Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some Musings on Three Books I Love

I recently reread the Hunger Games books, in anticipation of the first movie. I don't have time to write the post I'd like to write, but I'm going to give myself an hour or so to work through some of my broadest thoughts here on the blog. My reread was different from my initial readings. Nothing and no one in the books can feel the same when you know what's coming, know their fates. To be frank, my reread was devastating.

When it comes down to it, these books are about war, evil, totalitarianism, trauma and its aftermath, madness, desperation, loss. They're about how the most seemingly incorruptible good can be shattered into awfulness given the right (wrong) circumstances. They're about being broken so often that you can never fully heal, and about the enormous resilience and courage it takes to keep clinging to hope.

A disclaimer that should be obvious: there will be plenty of Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay spoilers in this post. To those readers unfamiliar with the books, I apologize for the lack of plot summary. To everyone, I apologize if this seems rushed!

***

"I really can't think about kissing when I've got a rebellion to incite."

That's Katniss's thought on page 126 of Catching Fire :).  I'd forgotten how much time Katniss spends comparing/contrasting Peeta and Gale as love interests. Yet for all the Team Peeta/Team Gale enthusiasm on the interwebs, this just doesn't seem like an interesting question to me. "Which boy?" is not what these books are about. I love that when Katniss says things like the quote above, she actually means it. It's not a Mary Sue act on her part, "Oh, SIGH, I wish all these boys weren't so in love with me, I wish I could focus more on the THINGS THAT MATTER, why must I be so DESIRED? POOR ME!" Katniss actually cannot be bothered. Sure, she's working through some of the confusions; she's aware of what Peeta and Gale both want; she's even aware that if the circumstances were different, she might be thinking about it more, might even come to some sort of conclusion, even find herself wanting something or someone. But the circumstances aren't different, and Katniss's big life questions are so much more interesting than that. She's asking herself questions like, do I want any boy at all? Could I ever? Is it ever safe to love another person, or to have children? How can a person ever feel anything for real, when at every moment, she's being compelled to pretend her feelings? How can I get all the people I love out of this trap? Forget about being in love -- how can I keep all of us alive?

The answer, of course, is that she can't.

***

I want to talk about Cinna for a moment. Cinna uses art as a tool for rebellion. His art is everything to him; what he says with his art is so important to him that he's willing to risk his life (and Katniss's), for a dress, for what he brilliantly causes the dress to mean.

Have you noticed there's no overriding religion in this world, no religious figures? There's more to be said about that; I wish I had more time. People in these books die for other people, they die for ideas, they die for goodness, all rooted in the realities of the lives they're living on earth, rather than in some higher scheme. But there is a higher truth; there doesn't need to be God for there to be a higher truth; and I feel like Cinna is one of the people who touches it, with his art. I have a weakness for the rebellious artist.

It's why I gradually came to love -- deeply -- Peeta. Peeta was bland and boring to me -- until I saw his brutal paintings of the arena, and understood how much he could say with his plodding gentleness.

***

I've been trying to get a handle on Peeta as a character, and mostly failing. I feel compelled to, because rereading what happened to him in Mockingjay was so overwhelming to me that I wandered around weepily for a day or two. There's so little comfort in these books, so little comfort for the reader or for Katniss. I found Peeta to be just about the only source of comfort in Catching Fire. Then, in Mockingjay, Collins takes that comfort and smashes it into bits, first by showing us Peeta being tortured, showing us his blood and telling us about his screams, then by turning Peeta into a monster. I couldn't deal with it this time around. It was as if Charlotte the spider suddenly started writing "BAD WORTHLESS PIG" into her web, told Wilbur he was destined for the bacon factory, then crawled down from her corner and started biting him and stuffing sticky threads into his airways. Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly like that :), but what I'm trying to get across is that Peeta's strength, his goodness, is the one thing I can be sure of in this terrible world -- and brilliantly, heartlessly, Suzanne Collins takes that away from us. I'm glad she does that (while acknowledging that some of my friends aren't ^_^), because these books work wonderfully as brutal metaphors for real evil that exists in the real world. How long would it take any of us to pull up a headline about war taking away the goodness of people, making them monsters unrecognizable to those who love them? What happens to Peeta is horrible, but familiar. So I accept it.  But it's so hard to read.

I talked to a lot of friends about Peeta this week. Specifically, I asked, "What are Peeta's character flaws?" The list I came up with is kind of hilarious. Here are Peeta's flaws: (1) He's incapable of walking through the woods in perfect silence. This makes him an annoying hunting partner. (2) He doesn't have enough character flaws.

Normally, it raises warning bells for me when a character is too unflawed. A perfect character is not a believable character. Except that now I need to say something about the power of a beautifully written sentence, because I, for one, believe in Peeta -- because Suzanne Collins writes beautifully, and her words make me believe. Her words make me frightened for Peeta, too, because Katniss is frightened for Peeta, and I can't bear Katniss to feel any more pain. Besides, Peeta's almost-too-good-ness, in a series that contains people like Haymitch, Octavia & Venia & Flavius, Katniss's mother, President Coin, Plutarch Heavensbee, Johanna, Thresh, Beetee, Gale, Katniss herself -- all flawed people -- serves a really important purpose. I think the books need a Peeta, first because Katniss (and the reader) needs some steadiness/comfort; second, because in a book that's trying to say something about evil, Peeta's infallible goodness is a large part of the reason the hijacking of his mind is so unbearable to read about. For the greatest emotional impact, destroy the most indestructable goodness.

All the children who die in the books are dying in this vein too. There's no question that children in these books symbolize innocence, goodness, and purity: the children around President Snow's mansion, Prim, Rue, all the tributes across time. Even Finnick is an odd boy/man mix, the child who was soiled by the hungers of adults, but somehow remained pure in his soul.

By the way, I make no assumptions about Suzanne Collins's intentions. I don't know why she chose to make Peeta the way he is, or why she chose to break him. And I'm not going to try to figure it out, either, because frankly, I've watched too many people make incorrect assumptions about my own writing intentions for me ever to imagine it as a productive endeavor. Everything I'm saying here is my own (incomplete) interpretation of the text, and no more than my opinion.

***

Speaking of flawed characters, maybe I'll go ahead and say something about Gale :).

Gale: a passionate, smart, loyal, handsome, stealthy, fiery guy who has worked his fingers to the bone, suffered a great deal, and defied the law in order to provide for his mother and three little siblings and ensure their safety (to whatever extent one can in this world). He's angry, quick to violence, crabby, sometimes bratty, arrogant, and really quite frightening as a war strategist. He's interesting -- he lets his flaws all hang out. I'm pretty sure he's the person in the books who annoys me most frequently. Grr, he says some annoying things to Katniss. My personal favorite is the way, every time Katniss kisses him, he tells her why her approach is wrong. An example from page 130 in Mockingjay:
He pulls away first and gives me a wry smile. "I knew you'd kiss me."
"How?" I say. Because I didn't know myself.
"Because I'm in pain," he says. "That's the only way I get your attention." He picks up the box. "Don't worry, Katniss. It'll pass."
Um, Gale? You're not really helping your cause here. I'd love to see how Katniss would react to those words on a day when she wasn't so distracted by being traumatized, injured, out of her mind with worry for her loved ones, and also the involuntary public face of a rebellion against a totalitarian state. Oh wait, her days are always like that.

Poor Gale. He's right to think that the day he lost Katniss was the day Peeta's name was called as tribute and he didn't volunteer. But he couldn't have volunteered. His family, and Katniss's, desperately needed him at home. He did the right thing, then and so many other times.  I hope he finds happiness in District 2. And is never called upon to be a war strategist again. 

***

I like that there's never a moment where Katniss actually makes a decision between Peeta and Gale. I like that she lets circumstances decide. Katniss does that sometimes, she lets circumstances (and expectations) sweep her along -- certainly not always, but sometimes, especially when she sees there's no point in fighting. It's true to her character. And this seems like an appropriate matter for her to be that way about, because the way I see it, both Peeta and Gale could have been right for her, depending entirely on circumstance. I believe it would also have been right had she ended up with neither of them. Though I'm happy for her that it worked out how it did, because she benefits from comfort, friendship, and hope, in one form or another. They all take fine form in Peeta.

***

I wonder if the Hollywood treatment of Mockingjay will let us linger just a little bit more on Peeta's healing than the book does. I would be okay with that.

***

There are other things to be said. I'd love to say something about Katniss's supposed purity, how often she feels physical hunger but how rarely she has room for sexual hunger. I'd love to talk about her personality, her fierce instinct toward self-defense (even at Peeta's expense sometimes), her lack of kindness toward Peeta when he's suffering so much in Mockingjay. I'd love to talk about the humor of the books -- how much easier it is, for example, to absorb a new horrible turn in the plot if Haymitch and Katniss are being sarcastic at each other, or how, in the moments when Katniss is truly flipping out, screaming and banging her fists on the window as she watches a friend die, a Capitol servant will inevitably come along and blandly offer her a beverage.  About themes of debt, owing other people for things you can never pay them back for. About the epilogue, which I know bothers some readers, but doesn't bother me -- I think it fits. About the moments when the books themselves -- or maybe it's just the lovesick boys -- try to turn Katniss into a Mary Sue, and, in my opinion at least, fail. (Definition of a Mary Sue.) About how brilliant I find some of the emotional traps Collins ties Katniss up in.

But this has taken way more than an hour, and my time is up.

Thanks to Suzanne Collins for creating this extraordinary tale. These characters are real to me, and they touch me deeply.