Before I start into this review, I would like to pose a question. Why is it so hard to talk about the books we love? I have been having just an unrelenting bitch of a time writing this review. I keep falling into holes and back-pedaling, not wanting to sound too squee or insincere and bring ruination on my real love for this book. Maybe it’s because it’s YA, about a plucky girl who surmounts incredible obstacles – but then, there, I’m doing it again – implying in my flip description that I’m somehow too adult and worldly to fall for this narrative. (And, I did it again.) I did fall for this narrative, hard, and I’m going to have to just suck it up and soldier on.
I read this book in a swoon, compulsively. It was the kind of reading experience where I totally screwed myself by reading far into the the night, nervously checking the clock thinking “damn” as 1:15 flew by, then 2:45, knowing full well that kids would be up and jumping on me in six hours, five hours, just put the book down and sleep! If you could somehow concentrate and aerosolize this feeling, you would find me down by the railroad tracks, under a bridge, huffing powdered books out of bag, their glitter mixing with my drool and b.o.
And here’s where the digression comes in. So, here, in my city, at some point in the last five years, it became a thing for the homeless to stand at the entrances of freeways and other major roads holding signs. They tend to say things like “wounded veteran” and “trying to get home” and “God bless.” In my driving about, I’ve seen that the cardboard signs lay folded in the shrubbery, waiting for the next person to come along, unfold, and stand on the edge of the frontage road. There’s one on 54th and Nicollet that reads “absolute desperation.” At first this set me giggling, because I’m an asshole, but then it got me thinking. This is a true statement, and terrifying all the more because the sentiment is interchangeable; something that can written on a piece of cardboard and reused by any person standing on that corner. Not that I need to justify this, necessarily, but I live in a pretty extreme climate, and the people standing on these corners are not doing this for kicks, but because it’s cold and they’re hungry or jonesing for something or whatever, and this seemed like the best option available. The best option. Yikes.
I’ve had a long running joke with my husband about how we all live in bubbles of like-minded people, the kind of people with whom you argue vehemently about the nuances about how you all totally agree. We sort ourselves into the blindness of our own comfort, and I don’t mean this just in the happy, healthy, developed world sense of comfort that I was born into. We take it farther, drawing bright red lines down the political aisle and using those lines to determine whom we respect and where we live. It’s not a new thing, certainly, but in early new millennium America, I’m just floored by the widening gaps in our political discourse and how they are made manifest in the very real physical embodiment of the completeness of the gerrymander and the ease we all acquiesce to that reality. Taken as a whole, the country is awash in purple, but as you look from locality to locality, they flame bright blue or bright red as we sort ourselves into two Americas that exist in the comfort of local smugness balanced against that old, hoary American favorite, massive paranoia about what the other half is doing. This book takes the bubbles of our acquaintance and schematizes them into a distopian hell-hole.
It’s a post-American America, with the center, the Capitol, ruling 12 districts that each supply their different products: electronics, coal, agricultural goods, etc. Maybe 75 years before, there had been a civil war, a rebellion by the districts ending in vigorous and complete quashing. As a reminder of the sin of rebellion, every year the Capitol chooses 2 children from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight in the Hunger Games. They fight to the death, until there is one kid standing. The whole event is, of course, televised. (I know that there has been some criticism that this plot has been used before, but this is sheer bone-headed stupidity. So what if Ice-T did it first?) This is not an economic/political system that makes a ton of sense, if you look at it too closely, but that’s not the point, or it is the point exactly. Collins takes our American disconnects and makes them manifest, relocates the people with cardboard signs reading “absolute desperation” from the arteries of our Interstate system and concentrates them into concrete ghettos of poverty and subjugation.
And now for my love of the protagonist. I can see why this happens, because writers have to live with the people they create, but so often a writer’s love of the character strips them of moral ambiguity, even while that ambiguity nips at their heels. This may be even more true for YA lit, with things like Bella Swan’s clumsiness standing in for an actual character flaw, even while Bella herself wallows in self-centered satisfaction at her flattened aspect to everyone around her but Edward. (Yup, gotta get in the Twilight dig.) Katniss is competent and clueless and savage, a reminder to us old folks that sometimes the young have worlds of understanding that isn’t based on experience, but on character. Or it is based on experience, but simply because they have less of it, doesn’t make it something you can measure using the yardstick of duration.
I was nailed to the floor when Katniss made her first kill in the arena and doesn’t have a what-have-I-done? melt-down, but is instead gratified by a horrible act that can never really compensate for the horrible acts enacted by the events preceding. We, as readers, are gratified, because it’s what we want, some good Old Testament justice that spills a little blood to try to even the odds in a seriously unjust system. The writerly propensity to fig-leaf this murderous satisfaction with an immediate “Oh no! I’m so bad for loving this” is absent. This is not to say that Collins sees these actions as having no moral, personal impact – Katniss’s mentor, who also survived the Hunger Games, is a constant, alcoholic reminder of how something like this might mess a brother up good.
There are plenty of themes I hate with a passion – say, “crazy makes you deep” for example – but one that’s pretty high on the list is “you, reader, are a voyeur, and I, the author, will dish out a bunch of sick shit and blame it on you.” This is generally some lazy, lazy stuff; the kind of stuff used to plug the holes in the leaking boat of D-grade action films and misogynist bullpucky. This book could be that, easily, in less adept hands. But I’m still not through worrying about my intense reading pleasure in relation with a story that makes children fight to the death. No, of course the children aren’t real, but to mangle a quote, they are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
It makes me think of the short story by Ursula K LeGuin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. In the story, LeGuin conjures a utopia whose perfection is tied, in some undefined yet concrete way, on treating on single child with the most unbelievable cruelty – never touched, never allowed to see the sun, nothing. Children, upon reaching the age of 16, are brought to see this child, as the basis for their adulthood. Most see and stay, but some simply walk away. I read this, and it felt kind of bloodless and psychomythic. Like, okay, whatever, fictional world. It felt like one of those indictments of people who are not abjectly impoverished that says, “No one should party while other people are suffering” I thought she was valorizing the walking away. Some time later, I freaked out, because I felt like I’d missed her point entirely. We all live in a society, in societies, where, right now, there are people living in the most shit-hole injustice, untouched, hungry, brutalized. I think probably the brutalized child is a fact of all societies, like it or not. Walking away doesn’t make you better, it just makes you end up in another society with a different kind of kid in the basement. And if you’re the child, walking away simply isn’t an option.