Veronica Roth – Insurgent

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Imagine if someone made a sequel to Brave New World and it consisted of people shooting each other.

Divergent is a smarter novel than people give it credit to. Every time it set clear heroes and villains, it pulled the rug and showed the other side. Cliches were there, but it was mostly a novel of no easy answers. The bad guys weren’t just power hungry, and Insurgent reminds us this a few times.

Most of the times, Insurgent is nothing but action scenes. These aren’t vivid or purposeful action scenes. Roth set out to write a trilogy, but she’s lost here. Tris’ journey mirrors Roth’s, but not in a clever way. Like Tris, Roth is busy going from place to place, looking for a purpose for this novel.

A sequel shouldn’t just continue the story. The criticism of ‘it doesn’t stand on its own’ doesn’t ask for the sequel to be completely accessible. Rather, something about it should separate it from what came before. Publishing it as a different book is easy. The author must find a reason for the story to be published in a whole new book.

Just look to Orson Scott Card. Speaker for the Dead is very different from Ender’s Game in terms of tone, ideas and even overall story. It’s a separate book because, despite continuing the story it works in different ways and has starts something new. This division goes so deep, even into the division into paragraph. We move to a new paragraph only when we conclude the ideas of the current one, or want to introduce something new.

The first novel had a clear ending, but this one just runs around without a direction. As an attempt to develop psychology, there’s potential there. Some criticized Tris for being ‘whiny’, but they are just silly people who wanted a power fantasy. Roth never forgets that violence and war are only glorious in action films. The horror of it all never escapes Tris, and it’s always in her mind and affects everything she does. The new tone is successful and makes for a fairly convincing psychology, but not enough.

Despite touching on PTSD a little, Tris is a boring heroine. For a novel about factions that represent personality traits, the characters are lacking. ‘Convenient’ isn’t the best word, since they do create conflict sometimes and have wants and needs. Their wants and needs are never their own, though. Some lost a family member, one person is sadistic and so forth. Mostly, though, all the personalities are tied to the story.

That’s not a compliment. A personality should be able to exist outside the story. Only Marcus can be transferred from this book into another one, and still be himself. Everyone else just serves an aspect of the plot. Jeanie doesn’t have a personality. While it’s nice that she’s revealed to be more than something to fight, having a different purpose isn’t enough to make a well-developed villain. She needs a personality that will separate her, a personality that makes her both villainous and understandable.

Roth barely tries to develop characters, though. Insurgent isn’t long because it’s filled with slow moments that should shed light on who these people are. Most of the pages are dedicated to wandering around and shooting some people up. Showing us how Amity and the Factionless live is necessary worldbuilding, but it’s not enough to create depth. They become curious surface details without significant meaning.

The worst offender is the structure and the abundance of action films. The definitive sign Roth was completely lost here is how the structure goes. It’s nothing but visiting the factions we haven’t seen yet, and with actions scenes in-between.

The amount of action scenes are ridiculous and unnecessary. This is a Dystopian novel, not a Thriller. It’s meant to examine and question ideas with perhaps some psychological portraits. A few shootouts can be fun or even necessary, but they cannot be the center of the story.

Everything that happens in the story simply leads to the next action. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. If the novel was meant to take the series in that direction, then it would be okay. The tone remains grim and the action scenes aren’t fun and blazes of glory. They just hammer on how terrible violence is. Roth’s treatment is more humane than exploitative, but that’s all she has.

The world becomes almost a self-parody of sorts. Everyone totes guns and everyone is ready to shoot. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a bad idea for a dystopia but when everyone has no existence outside of it, it becomes hard to believe. The only significant development happens at the end. Roth gets her old self back. The plot twists aren’t just a ‘surprise motherfucker’, but they change how we view the characters and the world. Sadly, by the time it arrives it’s too late. The novel was already clogged with random acts of senseless violence.

Since this is a Young Adult novel we get a romantic relationship, and it swings between truly whiny and interesting. There are no love triangles, which is great. It’s no longer about the pursuit of love, but how we handle it once we got it. The relationship doesn’t really progress, though. A communication breakdown makes both partners to come off as unpleasant people who shouldn’t be near each other. They have had much personality, so their relationship was hard to believe. Now there’s finally some content to their relationship, but it’s only a lack of trust. How can you have a relationship that only has lack of trust?

The editors were clearly nicer to Roth this time around. The book is bigger and the writing is more elaborate. It’s still very smooth and easy to read. Nothing about it is special. It’s utilitarian almost to a fault, lacking stylistic quirks that elevate the novel or help make the ideas come through. At least if you’re going to write a novel that goes nowhere and consists mainly of shoot-outs, make it easy to read.

Insurgent is pleasant, but mostly pointless and doesn’t go anywhere. Roth was lucky to make me interested enough the first time around, but I’m sure many dropped off here. The worst sequel you can make is not one that betrays expectations, but one that has no purpose to exist. Despite the occasional moments, Insurgent mostly goes nowhere but just jumps from shoot-out to shoot-out. It’s not a new direction or even a terrible direction. It’s no direction at all.

2 factions out of 5

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Jennifer Niven – All the Bright Places

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I read plenty of crappy books. The world is, after all, a crappy place (That’s why people kill themselves). Never have I read a book that offended me as much as this. I’d rather read the file about the crimes of Ian Watkins.

Suicide is close to me. My relationship with it is special. I’m passionate about it. I hope to either die by suicide, or make assisted suicide a reality and help the community. It frames my life.

Let me be clear. I do not want to live. I live only because I have to. I live only because assisted suicide isn’t available. Nothing can change it, except perhaps becoming a godlike celebrity. The reasons for this aren’t just ‘depression’ or whatever.

Suicide isn’t the result of simple chemical imbalance. Suicide is a choice. There is a lot of philosophical depth to it. The communities are rife with ideas and arguments why do it. Reading what these people left behind, they’re hardly irrational. Calling them ‘depressed’ and therefore irrational is calling a woman irrational because her skin bleeds when her husband hits her. No one chooses to be born. People should at least be able to choose to die. What kind of sick world is it that people live in it against their will?

Niven lost a person to suicide. The subject is close to her. I’m sorry for her loss, but it doesn’t excuse how horrible the novel is. Her lack of understanding of the suicidal mind is in every page. That’s not surprising since understanding suicide is extremely difficult unless you’re there. People are hard-wired to survive. “Life is good” is an idea that exists in our genes. Thinking otherwise is rebellion against nature itself.

The main principle behind suicide is that life isn’t good, in and of itself. Death has its benefits, like the end of all needs and all suffering. I talked to many people about suicide and each of them thought we all operate around the same idea. They all thought suicidal people love life and simply feel terrible in this moment. Yet all the writings in alt.suicide.holiday says a different thing. These people value freedom and not life.

Niven can’t understand this, and that’s why her main character isn’t really suicidal. In order for him to be suicidal, I need to see these thoughts in action. I need to see the despair, the hatred, the failure and the lack of connection with the world, Nothing about Finch resembles a suicidal person. Even pro-life psychologists – who fool themselves into thinking they understand us – know a little about that mind. Another quality of it is that it feels trapped.

In fact, many of the people in suicide communities would kill to be Theodore Finch. He plays guitar and writes songs. There’s a rock bar where people know him and he’s been in bands. He had a lot of sex. He aggressively pursue a hot girl and instead of getting accused of harassment, he wins her. Clearly, Finch is in the beautiful and free. Perhaps he was abused, but a lot of people are abused without killing themselves. Perhaps his mother is absent, but that gives him so much freedom.

A lot of people also lead great lives and still kill themselves. Just look at Robin Williams or Ian Curtis. Despite being ultimate alpha males in the eyes of society, they decided to exit. This happens occasionally in my suicide forum. Someone mentions how, despite having everything they still want to die. I do believe them – they still feel a sense of pointless or trapped-ness or hopelessness.

Where is it in Finch? He pursues Violet with the confidence of a jock. He travels around and has a lot of fun. Niven is good at writing the ‘manic’ side of Finch. She’s just as in love with life, so she uses the character to escape to a teenage fantasy – Manic Pixie Dream Boy acts like a sex offender (Hot, so forgiven) and teaches a depressed (But popular and hot) girl how to live while travelin’ ’round.

We hardly get any moment of Finch’s ‘depressed’ side. Pessimism and optimism are weird things. It’s possible to find negatives and positives in everything and that’s how Digimon Tamers presented a good argument against suicide. Niven doesn’t present any arguments for suicide at all. Where’s the sense of hopeless? Of no direction? Where’s the feeling that no matter what happens, it will never get better?

Suicidal people often have a psychological need the can’t satisfy. They tend to have specific issues they want to live without. The fear of these striking again is why they prefer dying over living (If it can get worse, it can also get better). Finch doesn’t have that psychological need. He’s a male version of the females from John Green books. Despite being pretty bummed over life, we never get a reason why. Niven can’t even imagine a reason like “I will never be enough for that girl”. Niven can’t even give Finch a reason to die that suicidal people will frown upon.

So no, Finch isn’t mentally ill. He’s always manic and always full of life. Something in Williams’ and Curtis’ lives wasn’t enough. Despite being a big shot comedian and the frontman of Post-Punk’s top band, life still wasn’t good enough. There isn’t a single moment where Niven shows she understands what it’s like when everything is not enough.

As for Violet, she mostly follows Finch around and gives in to Finch’s aggressive pursuit. I didn’t mention Ian Watkins in the beginning for nothing. Finch pursues Violent with so much force that if he continued to live he’d probably end up like Watkins. Assuming, of course, he’ll have a hit song. Considering he’s hot I bet he has a good chance.

John Green is also a good comparison point. The book follows a nearly identical structure. The shared ingredients include two lovers who are meant to be weirdos, but are in fact total badasses. There are quirky best friends and a lot of traveling around. To Niven’s credit, she doesn’t focus too much on those so-called ‘best friends’.

There are also few and brief moments where Niven understands suicide. If you ever wanted to kill yourself you probably heard help is available and people care. They don’t. People are shocked by suicide and won’t care about you when you’re alive. Many people are afraid to acknowledge this and I’m glad Niven gets that. The character of Amanda also makes me hope that if Niven only read a bit in alt.suicide.holiday, she might’ve understood the concept of “Everything is never enough”. She’s the most realistic and fascinating character – a popular girl so trapped in her popularity she can’t imagine a way out but death.

If you hope to read this and gain an understanding of suicide, you will be disappointed. Worse, you might be fooled. Suicidal people aren’t illnesses. They aren’t thoughtcriminals who need to be re-educated. No one chooses to live and therefore people should be allowed to die. The anti-suicide attitude is in fact what drives many people to suicide. A lot of suicidal people aren’t fighting suicidal thoughts. They’re fighting life. Life is the problem, not the desire to die.

The novel is terrible for deeper reasons than a creepy romance and ripping off a ‘meh’ author. It takes an important and rich subject and doesn’t even simplify it. Suicide happens in the book, but the story is really about two hot teenage badasses being hot teenage badasses. If I lived like Finch I would’ve loved life. I really hope Niven – and anyone else who lost someone to suicide – finds support and continues to take care of themselves. It won’t suicide any less valid though.

zero stars