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.