Monday, March 29, 2010

Apocalypse Girls 2: Hunger Games and Heroes & Villains

More dystopian fun! Apocalypse Girls 1 can be found here.

Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games is a publishing sensation. Since it came out in 2008, it has sold nearly 1.5 million copies. Obviously, this means we will be seeing a lot more YA post-apocalyptic novels over the next few years fighting the vampires and Potter rip-offs for shelf space in an ever narrowing spiral of diminishing returns.

After reading it, I can easily understand its popularity. Once you start, against all kinds of better judgment, it is simply impossible wrench the damn thing away from your greedy eyeballs. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen is smart and unsentimental. The world building is outstanding. The United States is long gone, replaced by the nation of Panem. The country is divided into twelve districts, a thirteenth was obliterated after a failed rebellion against the ruling Capital. In repayment for this disloyalty, every year the districts have to each offer up a boy and a girl (this is done by lottery) to participate in The Hunger Games, which is televised nationally, and obsessively watched by everyone. The games themselves are like a cross between Survivor and the Olympics, but with actual killing. The only rule (unspoken) is "no cannibalism". Last teen standing wins and becomes a pampered celebrity for life. As Stephen King pointed out in his EW review (with which I basically agree), this isn't the most mind-blowingly original premise. But to much of its school age readership, it will be.

As compulsively readable as the book is, it's not perfect. As with most teen novels, there is a love triangle, which after all my recent YA reading is getting increasingly irksome. My biggest problem with the book is with the action that happens once the Hunger Games begin. At times the action sequences began to drag for me. I'm probably a total fuddy-duddy, but amidst all the violence, I would sigh and say to myself, "Nothing is happening". Meaning that nothing is happening internally, no growth, no interesting thoughts, the plot isn't actually moving forward. It would get a little boringly filmic. And then I thought there was a failing of courage in Collins at the very end. This might be my predilection for heartbreak and misery raising its ugly head (again), but the ending felt easy to me.

All that aside, unlike with Uglies/Pretties, I already have the sequel sitting on my shelf and I'm really itching to start devouring it. Though she may occasionally lose her way, Collins is thoughtful and smart about the political and class structure she has invented, and the characters are compelling. Katniss comes from a brutally poor mining town in what was once what we would call Appalachia. No one from their district has won the Games in decades, as they lack the wealthy sponsors that help keep contestants from the more affluent districts alive. She is an appealing heroine, more complicated than most - filled with guilt and a crushing sense of responsibility.

And not everyone can write the teen lit equivalent of crack cocaine.

Heroes & Villains differentiates itself from the other books on this list in that it was written by Angela Carter. Literature-wise, she is the only serious heavyweight present, and as most people who know me are aware, she's my favorite writer of the last hundred years or so. I've been slowly rationing out her books so that I don't run out too soon, but I'm afraid I've read nearly everything.

Heroes & Villains was her fourth novel, published when she was twenty-nine years old in 1969, the year I was born. It tells the story of Marianne who lives in a tower in a town surrounded by woods, the daughter of scientists. In her post-nuclear world, outside the gates are Barbarians who according to current scientific thought have branched off from Homo Sapiens and formed a new sub-species. Mutated beasts (zoo escapees) also wander the forests.

It's difficult for me to write about this book specifically without writing about Angela Carter in a wider context - there will be more soon in a later blog post (tentatively titled "Angela Carter Was The Greatest Writer of the Second Half of the 20th Century and Anyone Who Thinks I'm Wrong Can Go Fuck Themselves"). She was a working class Scott raised in London, educated at Cambridge, a novelist, a scholar of fairy tales and literature, a short story writer, a critic, a translator, a writer of radio plays, a Socialist, a mother, a failed anorexic. She was also a Feminist of the most interesting, contrarian and least politically correct stripe. Her ideas on gender and colonialism permeate all of her work, and at one point or another she managed to infuriate everyone. She was a particularly thorny figure to the McKinnon/Dworkin sackcloth and ashes brand of feminism that was most prevalent in the 70s when Angela Carter was causing trouble. After all, this is the woman who wrote a book long feminist defense of the Marquis de Sade, and purposefully wrote a misogynist novel in the spirit of intellectual curiosity (which I'm kind of dying to adapt for the stage).

So, her teen dystopian novel carries a different sort of weight from the others, but it still fits in seamlessly. The first line of the book, "Marianne had sharp, cold eyes but her father loved her." is straight out of the world of fairy tales. Early in the book, Marianne runs away with one of the barbarians who attack her enclave: it's part desperation, part defiance and part a kidnapping. Life with the barbarians is a jumble of gypsy mythos, the American west (i.e. The Searchers, but here, no one cares for or is looking for Natalie Wood), baroque, gothic decay, and a large dollop of The Tempest. It's a heady mix, but in all her extravagance of language and legend, she never loses sight of the central question of otherness and identity. She plays with all sorts of tropes from myth and romance, most tellingly the constant and always disturbing one of falling in love with one's rapist. I have a feeling that the men reading this won't know exactly how pervasive this is, as they haven't watched enough soap operas or read enough best-selling romances. Think Gone With the Wind, Luke and Laura or even my beloved Buffy. When Angela Carter goes there, it is with such intent, one can almost see her looking up from her typewriter and saying, "Yeah. I fucking went there. Let's see where it leads." It's a strange, powerful book, though far from her best. The ending felt a little unfinished, with its strange evocation of Rousseau (actually, now that I think of it, both Rousseaus, which I'm sure was intentional).

Angela Carter wore her influences on her sleeve. But she never loses sight of what she's getting at, and why tropes and popular fiction are so meaningful. Similar in some ways to one of my other gigantic influences, Dennis Potter. It's no accident that genre moves people so deeply. Pop sensibilities are as valuable as any other, and more than most, I think. But going back to dystopia, and why girls at this particular moment in time seem so drawn to it. I really don't have any trenchant insights other than the obvious ones of teens wanting their alienated insides made literal. I think it's particularly tough times out there in the culture for girls. So much is expected of them, and so many of these things are seemingly contradictory: one of the most insidious is the myth of effortlessness. I mean, what wonder teen is effortless at anything at fifteen. I'm leaving boys out of this equation only because I don't know anything about boys. I do think girls are alienated from the center of our culture from their very core and maybe these books speak to that. All that aside, it is certainly an interesting time for literature aimed at young girls for which I am grateful.

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