Sunday, February 23, 2014

Writing that respects the young adult reader (Books - The Fault in our Stars by John Green)

John Green's latest YA novel The Fault in our Stars is one of those rare creatures - a deserving best seller.  It hasn't a fault I could find, other than its being so immensely popular.  If you have somehow hidden yourself under a rock and found a way not to hear about it, it concerns two teenagers - Hazel Grace and Augustus (Gus) - with terminal cancer.  And if you think that that means you couldn't stand to read it, I would say it is potently tragic, yes, it's a three-hanky book, but an extraordinarily beautiful love story and really, really funny.

Green creates thoroughly believable teenagers.  These kids have cancer but they aren't their diagnosis.  They are wickedly smart souls who have known pain but who still fight with their parents for independence, want to win love, and achieve greatness (in some cases). Green's plot cleverly uses a work of fiction within his fiction - An Imperial Affliction - by Peter van Houten.  The novel and the author are Hazel Grace's favorites (they are entirely fictional), and importantly, they have no ending.  Green uses this novel as a point of contact in the growing relationship between Grace and Gus. 
When I got out of the movie, I had four text messages from Augustus

     Tell me my copy is missing the last twenty pages or something

     Hazel Grace, tell me I have not reached the end of this book.

Green does so much with the fiction within the fiction.  It is, most obviously, a way to explore what it means to not have a neat ending with a resolution - as is the case for many people with terminal illness.  Even more importantly, it becomes a touchstone for exploring the act of creating - one of the chief acts that give a life meaning - and the realm of belief - since great fiction gives us the sense that its world and people really exist.  This is important on two levels - for Green's two characters, they wonder, as people nearing the end of the lives often do - what it was all for and what will become of them.  For the reader - I think it functions as a layer of metafiction, because as the characters Grace and Gus deal with their powerful feelings for the fictional characters in their novels, we deal with our feelings about them, who are fiction as well.

Green also knows the craft of writing.  After Grace reads her text messages (above) he writes:
So when I got home I went out into the backyard and sat down on this rusting latticed patio chair and called him.  It was a cloudy day, typical Indiana: the kind of weather that boxes you in.  Our little backyard was dominated by my childhood swing set, which was looking pretty waterlogged and pathetic.

Augustus picket up on the third ring, "Hazel Grace," he said.

"So welcome to the sweet torture of reading An Imperial - " 
The novel is not all romance or grief, it is not one big ball of feeling.  Nor is it all abstract ideas.  It is things happening to people in particular times and places.  This is conveyed by the writer by his translating his observation of those people and places into words.  Sounds easy, but it's not.  That's the work of writing.  That detail is the glue.  It's the essence of a written fiction, or nonfiction for that matter, that permits us to believe in the world we are reading about.  Green knows when to let Grace wander around her backyard and notice her childhood swing set (which he uses in the plot) and when to cut to the chase.

Lastly, and perhaps best of all, Green respects his readers.  He shows them (teenagers, the rest of us are trespassing) that they are real people whose existential concerns and whose love is serious.  He shows them with his words that he knows they can take a real honest, painful, story about people who are both like them and not like them - the same thing that adults go to in fiction - which is likely why Green has an avid adult following.  I have enjoyed both

I understand that The Fault in our Stars has been adapted for film.  I have to admit, I don't want my internal version of these characters disturbed.  It really messed with my vision of The Sterile Cuckoo  to have Liza Minelli crowd out my version of Pookie, but in some ways this novel is a shoe-in for film.  If it is done even half way decently it will have tremendous pathos.


guiltlessreader said...

Love your review! I think this generation has it good with authors like John Green around. I too will probably not even bother with the movie ... I hate it when a movie just kills the book.

Ted said...

Thanks for the visit and the comment, guiltless. I really enjoy the collage-feel at your blog.