Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

     I finally, over a period of ten days or so, read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy (actually I read them interspersed with a reread off Gibbon's Decline and Fall... which made it even more interesting). I really liked them: not for the style, which is unremarkable, but for the plot and ideas--and yes, novels can be good-plot no-style and make a contribution just as a ballplayer can be good-field no-hit and do so. I was intrigued by the clear American Idol metaphor, which obviously has really reached today's generation of children. Kids today are so suffused with competitiveness, whose injunctions to "race to the top," to do well in school as training for adult jostling for money, status, sex, power, all seen in the most quantifiable, calculated terms, much as it is very clear who is the winner or loser in the Hunger Games. I think Laura Miller's analysis really falls short in not understanding that what motivates this sort of response among readers of  Collins's trilogy are the fundamental inequalities of neoliberalism, not just a frisson of danger in an overprotected world that, as describes by Miller only describe the most privileged of today's children.

It is interesting to think about the readership of the book, in that, in line with a predominant trend of recent years, it is more female than male, and is perhaps the final seal in the undoing of the stereotype that males like science fiction and fantasy, female readers realistic, domestic narrative. The combination of hairstyles and outfits with hand-to-hand street fighting, and a strong female protagonist Katniss  Everdeen, who is highly principled and energetic, speaks to a further undoing of the gender binary in fiction readership that to an extent has been there since the eighteenth century In teaching Eighteenth Century Fiction at Lang last term, and discussing the differently gendered readerships of, say, Fielding and Richardson--, I mentioned this syndrome--the new female readership or genres such as sf,  fantasy, historical fiction, military fiction that used ot be exclusively male--and suggested that it represented a 'solution' to issues that had clustered around the novel form since its inception.

Of course, one of Collins’s points is that all the strands that go into the Hunger Games--fashion, war, sports--are various kinds of spectacles, media events, and Collins captures very well her fictional dystopia of Panem's employment of the 'society of the spectacle'. One of the most moving moments in Mockingjay, the third book, is when Beetee from District 3 manages to override the Capitol's propaganda machine and inert counter-propaganda, so it becomes a mode of dueling spectacles, dueling media articulations. Also interesting is the highly 'postmodern' way that the Panem government is at once strengthened and weakened by this media spectacle it uses the Hunger Games to chastise and admonish its victims, but also creates a kind of media fiction that can to a certain extent be 'gamed,' as Katniss and Peeta do by threatening to ingest the berries (a very romantic, Pyramus and Thisbe style moment at the end of the first book, but also a manipulation of the frame of the Hunger games against their devisers).

Subjectively, I liked The Hunger Games much better than Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (and find Katniss far more tolerable as a heroine than Lyra). For one thing, it read easily and was exciting, whereas Pullman's trilogy was very ponderous, burdened not only by his leaden, polemical anti-Christianity but also by his apparent belief that hoary schemata such as the neo-medieval alternate history frame were at all original. I liked The Hunger Games about the same as I did the harry Potter books, but the feel was very different. For one thing, the Harry Potter books had a strong sense of the tug of tradition and were in many ways a testimony to the power of tradition and its institutions, even if these we 'of magic The Hunger Games has none of this, no nostalgia in its future-verse for our own world or certainly for the ancient Roman world it evokes (more on that later0 but hardly sees as idyllic or sustaining. Secondly, I, as a reader, was constantly distracted when reading Harry Potter by my knowledge of Rowling's sources or allusions; obviously, this is not a problem for the primary reader but if not a problem, is certainly at the very least a readerly effect for the secondary reader. In contrast, The Hunger Games read seamlessly. Of course, I thought of other authors--Collins's statement (that she took inspiration fro the story of Theseus and the Minotaur (which I would not have seem unless she had said it) made me think of Mary Renault--further afield, but palpably there, were China Miéville with his use of mutation as a metaphor for social oppression and renewal (the mockingjay as mutated, positively viewed animal could come right out of Perdido Street Station) and Stephen R. Donaldson with his self tormenting protagonists, of which Katniss is a worthy successor. The surname of Katniss Everdeen made me think of Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy' Far From The Madding Crowd---Katniss is far more admirable than Bathsheba, but both are at the center of a love triangle, and Hardy's somber vision is not far from Collins's. But these literary reverberations were not distracting; and whereas Harry Potter was in a sense a tribute (I guess a loaded word in a Hunger Games context) to the very possibility of allusion, The Hunger Games is far more interested in just telling the story. 

The Roman theme is obviously a major one in Collins's trilogy. I like the way Collins waits to explain the origin of the name Panem in the phrase panem et circenses (she does not identify Juvenal as the coiner of this phrase, although she does mention that it was an individual; presumably Juvenal is too nasty even for a dark fantasy, which would have delighted him). But, importantly, she does tell the reader where Panem comes from; she does not just let only the knowing in on the origin. This is a very democratic use of allusion that is empowering to the reader.

Generally when sf/fantasy books evoke Roman themes, there are three valences. One is the 'decline and fall' topos (which made my rereading of Gibbon’s book so apropos) that uses the Roman metaphor to talk about the collapse of an often-unjust empire--the basic conceit of Collins's trilogy is 'the Christians in the catacombs versus the Romans in the forum.’ A second, related, aspect is an idea of America as Rome, a long-established metaphor in American culture recently explored by Cullen Murphy, and certainly Collins's Panem, in so many ways a direct extrapolation of the America of our own time (as some online commentators have noted, no other nation in the Panem universe is ever mentioned) is not far from the writer’s present. But a third aspect is the ready availability of Roman nomenclature to serve as a familiar but other tongue, a different sound, an alternate register. Thus the names in the book are not everyday, but also not totally unfamiliar--Seneca Crane, Plutarch Heavensbee, and perhaps most ingeniously Cinna the stylist. 

As the reader can tell, I got very into these books. My one qualm is about the ending of the third book. (Spoiler alert.) I had no qualms about the death of Prim; that is just narrative technique--modifying an essentially happy ending by someone beloved dying at the end--as was the denouement of the marriage plot, Gale obviously being St John Rivers to Peeta's Mr. Rochester. Mot difficult aspect of this sort of book is the transition into a new order--partially because there are such incongruities of scale between the individual effort of our point-of-view characters and the social change prerequisite to or at least concomitant with such an upheaval. For my money, I would much rather have had Coin succeed Snow--notwithstanding her severity and coldness--but then again I spent eight months volunteering for Hillary Clinton, her obvious model, just as George W Bush, one of whose press secretaries was named Snow, is an obvious model for her predecessor. Coin is imperfect, but it is the "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" syndrome--in a fallen world, even the good authorities will have structural resemblance, as political actors, to the bad ones. It is not Collins’s fault that she finds this dilemma difficult to negotiate; it is a problem of the genre; but the metamorphosis of Katniss into an assassin is stretching it a bit. I understand, though, that Collins did not want Katniss to become an 'official' or 'state' figure, and desire dot render her triumph a private one.  And of course, no matter who else dies, Buttercup the annoying but indestructible cat (reminds me of some I have known :) ) must survive...

In its infectious readability and its ability to spin an engrossing tale, The Hunger Games provides rich entertainment; in its serious critique of the way our values have run amok, it may well represent a moral turning point.