Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Why Should We Solve a Problem Like Divergent?

Roth, Veronica. Divergent.

It's genuinely hard for me to pick up a book that a teenager has billed as "better than Othello" with any degree of neutrality, but I tried. I first read Divergent over Spring Break, but am reviewing it now for two reasons: I wanted time to sort through what bothered me about it, and I also have just read the sequel (which, in my head, would be hard to review without having first explained my issues with the first in the trilogy).

In brief, for anyone who both reads this blog and has been living under a rock for the last year, Divergent is the hot new Hunger Games, or first-person present-tense mock-dystopian teen romance about a nubile female who can do amazing physical feats with minimal training and, of course, will ultimately start a revolution and save the world. Hunger Games made some pretty tremendous logical leaps in its time, but Divergent takes suspension of disbelief to a whole new level.

However, my issues with the novel aren't really about its overly simple writing style (it is college student fanfic, after all) or its supremely shaky premises and plot (it is a teen novel, after all), but about the lessons it subtly imposes upon modern teenagers.

At its heart, I genuinely believe Divergent is trying to teach somebody something useful about vice, excess, and uniqueness. In practice, however, many of these important lessons are lost in the puddle of societal structures that sound cool and seem to have been included in the novel to impress today's teenagers. The question Divergent asks, time and time again, is "What do you want to be?" but the answer, by necessity, defines every area of an individual's life. In the Divergent world, one cannot simply be a soldier: to be a soldier requires that an individual live a "dauntless" life. Like real soldiers, the "dauntless" live together (initially in barracks). They eat certain types of food (the cake is apparently exceptionally good) and are trained to be battle-ready at any moment. They do not have books, nor are they expected to be honest or kind. (More terrifyingly with respect to soldiers, they are also not expected to be selfless). On the other hand, the scholars live together in a separate community, where they are never expected to be brave (or honest, selfless, or kind). Those who are honest or kind seem singularly single-faceted (let's be honest: because protagonist Tris doesn't have special skills in the honesty or kindness camps, Roth never bothers to describe anything that these types of people do). If one chooses to be selfless, one cannot be brave or scholarly.

Of course, the title of the book is Divergent, so protagonist Tris (like, hopefully any real, live human being who manages to read the book) herself diverges from the norm and does not fit comfortably into one tidy little category of character flatness. As it turns out, Tris is equally suited to be brave, intelligent, and selfless ("dauntless," "erudite," or "abnegation" [sic], respectively). The main source of conflict in the first book arises from the fact that individuals in Tris' society who have the ability to possess more than one major character trait at a time are considered dangerous. Although this should be an incredible concept for anyone who has ever spent more than a day as an adult in the English-speaking world, it somehow seems to make sense to everyone in Tris' society, who go around leading single-trait lives as a matter of course. Possessing multiple character traits also imbues Tris with the ability to withstand drugs (and, of course, to become an awesome trained warrior in a matter of weeks, though this could be because she is also "erudite," or intelligent, which some would consider useful in a battle situation).

Divergent has a little romance, which is nothing new in teen fiction, and the usual need to portray everyone besides the protagonist as normal-boring. However, the novel never allows abnormal and wonderful Tris to break away from the norms it has established either for her or for her society. Unique, multitalented Tris is established, in essence, as the most special of all the special people (i.e. the most divergent of all the divergent) but she is not: at every step, she either applies a false bravado in order to earn more respect among her peers, or looks to a friend or loved one for reassurance or guidance. From the moment at which she is frustrated because she has to be responsible for her own life choices at the beginning of the book, she repeatedly tries to follow the rules rather than to pursue her life with any degree of independence. She is obedient and mainstream to a fault.

Divergent teaches the undiscerning reader that it is acceptable to label other people for their skills or failures (hence the marginalized "factionless") and that it is normal not to have any aspirations or desires of one's own (hence why it is so hard for Tris to choose a faction once she has been presented with options). It seems to want its readers to identify with Tris, but she of all the characters has the least focus, drive, or overall ambition, so the novel ultimately suggests that its readers should try to blend in, or to become one of a puddle of other like-minded people. The complete absence of communication between members of differing factions (in the Divergent world, individuals cannot marry between factions) encourages the isolation and exclusion of individuals who differ from the norm, perpetuating the standard social divides between athletes (the "dauntless"), geeks (the "erudite"), the ever-popular crowd of best friends (those who ascribe to "amity"), and so forth.* Divergent tries to make the divergent members of its society special, but it fails: gifted Tris is so determined to fit into her newfound society that she eschews any traits that could link her to her parents or childhood.

In fairness, there is a voice of reason in the novel, and this comes from Tris' mentor-crush Four. The best line in the novel comes when Four tells Tris that he wants to possess the positive traits pursued by all five of the factions (not just his own, and, importantly, not even solely those for which he already has a certain aptitude). Where Tris only ever considers the three groups for which she has already been found suitable, Four's goal is to improve in all five areas. As the only character in the entire book who ever expresses such a thought, Four is by far the character who should be a role model for Roth's readers.

As light teen fiction goes, Divergent is not the worst book on our library shelves. However, the ideals and isolations it promotes are dangerous, and inherently promote the types of stereotyping and exclusion that are already prevalent in modern teen culture. It's not that this book shouldn't be read, but that it should only be read by those willing to critique the negative ideas so heavily condoned throughout the first two books of the trilogy.

*In fact, Roth's five groups match nicely with the five tropes Joss Whedon establishes as dominant character types in Cabin in The Woods: athlete, scholar, virgin ("abnegation"), whore ("amity"), and fool ("candor").

Finding Context for the Mockingbird: Books to Pair with Harper Lee's

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.

For the casual book blog, there's not much to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. It is, in fact, a well-conceived story about racism in the South, designed to provoke and also to challenge. It is an engaging book (if a bit tedious in spots), the values are good, and Scout, the precocious child narrator, adds a great deal to the story. On a deeper level, Scout herself is used to present both a child's increasing awareness of racism (and other sins) as well as an outsider's view of the repulsion with which her brother Jem learns about--and reacts to--this racism. The parallel between Scout's growin logic and understanding and Jem's flaring anger works well, and the perspective used to represent the story, for me, works exceptionally well.

Although I enjoyed revisiting this novel, at this stage in my life I'm struck not by the profundity with which it represents the problems of racism, nor even by its applicability, but by the prevalence and predominance of white novels about racism published in the last fifty years. This isn't a critique to apply solely to Lee; I appreciate both the aim and the effect of the novel. Rather, I wonder why To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill and the much more recent The Help (all novels I have enjoyed in varying degrees) have had so much more commercial and educational success than Native Son or even Invisible Man. Many of these novels present similar perspectives and ideals, but the voice of the white narrator still, repeatedly, gains prominence.

I don't want to imply in any way that To Kill a Mockingbird isn't an important work, and it does raise essential questions about the American treatment not only of people of differing races (from the African-Americans on whom the original novel is focused to the Mexicans whose border crossings are currently a major subject of American interest and concern) but also of people of differing abilities or interests. The parallel between reclusive Boo Radley and dark-skinned Tom Robinson is important: the novel is about coming to grips with the unique qualities--or differences--that distinguish each human from the next. Sometimes these distinctions appear in skin color, or a foreign (or regional) accent; at other times, they are made between people similar in shape and color who hold radically differing religious or political views. For me, the isolation of Boo Radley draws to mind the modern American marginalization of children with autism, down syndrome, or sensory impairments.

At the end of the novel, young Scout recognizes both that taking the time to befriend the unfamiliar is worthwhile, and that prejudice is prevalent in her (our) society. She is blessed (and not for the first time) by the presence of Boo Radley. However, I wish the novel extended past this moment (or that Lee had written a sequel); while Scout's discoveries and increased understanding are important, the novel shows the turning point rather than its long-term effects. To Kill a Mockingbird is a strong and important book, but it does not tell the whole story.

Read this book, and then read Invisible Man or Native Son. All of these are important works of literature, and they tell differing sides of the same story.

Monday, June 30, 2014

West's Imperfect Narrative Flow Still Has Intriguing Characters

West, Rebecca. The Fountain Overflows.

Mary, Rose, and Cordelia are young British ladies with a precocious younger brother, gifted but irresponsible father, and musically adept mother. This account of their adventures--and those of their friends, teachers, and guests--presents a series of rather unexpected vignettes. Among other things, the family lose their furniture, combat a malicious ghost, and entertain a variety of unusual guests.

Depending on how one reads it, The Fountain Overflows either has many themes or no real theme; after a first reading, it comes a cross as a collection of disconnected encounters rather than as a story of growth or maturity. There are themes of loss (from the simple disappearance of furniture to the larger disappearance of family members and friends), isolation (particularly with respect to Cordelia), and resourcefulness (most evident at the end of the book but also present during early encounters with malicious ghosts and awkward home situations). The family remain poor--this is always seen as the father's fault--and the children and their mother are largely obsessed with music, to the exclusion of all else except occasional guests (particularly the girls' cousin Rosamund). Their father's political capabilities are also prominent in a few scenes in the middle of the book, in which the entire family befriend the sister of a murder suspect, and their beloved father takes steps to endure that the accused is given a fair trial.

I found the conclusion of this story both inconclusive and unexpected--I won't give it away, but it describes a circumstance that is unwarranted and unprecedented, and contradicts many of the values that I would have loved to have seen promoted in a novel featuring such an old-fashioned setting. While the majority of the book was enjoyable and the descriptions of various characters and old-fashioned London were particularly pleasurable, all of this was ruined for me by a twist that still seems, upon reflection, to have been wholly unnecessary. This event does force many of the children to mature a little more quickly, but at great cost, and the final pages describe not a rich coming-of-age adventure, but a flurried bustle of preparations that are largely separate from the events recounted in the rest of the novel.

This isn't an unpleasant book by any means, but it isn't one I would go out of my way to recommend.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Charming Home Fiction: Lippi's Homestead

Lippi, Rosina. Homestead. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999 (1998).

Homestead is a collection of interconnected vignettes about a group of men and women who live in a tiny mountain village in  Austria. Each chapter describes a fleeting moment in the life of one woman (and her neighbors and family), beginning in the early 1900s and ending about sixty years later. The women thus described, then, are mothers and daughters, sisters, and aunts and cousins; once the author has introduced one woman, that woman will often reappear in later stories. There are ghosts, lovers, far-off husbands, and German soldiers. The men and women of the village are close-knit, often gossips, and deeply realistic: each has not just a story, but a particular frailty or weakness, making their relationships both complex and believable.

I enjoyed Homestead very much. It is a book to savor rather than one to read quickly; the vignettes, or chapters, span a vast period of time and leaving a day or two between some sections made the collection as a whole feel rich and expansive (although it is a really short book!). At the same time, I wouldn't recommend this for many younger readers; the style is pleasantly slow in a way that I did not appreciate in my early years, and the book presents premarital sex--in many instances--in a very sympathetic light. All of these women are presented sympathetically, as are their failures and weaknesses and desires, but many of these failures and weaknesses and desires seem to revolve around men, and the consequences are rarely severe. (Even the young woman who is punished for her actions receives an unexpected resolution). Intimacy is not explicit, but it is elegant.

A prevalent theme in Homestead is the idea of community, and, especially, the question of "who is my neighbour?" For the men and women in Lippi's isolated mountain community, neighbours are usually family, and privacy is surprisingly rare. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first chapter, when a postcard addressed to "Anna" is read to a wide collection of possible recipients, purportedly to determine the correct addressee. Like the postcard, family, words, stories, and intimacies are likewise shared among the members of the community; secrets are told and sometimes kept, but Lippi cleverly manages to reveal many of these to her readers over the course of the novel. Overall, this works well, and the stories are carefully plotted and interwoven. Homestead is a masterful collection, and one well worth a slow and languorous read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Taliesin Delights Again.

Lawhead, Stephen. Taliesin.

I've already praised Lawhead's Taliesin pretty highly on this blog (and only a few weeks ago), but after re-reading Arthur I thought it would be worth re-reading my favourite of the series again as well. I was not disappointed.

My childhood memories of the novel focus heavily on Charis, a princess (almost a goddess) from the now-lost world of Atlantis. For a character written by a man, Charis is pretty full of womanly strength and female empowerment, but she is not without her weaknesses. Some of my favourite parts include her feats of strength and cleverness in combat, which I won't describe here because I don't want to spoil the delightful surprises Lawhead has in store. Suffice to say that Charis gets some serious action sequences.

And--oh!--the bull ring! Lawhead's gift for description shines in every action sequence throughout the book, but none are quite as dazzling as the scenes in the bull ring, in which athletes leap over bulls' horns, perform feats of acrobatic prowess, and face both the animals and the constant threat of injury or death. My childhood mind was captivated by these scenes, and the actuality did not disappoint.

The eponymous Taliesin isn't so bad himself; he is the foundling son of a once-unlucky king (the discovery of the infant transforms his father's luck) and is quickly destined to become a great bard. For most of the book, Lawhead alternates the stories of Taliesin's family with those of Charis' declining country; this sometimes keeps both stories moving along well, but can also, occasionally, make both threads seem a little more sluggish.

Finally, where Lawhead's language is concerned, it is at once both wildly inaccurate (most likely and of course) but also fresh, modern, and witty. His women are not doormats, and his men woo with both perseverance and humor. Of particular note are Elphin's defense of his betrothal to Rhonwyn (at the beginning of the book) and Charis' persistent negotiations with her brothers about halfway through the story. There are many slow points (probably a side effect of Lawhead's extensive research) but numerous chapters crammed full with action and fast-paced dialogue.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Trevor's Dual Narratives and Felicia's ever-Darker Journey

Trevor, William. Felicia's Journey. New York: Penguin, 1996 (1994).

William Trevor's novel Felicia's Journey describes the physical journey of a young woman named Felicia (of course!) who sneaks out of her family's home in Ireland in hopes of finding the young Irish boy who is the father of her unborn baby. When she sets out, she has not found his address and knows only that he is working at a lawn-mower factory, but this factory proved difficult to find.

As Felicia makes her way into a strange English town--in which her young man proves singularly difficult to find, she crosses paths with the older Mr. Hilditch, a lonely middle-aged man who painstakingly weaves a web of lies in which Felicia becomes ensnared. Under the pretenses of caring for his wife "Ada," he drives Felicia to distant towns (far enough away that his attentions to a young woman will not be observed by any of his employees) and arranges to help her on her journey. Felicia comes across as naive and conscientious--she is troubled by Mr. Hilditch's suggestion that she abort the baby, because it "wasn't right to think about it without Johnny knew" (131) and "There's people who would call it murder."--but she is also heedless, allowing Mr. Hilditch some intimacies and casual glimpses of her nubile form.

Trevor alternates a narrative inside Felicia's head with one told by Mr. Hilditch, leaving out just enough to leave Mr. Hilditch's intentions in question. The end of the book is filled with panic, despair, and the most severe of consequences. In retrospect, it's also possible to read Felicia herself as more cunning than her glib intentions of finding a friend in a large city might suggest, but both heedlessness and manipulation are shown as unfruitful.

While Felicia's Journey deals with a number of mature themes, its limited perspectives also enable it to gloss over most of the details. It is a short and engaging read, and the kind of book that lends itself to reading closely and attentively. All in all, it was time well spent.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Racing after Wells: Stephen Baxter's Universes

Baxter, Stephen. The Time Ships. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Like almost every other book ever written, The Time Ships has a beginning. It starts slowly, ponderously, almost imperceptibly, establishing a main character contemporaneous to H. G. Wells (who, it is hinted, has already written a book about this main character and his first trip into the future). Baxter's protagonist embarks upon his second trip into space, in which he plans to rescue a poor and beloved Eloi who suffered greatly on his account during his first trip into the future.

Instead of changing the fate of Eloi Weena, Baxter's character is surprised to see a new future transpire outside the walls of his machine. When he emerges--before Weena's time--he befriends an unusual character of Morlock descent, named Nebogipfel, and learns that the account of his travels written by his good friend (the unnamed Wells) has so influenced humanity that it has abruptly changed the future of mankind. From this point, Baxter wanders into some physics-based discussions of parallel universes and complex worlds. These work because Nebogipfel is constantly instructing the main character--therefore the scientific explanations come through dialogue rather than the narrator's interruptions--and some of them are genuinely intriguing concepts. However, the book leans a little heavily on the science fiction, and, as a result, very few of the characters enjoy the benefits of any development whatsoever. Nebogipfel is an exception (except that, as a Morlock, he has about as many emotions as a Star Trek Vulcan), but even the main character is left doing a lot without showing much intention, motive, or character development.

I didn't dislike Time Ships; on the contrary, I enjoyed Baxter's world, his haphazard flights from the beginning of time to a future so drastically unexpected, and his subtle references to Wells. I particularly enjoyed the diverse array of "ships" deployed over the novel as a whole, and some of the futuristic gadgets described during the protagonist's time with the Morlocks.

As a literary experiment, then, this novel works well; as a novel, it had its share of missing elements, particularly surprising given its 520 pages. Hilary Bond was one of the most intriguing characters in the entire book, yet she is left largely flat and unexpressive (a token female soldier?) although she appears in several scenes. Similarly, Nebogipfel is a bit of a stock character; without more interaction between him and his fellow Morlocks, it becomes easy to see him as a "token Morlock" rather than an individual (he also does not benefit from his role as the narrator's foil).

Overall, I'm a bit neutral about this book. Fans of Wells or Science Fiction in general might well enjoy its concepts and frequent references to history and literature (and, probably, to real science and scientists), but there is little to dazzle the reader. I'd like to read Baxter again, but preferably in a more moderately paced work.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dark Irony: The Mayor of Casterbridge

Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge. OUP, 2003 (1987).

Given my penchant for dark things, it probably shouldn't surprise me that Hardy is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. That said, The Mayor of Casterbridge is significantly less dark than, say, Jude or even (I think) Tess. Fortunately, like the other Hardy novels I've read, Mayor is still rich in death, despair, secrecy, and thwarted ambitions.

Briefly, The Mayor of Casterbridge is the tale of a man who sells his wife when drunk, has a chance to make amends, and lives the rest of his life trying to keep various truths secret from his family and his community. Like most Hardy, marriage (both the pursuit and the experience thereof) fosters lies, pain, andunhappiness. Heroines fall in love only to be thwarted, while gentlemen perform various indiscretions and are unhappily surprised, later, to realise that actions have consequences.

The plot of this novel is a bit complicated, abundantly described elsewhere on the internet, and filled with spoilers for readers who want to experience the book for themselves, so I'll skip over that. Instead, I want to think about marriage as I've seen it in Hardy novels, where it has almost always been plagued by secrets and unhappiness.

Harding, in the mind of an old man named Mr. Henchard, describes him looking in on a wedding-feast with terrific cynicism:
"The gaiety jarred upon Henchard's spirits; and he could not quite understand why Farfrae, a much-sobered man and a widower, who had had his trials, should have cared for it all, notwithstanding the fact that he was quite a young man still, and quickly kindled to enthusiasm by dance and song. That the quiet Elizabeth, who had long ago appraised life at a moderate value, and who knew, in spite of her maidenhood, that marriage was as a rule no dancing matter, should have had zest for his revelry surprised him still more" (325). 
Of the three named characters here, Henchard is the eldest, and has been married (twice) to a woman whose presence he found very restrictive. He has also had a level of intimacy (specifics undisclosed) with another woman, of whom he was purportedly rather fond (he spends many pages pining after her). Farfrae, the widower, is sober but also the only character in the book to have had anything even remotely resembling a happy marriage. Elizabeth has had some disappointments but has managed to save her "maidenhood" for someone she appears to genuinely enjoy (and her beau/husband buys her lots of books, which is his most lovable quality in my opinion!).

Taking their relative character traits and life experiences into account, it isn't really that surprising that the wedded couple are dancing happily. More to the point, though, this cynicism--believable as Henchard's disillusionment makes it--seems less Henchard's and much more Hardy's. In Hardy, even the happiest of marriages (or consummated pledged unions that reject the confines of religious ceremony) must be tainted by a threat of darkness, and this wedding fits the bill. Throughout the novel, pure happiness is almost exclusively described from the perspective of outsiders, and particularly by bitter, unhappy, or disillusioned outsiders. Henchard's past experiences, which lead to bitterness, remove any sense of happiness from a moment that most readers would otherwise associate with fulfillment and contentment. This is dark and clever writing.

One other intriguing feature not just of The Mayor of Casterbridge but also of Hardy more generally is that the plots of his stories, thus far, intend to show the failures of marriage but usually end up revealing the consequences of premarital sex or later infidelity. I don't think Hardy means to do this, but in The Mayor of Casterbridge, all the characters who break their marriage vows (in this instance through sale rather than sex) later suffer because of of their actions and, usually, because they concealed those actions. Although nobody in this novel blackmails anyone else, many of the characters expect to be blackmailed. Suffering comes both when concealed activites are brought to light, but also when concealed activities are known by any other character, even those who bear no malice towards the character in question.

Overall, I quite liked this novel. Hardy's darker style of writing is appealing to me, as is his repeated use of moments when the reader and a character share a glimpse of dramatic irony together. His characters frequently confess indiscretions of the past to one another, always without names, which leads to a series of misunderstandings in which the reader knows exactly how the complications have arisen while the characters are secretive, oblivious, or both. On the other hand, there is not a great deal of repentance or redemption; characters who sin seem to see life and fortune as great conspirators against them, rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions and decisions. While dark and intriguing, Hardy's book is an unrelentant study in mankind's constant proclivity to sin and blame others.