Monday, July 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars: An Anarchist Review

Title: The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Published: Dutton  Books, 2012
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5) stars

First off I need to tell you: I am a teenage girl. Not in the anatomical way, but in the “I still believe in the happily ever after prince and princess story.” I guess most people would just call that the naïve way. But this is not regular naivete. I've been through my cynicism and heart break and all that, and have decided sometimes naivete is the best. This brings me to The Fault in Our Stars.

It is curious. The book prides itself on being non-ideal. This is the book about the “real story” not the romance story you see in the movies. This is the book where people have real sicknesses and are not pretty, and die and don’t have the typical happy love story. The irony is that it is the movie with the ideal love story, where the guy and girl love each other despite all obstacles. If we wanted a story that was not ideal we would just go talk to our neighbor or uncle or sister about how their boyfriend/girlfriend hooked up with them and then left/cheated/was not emotionally present. But those stories are cheap, you don’t pay for that. This story became popular because it is not  real, because it is incredible and beautiful in a way few actually experience and in many ways that no one will ever experience.  However, before we get into that, the best aspects of the book are its philosophical and thematic discussions.

The Meta Aspect

The book revolves around another book: An Imperial Affliction.  As it turns out, this is not a real book. We get glimpses of the book that binds Augustus and Hazel together and drives lots of the plot through the quotes that are shared from it and what Hazel tells us about it. Many of the best quotes in the book are actually quotes from An Imperial Affliction. It is a book about a girl with cancer and how she and her family deal with it. What is The Fault in Our Stars about? Well the same thing actually. AIA helps Hazel cope with life in many of the same ways as I am guessing John Green imagined TFIOS would help people understand and cope with life. Interestingly the author of AIA, Peter Van Houten, is not helpful at all to Hazel and Augustus. He doesn’t answer their questions and is a jerk to them. What is John Green trying to tell us? Perhaps that he as the author is not some sort of God or genius or miracle worker, but rather it is the power of fiction, the power of the story that can really help and heal people.

The levels and possible interpretations about the meaning  of the relationship between the real author and the fictional author created by the real author and the fictional book created in the real book that is fictional are virtually endless, and fascinating. The idea of the Author of a book as a character within a book has been explored in the Spanish tradition, but is not that common. AIA is a book within a book that is itself the book that it is in. It is like we are looking at one of those pictures of a guy holding the picture of the picture itself.  It is somewhat mind-bending. And awesome.

The Theme

The best part of the book, and movie, are the philosophical discussions. There is a lot about God and the afterlife, and the meaning or lack thereof of life. But what is the overall theme?

I make the case that the theme is the idea of “oblivion” versus meaning (maybe you disagree, so please, write your argument and send it to me). One of the first things we hear Augustus Waters say is, “I fear oblivion.” To which the protagonist, Hazel Grace replies: “There will come a time, when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught… If the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows, that's what everyone else does.”

This battle between meaning and senselessness continues throughout the book. These are young cancer patients predicted to die before they reach middle-age, who better to pose the question: Does my suffering mean anything? “Cancer kids are essentially side effects of the relentless mutation that made diversity of life on earth possible,” writes the protagonist, Hazel. She represents the position that it is all random chance, there is no glory or purpose in any of it, and she seems to stubbornly hold to her position, despite spending many afternoons in the “Literal Heart of Jesus” (the room in the church where she meets for her cancer support group). Augustus represents the optimism that there is a “purpose.” He, like many, is filled with the notion that his life should mean something. That when he dies newspapers will mark his passing and thousands of people will morn his death. I once thought this is what everyone wanted in life, because I did and assumed everyone thought the same. I was surprised when I met people who were satisfied with a few close relatives being present. This is likely the the healthier view, and what wins out in The Fault in Our Stars.

Therefore neither Hazel nor Augustus’s view has the day, but rather both. As Augustus laments his lack of notoriety, Hazel responds, “You say you’re not special because the world doesn’t know about you, but that’s an insult to me. I know about you.” He will not be known by thousands like Cleopatra or Aristotle, but will be known by all those that matter, the ones closest to him. His suffering and life meant something. It is put most beautifully by Hazel in Augustus’s “pre-funeral” the funeral Augustus holds for himself before he dies, because he always wanted to attend his own funeral. “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”* “… There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity.” There love meant something. It meant infinitely much, even if it was only for a short time. And that is the most beautiful aspect and idea in the book.

Book Versus Movie

There is not much difference between the book and the movie. The movie’s plot is a little more succinct, as in some of the details are rearranged and some parts taken out.  I would go so far as to say the movie story line was superior to the book, but of course the book had some added emotion, and extra philosophical discussion. And obviously there is a visual aspect to the movie that is not in the book which tends to favor slightly better-looking people than the average person. Overall the movies follows the book about as closely as you see in a book to movie adaption.

The Departure From Reality

Every book has to obey by its own rules. A book can have any sort of crazy laws and physics and creatures, but it has to obey those established rules. Gravity can’t pull people up in the first chapter and down in the second chapter (unless of course the established rule is gravity is always changing, which would be an interesting concept for a book). This book chose our own world, the world we all know. In particular young cancer patients in Indiana, so the rules are set. John Green, the author, obviously knows what he is talking about; he lives in Indiana, and has spent lots of time working with kids who have cancer. So he gets it all right, with one flaw, one over-sight, one breach of reality.

The book (and particularly the movie) panders to teenage girls. This departure from reality explains my infatuation with the book, and likely the story’s success. Many movies pander to men by having girls who are incredibly gorgeous (and don’t know that they are) fall in love with the shy, awkward guy. This is of course the fantasy of thousands (if not millions) of men, and the key to the success of these stories. This book is simply the reverse. Here is a guy who is “hot” and athletic. He was a successful basketball player and has an excellent physique. Girls love him. He is happy and outgoing, charismatic charming, and did I mention, hot? Yet despite all this he falls in love with a girl of average (at best) looks who does not play sports or go to pool parties or wear sexy clothes. He loves her because of her intellect and personality. The guy is 17 years old. Pretty standard right? Sorry to burst your proverbial love bubbles my dear fellow teenage girls: But there is no such thing as an Augustus Waters. Hot guys know they are hot, and hot teenage guys who are good at sports are generally as into beauty as they themselves are beautiful. So despite the fact that you may have read Dickens, Hemingway, Voltaire, and all the other intellectual books, it still will not help you get the basketball captain with perfect muscles and face. There may be some exceptions, and maybe it has something to do with having cancer (though Augustus says in the book that cancer patients are just as vain, silly, and irrational as the rest of us), but I don’t think there are many high-school aged Augustus Waters out there, however I would like to think so. (To be completely honest, I don’t think there are many Hazel Grace’s out there either, but I keep hoping, and when I do find her, I plan on being her Augustus Waters, albeit minus the muscles and good-looks.)

That said, this ripple in reality, does not detract from the overall awesomeness of the book. This may be because I am a teenage girl, or it may be because it actually is a great book that most anyone with a heart will enjoy.

Have fun reading! Or don’t. This is the Anarchist Review: reading without rulers.

*A small note on the mathematics of set theory and Hazel Grace. Mathematically there are indeed infinities that are bigger than others. However, Hazel’s examples are bad ones. She chose infinities that are the same size. There are only two types of infinities, countable and uncountable. I actually think John Green knows the difference and the error, but chose to leave it in because it sounds better. Really she should have said something like: the natural numbers 1,2, 3, etc. go on forever and are infinite, but are smaller than the infinite number of real numbers between 0 and 1, but that is a tad complicated so instead Green just used between 0 and 1 and between 0 and 2, which is easier to grasp. However, in that strange twist of mathematical craziness, there are actually the same number of numbers between 0 and 1 as there are between 0 and 2. I know, weird. Math is not a tame lion. 

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