to see how Green crafts a love story between two cancer-striken teens.  I mean, that's a heavy essay prompt you handed yourself, Mr. Green.

Here come the gripes.  My biggest complaint with the novel is the way Green deals with what I'll call religiosity.  I didn't pick up the book expecting a story about two teens who love Jesus & face their untimely deaths bravely because they know they have a home in Heaven; were that the story Green tells, obviously Hollywood wouldn't have touched it with a ten foot pole.  I was, however, surprised at the extent to which Green, via his narrator Hazel, openly mocks religion, & I was also saddened by the grandiose manner in which Green spits on what was in its inception, I think, a beautiful opportunity to meld what are typically end-of-life concerns with the curious minds of teens.

The support group Hazel & Gus attend meets in a church, & Green repeatedly uses this venue to take jabs at, well, Christians & Christianity, in my opinion.  Through her dialogue with both Gus & her father, the reader learns that Hazel has no use for religion, & when Gus tells her that he believes some sort of heaven exists, claiming that, "I believe in Something with a capital S," Hazel questions him & thinks to herself, "I'd always associated belief in heaven with, frankly, a kind of intellectual disengagement.  But Gus wasn't dumb."

When reading, I highlighted Hazel's statement about "intellectual disengagement" because finally Green has Hazel just come out & say it: she thinks people who believe in Heaven are dumb.  Given her next statement, that Gus, whom she loves & respects & believes to be "not dumb," believes in, "Something with a capital S," I was hopeful that Hazel might experience some growth during the remainder of the novel . . . but no.  No growth.  You would think a teenage girl who is dying of cancer, & who *** SPOILER *** watches helplessly as her boyfriend dies of cancer would do a little mental digging, a little thinking outside the box.  But no.

Green missed the boat here, in my humble opinion.  I finished reading & sat in my bed thinking, So what does she learn?  What does she take away from her time with Gus?  ANYTHING?!?  Apparently, not much.  Despite the innumerable conversations she shares with Gus, Hazel seemingly has not changed one iota when the novel concludes.  I wasn't expecting her to go down to her local church & ask to be baptized as she made the sign of the cross, but wow, for a character so ripe for deep thoughts about life & death, when the novel concludes, she is the same cynical teen the reader meets on page one.  Do I understand the cynicism?  Yes, of course, & at times, Hazel's acerbic wit is hilarious.  But I don't understand her utter rejection of the idea of the existence of a benevolent God & a Heaven (a place she might see Gus again); this, to me, is the most depressing part of the novel - - not the cancer!

My second gripe with the novel is Green's inclusion of what I found to be an odd (& yet integral) part of the plot.  Hazel is obsessed with a book she read (& reread & reread) titled An Imperial Affliction.  She has attempted to contact the novel's author in hopes of having a few questions she has about his work answered, but her fan mail has gone unanswered.  Peter Van Houten (the author she idolizes) is a recluse who hasn't written anything since his lauded novel, An Imperial Affliction.  Long story short, thanks to Gus, Hazel meets Van Houten, & he is a total jerk.  Prior to their meeting, while Hazel didn't believe in God, she very much believed in Peter Van Houten, & she has to let go of years of idolizing the man when she finally meets him.  Disappointing for Hazel, no doubt.  Again, a situation that screams, character growth! . . . deep thoughts about how men are simply men, & even the ones who write beautiful literature are sometimes deeply flawed . . . but no.  No deep thoughts.

My third & final gripe is Green's choice of a narrator.  I don't think he successfully voices a teenage girl, which isn't all that surprising considering he's a man.  He may've been a teenager once, but never a female teen dying of cancer, & in my opinion, the further removed an author is from the narrative voice they choose, the harder they have to work to make it authentic, & in many respects I think Hazel lacks authenticity.  I will say that I have not yet seen the movie.  I plan to, but I wanted to hash this all out before seeing the film because I suspect I may enjoy the film more than the book because films inevitably lose a good bit of the narrative voice that dominates a book, & while that often saddens me, in this case, I'd welcome it.

So why do I care?  Why should you care?  Are you aware of the box office numbers this movie pulled this past weekend?  Kids, young kids, are reading Green's work & seeing this movie.  Hazel's is a story that makes you think (if you're a thinker, that is, & I've found that most people who read also think).  What is bothersome to me is that Green doesn't leave the reader, many of whom are young, impressionable readers, much room to hope for anything better than a brief life on Earth that may or may not be cut short by cancer.  I had high hopes that Gus's belief in something with a capital S would shine brighter as the novel progresses, but that isn't the case.  Gus dies.  Hazel is steadfast in her belief that there is nothing beyond life (& death) on Earth.  Hazel is likely going to die.  The end.  Yes, they find each other & fall in love & there are moments in the development of their relationship that I find humorous & touching & mildly entertaining, but none of it is worth reading the book if that's the end - - the end of the book, or the end of it all.  

Much of popular YA literature deals with supernatural elements (Harry Potter, Twilight) or the ever-popular apocalyptic scenarios, such as The Hunger Games & the Divergent series.  Green's novels, to my knowledge, deal with neither; there are no vampires, & no country formerly known as The United States that is now run by a ruthless government out to cause problems for young teens involved in dramatic love triangles.  Thus, Green's writing offers young adults a realistic read, or at least significantly more realistic than a sparkly vampire who can read people's thoughts & scale tall buildings or a world in which teens are sent to fight to the death in an arena.  Unfortunately, many teens know someone their age who suffers with, or died from, cancer.  Or their parent, or grandparent, or sibling, or preacher, or teacher suffers with, or died from, cancer.  I wish Green offered Hazel, & thus his readers, a smidge more hope, or at least, at least!, strayed from openly mocking those who believe in God, & believe He offers Heaven to those who seek Him.

I believe in something with a capital S; I think that belief is in fact written on the hearts of all men by the God who created them, & it's irritating to me when someone with a pen (or a word processor) subtly ebbs away at the pull toward their Creator that tugs on men's conscience.  I am not advocating a book burning, & in fact, I encourage you to read The Fault in Our Stars if you've not done so as I'd love to know what you think.  Were it not a YA novel, I don't think I'd be so bothered.  Young adults are so impressionable; they need Gus's narrative voice, not Hazel's.  They need to be encouraged to think deeply about good & evil, life & death, & about the existence & true nature of something with a capital S.      


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