Darker by Day

Monday, May 16, 2011 12:45 AM By crosswaysnet , In ,

Welcome to the Heart of Darkness. Only this darkness has no heart. It's lit with high-watt tungsten - camera ready. It comes with a cast of thousands, and thousands more to do their hair, nails and wardrobe. Live from the Capitol! It's Running Man 24/7 on every network!! You can't miss it! By law you may not avert your eyes. Let the killing of children begin! Better yet - we'll have the children do the killing!!

The most sinister Stephen King novels are set in broad daylight. The Twilight Zone episodes that linger in your mind for years were more 'zone' than 'twilight.' So it is with The Hunger Games. Yet this is no allegory or cautionary tale - at least not in a way accessible to young minds. In the adrenaline-doused diary of Katniss Everdeen, it's a present progressive universe. More unrelenting than urgent. We're stuck in the unending infinitive. How else is a teen girl to document her own demise? the world she observes is all objects to her gerunds. She's 16 years old and there's nothing sweet about it. It's all acid, bile, blood and burning. She's the noble savage and coy flirt. Sounds a lot like High School. The only relief is a twitching retreat into your own troubled dreams.

This is not scifi/fantasy - it's a chick-lit horror novel. It's a breakout hit that makes a heroine on the cusp of womanhood a must-read for boys and girls.

This story features children - in the way that Children of the Corn features children. It is not a book for children under 13 (at least.) Yet millions of tweeners and young teens are putting this series on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list. This, then, is what it means to read youth fiction in the twenty-tens. Scared yet? You ought to be. Now go read the book before your kid does. I mean that.

If you need long character-building passages to warm you to a story, you can forget it. But what is asphyxiating to adults translates into suspense and action for younger readers. There's no time to fall in love with characters as they briefly cross the stage then gasp and burble through their own blood. No time to care for anyone but Katniss and her star-crossed admirer Peeta who will willingly die for her. He has a hard time pulling it off. There's one more you'll fall for, briefly, and your rage of vengeance on her behalf will be palpable. Good thing Katniss' bow is strung with a fresh arrow. If a visceral response is the measure of literature, wildflowers frame some mighty fine writing.

That's the problem here. Suzanne Collins has the writing chops to tell a whopper of a tale and keeping you interested, even riveted, through each insanely over-engineered twist and improbability. You really are willing to suspend your disbelief. And believe me, that person you've shushed to the other couch while you read is disbelieving plenty.

It seems like The Hunger Games has nothing to offer the reader other than despair and confused interest in the opposite sex. And it starts when Katniss frees herself from the concentration camp to feed her imprisoned family. She connects with the earth that the all-powerful state of 'Panem' hasn't bastardized. She literally digs her way under the fence, out of the choking coal dust and into a world of green and gold. Katniss only really lives beyond the ripped Seam.

You can't be young, soft-stepping through Spring meadows without discovering desire, can you? Is it budding youthful love with her first hero Gale or a mere survival tactic with her District 12 co-tribute Peeta? Does it matter? It must to the teen audience, for as much ink is spilled over it as blood spills in the arena. It's all a seriously breathless read whether Katniss is pining for bread, water, weapons or attention. But if dissertations are not being written yet on this book's place in the pantheon of 21st century literature, they eventually will be. Because Suzanne Collins is saying plenty about the Millenial generation and where it's quickly heading.

In this existential nightmare, death is really the only companion and hope. It can only mean oblivion, because there is no spiritual dimension, period. It's all existence and no essence. What poetry there is, is beautiful, but nobody believes it. It's merely a panacea that cures nothing. It's a lullaby (I noticed it has been Kindle posted to Facebook thousands of times - if Katniss doesn't need hope, the readers do.) Which leads to an important question every parent needs to ask before discussing it with their kids or permitting them to read it: What is the world view in The Hunger Games?

We're floating down the River Nihil, here. In the world of Katniss Everdeen, God hasn't been abolished. He's never been invented. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wouldn't even know where to start. Objectivism is the only reality we're given. Katniss is the weapon-wielding Ayn Rand. The atheist's Jean d'Arc. Without God, how can we know evil exists? We can't. We can only know pain or pleasure. The Capitol gets all the pleasure; the 12 remaining districts get all the pain. The yearly buckets of blood in the Hunger Games give more of each to both.

So what is 'Panem,' this foul inheritor to the America we think we know? It's an anachronism. This is where we get the most prescient social commentary. This isn't the far future - It's the world of next Tuesday. Even though Panem is defined geographically, it's the entire universe. No other peoples, nation states or world views exist. This is the grimmest of fairy tales.

On Planet Panem, all we have are children. The state has robbed the world of parents. There is no nurture or care for anyone. The innocent in the districts proceed directly to the withered and broken. The best you can say is that 24 tributes come 'alive' for the pleasure or horror of others until their veins run dry. As they bludgeon and bleed the cameras roll. Then the invisible hovercraft collect the crumbs of human children. We see death all around us, but it's the world behind the lens that is devoid of souls.

In the Capitol, humanity is reduced to Nielson ratings, water cooler jabber and all-night cast parties. Androgeny defines sexual identity. Women are no longer feminine but animated surrogates. Men have all gone Japanese kawaii. 'Citizens' are freed from masculine and feminine - or are they just devoid of it?

Genetic engineering has made the world a living hell, even if they don't know it. Masters of their own DNA have ripped apart humanity long before the monsters they dream up feast on the children.Yet everyone is still obsessed with appearance, perhaps because they can't die. While the Capitol eats their cake, in the districts no one and no thing ever improves. Quo is the highest status. The annual blood-letting is the only diversion.

In the arena - as in the districts - every action is driven by hunger. Hunger for food and more than food. The hunger for meaning goes unanswered. Man cannot live by bread alone - but it's all they've got. And it's scarce. In this macabre spectacle, tracker jackers (vicious genetically-engineered wasps with deadly hallucinogenic poison) tell us in no uncertain terms this is the vestibule of hell. We're neither in, nor ever free of Hades. When we learn these demons were unleashed into the wild years ago and torment people everywhere, we see them as the conscience of the earth itself, intent on punishing mankind for its unyielding wickedness and self-destructive actions.

So what of the spiritual? Are there no hints of it at all? Only ten times in the entire text do the words 'spirit' or 'spirits' appear. Five times to refer to alcohol; once to refer to enthusiasm and three times to refer to attitude. Only once does the word refer to something that might be construed as spiritual. Katniss ponders, "My spirit. This is a new thought. I'm not sure exactly what it means, but it suggests I'm a fighter." That's it. None of the characters discover that in the face of certain death, real love speaks your name. Or that no one ever truly exists without one. Even when they can't help it and abandon themselves to aid another, there's nothing left to carry into the future. Just the loss of those who never were.

The only thing spiritual I found in this world was the song of the mockingjay, the unintended halfbreed of engineered  mutants and stubborn nature. And mock it does. Its beautiful song is a sham - only a taunting reflection of the vain, fleeting hopes and desires of mankind. Yet its song seems to lift spirits and inspire the only music - the only ghost of the divine - there ever was in Panem.   That man inadvertently created this mocking monster makes it the perfect symbol of the rebellion that is surely coming. It will be an uprising that stumbles toward Gomorrah. I feel like I'm stepping into LOST, but without the expectancy. Even that purgatory had a blessed hope.

The most gleefully wicked in this tale are the Gamemakers - sadists and show producers. They have the responsibility of guaranteeing phenomenal ratings. They do it through torture. Strangely, Katniss goes easy on them throughout The Hunger Games. She never seems to bother a whit about their moral responsibility. She learns to hate the Capitol in general but no one specifically. When it comes down to it, Suzanne Collins is the ultimate Gamemaker, and her creation can't muster up the courage to despise the Creator.

In Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Katniss will live to fight another day and bring down the reign of Capitol terror. I'm sure of it. Yet even if she fails, there will be no Les Miserable resolution. "Beyond the barricades is there a world you long to see?" Yes, and in Panem we never will. With hope and heaven banished, The Capitol wins, even if it falls.

B+ for creativity, and writing skill. F for message.


laura said...

I agree, Bram, with everything you wrote. Though the books were riveting, finishing the series with "The Mockingbird". I was depressed and left feeling like "What was the point?!?!?"


May 16, 2011 at 7:43 AM

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