A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

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Ally Condie – Matched

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Describing Matched will make you run away. It’s the serious person’s worst nightmare. Think of every recent Young Adult cliche, and it’s here. Matched Is a story of an ordinary girl in an oppressive-benign society caught between the Stable Guy and Mysterious Dude. There isn’t even something underneath all these cliches to justify it. The novel doesn’t use these tropes in a new, original way.

Yet it’s charming and a pleasant read. Instead of being a chore, that type of novel that makes you visibly angry it’s fun. It’s as if someone stripped City of Bones of the overwriting and Divergent from the pretense. Matched never, for a second, pretends it’s important. It’s a band that gets on stage, kicks some catchy riffs for half an hour and gets off.

Is that worthy of praise? I don’t know. The novel’s roots are in a genre driven by meaning and depth. Dystopian literature doesn’t exist to romanticize revolutionary and shooting people. Dystopian is a genre of ideas. Matched isn’t interested in exploring its ideas even if the big organization is given a few moments to express itself. It cares more about its love story and the excitement of being a teenager.

Condie’s strength is that she never, for a second, pretends it’s anything other than a love story filled with teenage silliness. Every idea and symbol are explained, and it feels like Condie strips the wrappers to show us there isn’t a new idea here. It helps to refocus us, to remind us we’re not in here to explore the dystopia.

She can’t even come up with unique names. Her big organization is called the Society and everyone already said that its idea is basically The Giver. To her credit, it’s a better version of that book. That one was anti-communist agitprop. The Society in Matched still has plenty of inequality. Its flaws aren’t just sentimental, ‘equality makes us all boring’. It shows that in order for some people to live well, others have to sacrifice themselves.

Don’t let it fool you. These little bits are nothing like the romance which is the novel’s true purpose. Oddly, no matter how cliched it is, it’s successful. The story is focused and well-paced. Since it never pretends to be meaningful, it devotes all it sources to capturing those stupid feelings when you’re first in half.

The writing, if not unique, gets the point. There is a youthful energy and sentimentality to it. Cassia may not be developed or unique, but the writing does make her a believable teenager. In fact, the cliched ideas contribute to it. Teenagers are ignorant and their deep thoughts are often more passionate than deep. The writing has all this passion and none of the depth. Perhaps it’s an accident, but it’s fairly realistic.

Since Condie is concerned more with teenage life, the novel doesn’t punish the reader with action scenes. Action scenes rarely work in novels. They’re mostly vague descriptions about bullets flying and people screaming from pain. The story in Matched is more personal, more concerned with relationships developing and changing. That gives it a little humanity and puts it above novels like Divergent. Condie may not be able to develop these characters, but at least she treats them like human beings and let them act like ones. The novel’s focus on the characters’ emotions makes it more thrilling and engrossing than a long-winded blow-by-blow account of a fight.

It could’ve been profound, but it’s shallow. No one actually has a personality. The situation she creates rely on character interactions, though. So with enough passionate writing, she manages to create the illusion of character-driven story. At least it’s a better way to progress the story. Instead of jumping from action scene to action scene, each scene is a clear progression in the relationships.

The romance itself is the strongest part, but I’m not sure if it’s praiseworthy. Common criticism of teen romance don’t apply here. The two dudes are decent people. The mysterious guy is mysterious in a benign way. He knows more about the outside and he likes poetry, but he’s never aggressive or stalking. The love triangle almost makes sense. Cassia has a reason to be attracted to both of them since both have different, but good traits.

Is it good though? It’s fun and the youthful exciting is charming, but that’s all it has. The characters have no personality whatsoever. The world is slightly better than The Giver, but not by much. The storytelling is focused and not rambling, but it doesn’t lead to anywhere.

The charm of Matched is good enough to make it bearable. It’s a novel that takes all the YA tropes and knows how to make them work just enough. If you want a pure, silly YA novel with no depth that’s not annoying this is it. But, in a way, it feels like we’re praising the novel more for not being City of Bones.

3 dystopias out of 5

James Dashner – The Maze Runner

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Did Dashner ever read a book? There is potential here, but for the most part the Maze Runner is a bad narration of a video game. It’s a bad idea at heart, but a talented author can narrate a Point-and-Click game and capture some of the energy. Dashner makes literature and video games collide, forgetting the strengths of either.

In a typical Adventure game, your character has no personality. Its purpose is to follow your command. You are the one experiencing things. Adventure games are one huge and colorful puzzle that are fun not only because we’re in the dark, but because we have to do the navigation. In Maze Runner, we’re also in the dark but we’re lead through it. We never make a choice.

Since literature robs the viewer of participation, it uses other techniques to make the story feel alive. The main one is, of course, developing characters. Give them a personality, wants, needs and other things that govern their behavior. We start to see people like us. We may not make the choices, but we still see choices being made.

Even when we’re playing Adventure games where we have a clear, singular purpose our personality still governs us. Our psychology influences how we approach the problems. So even if your story is a puzzle the characters solve, you need these characters developed enough to show us how they reach their choices. That’s why puzzle stories like Cube or some of the Saw films are exciting. Not only there is a mystery to solve, but we see its effect on people.

Dashner never comes close to developing his characters. His puzzle is cool enough. Mazes are badass by nature and the moving wall is a nice twist. Yet Dashner never builds a society around this, even though he has potential. He tries using some made-up slang, but it comes off as stupid. Why would they come up with another word for ‘shit’? Slang develops because there is a direct connection between the new word and the meaning, but the new word needs to add something. ‘Horrorshow’ tells us something about the society in Clockwork Orange and its obsession with violence. What does the word ‘klunk’ adds? It’s not even a useful reference for Klayton’s (AKA Celldweller’s) band. That one is spelled Klank.

A society trapped in such an odd situation should develop its own culture. Its main attributes are roughness. Dashner gives the society a structure and never explore their interaction. The Glade is fairly similar to a small military base. It has its leaders, the maintenance workers and the frontliners. The relationship between these are complex, since all roles are necessary but some are harder than others, and there are those who have a higher purpose. Some of the bosses get a few lines, but the focus is where the excitement’s at – with the runners. The job isn’t presented as too glorious, but half of the Glade is forgotten.

Not that the main characters get attention. The camera is on them, but they’re video game characters. They do what they do because it’s convenient. Trapped settings, contrary to popular beliefs, don’t limit character growth. Just because the characters only has one choice doesn’t mean they don’t have a personality. The people who vote for the only party in the country still have an opinion on it. In fact, it’s very interesting to explore the feelings of being trapped, of being confined and not having any choices. Isn’t it what’s commonly considered a fate worse than death?

The problem with Thomas isn’t that he’s a Gary Stu and extremely moral. The choices he makes are convenient to the plot, but there’s never another reason other than convenience for it. Some people are extremely moral and righteous, but if your character is like this you have to answer some questions. What does it feel like to be so moral? What drives a person to be so moral? Dashner touches on how society perceives heroes, but don’t superhero movies beat the ‘don’t trust the good guys’ shtick to the ground?

The rest of the cast does nothing. You have a bumbling friend, a girl who dispenses information, and two leaders, one rougher than the others. The only unique thing Dashner does is make the obligatory rival more understandable. There’s always a mystery surrounding it, as if all the hatred he holds isn’t just because he’s an asshole. It’s revealed there is more to it than that, but the answer is not satisfying.

At worst, this could’ve been a fun and weird adventure. As I’ve said, the setting is charming enough. Dashner cannot mine its coolness, though. The main technique he uses is withholding information. In fact, Dashner is so in love with this technique the characters use it, too. Pages and pages consists of people refusing to answer Thomas’ questions, and why? They admit being just as confused as he was the first time. It’s not like the setting is complex. Yet everytime Thomas asks a question, they answer with ‘shut up!’. I know they’re teenagers, but they’re teenagers who built society in a weird pseudo-dystopia.

It’s a shame, because Dashner occasionally creates a sense of mystery. Besides moving walls, there are steel plates with writing on them, an invisible hole and a carefully constructed facility. It’s obvious someone’s in control of the whole thing, and Dashner should’ve played on it. He should’ve made the Creators do more things, affect the setting more. There’s something unnerving about being trapped in a place where the people in control don’t want to kill or torture you. Dashner never plays on that.

He spends most of the time telling us things we already know. That’s a weird way of withholding information, but it’s still a bad technique. Dashner’s prose is often annoying. At worst, authors of such Young Adult books have minimalist prose without bullshit. Condie and Roth may not be great prose stylist, but they never ramble. The prose here feels unedited, with explanations accompanying every line of dialogue. Why is that?

The book only survives on its charm. The ending and the setting are imaginative enough. With Dashner’s dead prose and non-existent characterization, I doubt he will build on the potential here. Slightly better authors than him fell in the sequels. I still have hope, but that’s my demon.

2 mazes out of 5

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