I have a rule about books that involve dying children; that rule is DON’T READ THEM. The clichés, the dying requests – none of it can come to any good. I break this rule sometimes, of course – just often enough to remember why the rule exists and why it is a good idea. The last time I broke this rule (I think) was for Chris Cleave’s Gold, which managed to be a pretty good read, mainly because the dying child was part of a secondary plot line. But even then, entire chapters were devoted to maudlin tropes about pretending the cancer cells are Darth Vader and – oh, dear God. I can’t go on. The Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force. The clichés. The terrible, heartbreaking clichés.
I held out on The Fault in Our Stars for a long time. I don’t remember exactly when I figured out that John Green was considered The Next Big Thing in young adult fiction, but at some point (the spring of 2013, to be exact), I read Looking for Alaska and found it – well, annoying, but also skillfully done. Shortly after I read it, a teenage acquaintance of mine asked me what I thought, and I said, “Oh, you know – it’s that same old adolescent suicide plot.”
“Adolescent suicide plot?” he asked. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
I summed it up for him. “Kid A meets Kid B. Kid A comes from classic mid-American suburban family – everything in his life so far has been pleasant and safe but boring. Kid B has some kind of pain in his/her past and/or present and is generally dark and moody but also brilliant and charismatic and talented. Kid A is the protagonist and generally the first-person narrator. The two embark on an intense, eventful friendship. Sexual attraction may or may not be involved, but one way or another, this friendship is the best thing that has ever happened to Kid A. Together they fight against some obstacle: a bully, parents, school authorities, authority in general. A few key scenes are narrated in detail, during which no one does a minute of schoolwork or sports practice or anything else that takes up 99% of the time of real-life teenagers, even when vague statements are made about Kid A being an excellent student and Kid B having a precocious gift for writing or music or whatever. Then more stuff happens and more stuff happens and more stuff happens, and then Kid B is dead, either by suicide or by some kind of risk-taking behavior that is directly related to Kid B’s dark, talented, brilliant soul. After Kid B’s death, Kid A finds out some key facts about Kid B’s life that Kid A did not previously know about, and then Kid A goes back to Kansas or wherever and makes up for lost time on the debate team. It is suggested that his/her life will never be the same.
Looking for Alaska has many strengths, but it embodies just about all of the clichés I just described. I had another complaint about it too: its teenage characters are Platonic forms, not real characters – and I was reminded of this problem this weekend when I read The Fault in Our Stars. In both of these novels, the first-person narrators and at least 2-3 other key characters speak and behave not like flawed real-world characters but like abstractions. These abstractions are smart and funny, which – of course, many teenagers are too. But real teenagers, even the smart and funny ones, aren’t usually smart and funny in exactly the right ways at exactly the right times. They only occasionally recognize irony, and while they love to be sarcastic themselves they usually fail to recognize sarcasm if it comes from an unexpected source. They are forever misunderstanding motives and aren’t especially empathic. The teenagers in these two John Green novels are modeled not after teenagers themselves but after the ideal selves that teenagers themselves know to exist but that don’t play much of a role in dictating their words and actions. Adults have these ideal selves too, of course – we often reconsider a situation after it takes place, especially if it took us by surprise, and wish we had spoken or acted differently. But over time, less and less surprises us, and we start to seem wiser and shrewder when we speak and act because we’ve already had a few dress rehearsals for many of the challenges we encounter.
In case it’s not clear, I love teenagers. I taught high school for ten years and worked with at least 3000 teenagers, and I liked almost all of them. I can’t imagine ever feeling the same way about adults. If I worked intensively with 3000 adults over the course of ten years, I would like maybe three or four of them by the time the whole ordeal was over. I know that teenagers’ wise, articulate, and well-reasoned true selves are there, partly because I remember being a teenager myself but also because these true selves do sometimes show themselves: in a creative writing or art project, in an act of empathy or sympathy, or at the culmination of a long-term process or project (e.g. high school itself) when they’ve had a chance to reflect and plan their thoughts and become aware of the maturity that they only just now realize they were accruing all along.
I have always wondered why some books about teenagers are shelved in the adult section and some are relegated to the Young Adult shelves, and I think this may be the reason. When novels present teenagers’ words and actions with verisimilitude, they end up in the adult section. When teenage characters are more stylized and well-spoken, not smarter or better than real teenagers but smarter or better than real teenagers seem, they’re marketed for young adults. I suppose there might be a corollary to this theory, in which books that present stylized or idealized adult characters are often the sort of book we call “genre” – as in romance, science fiction, or fantasy. Deborah Harkness’ books are shelved in the Fiction and Literature section of bookstores in spite of all the witches and vampires and TIME TRAVEL and firedrakes and (spoiler alert!) trees growing out of people’s backs because in spite of all these magical oddities, her characters do plausible things for plausible reasons. Their emotions and passions and secrets and fears are taken from the real world of adult emotions.
But back to The Fault in Our Stars. In case you are one of the few people who have neither read this book nor seen the recent film adaptation, here are the basics. The first-person narrator is sixteen year-old Hazel, who before the novel begins came close to dying of thyroid cancer that metastasized to her lungs. Her condition is stable, but she can’t breathe without an oxygen tank and knows that her cancer is likely to return. In a support group that she doesn’t much like, she meets Gus Waters, whose witty, cavalier exterior masks his own pain. Gus uses a prosthetic limb, having lost his leg to bone cancer. Long story short, Hazel and Gus fall into friendship first and love second. After excoriating Hazel for “wasting” her wish from this novel’s equivalent of the Make-A-Wish Foundation on a trip to Disney World (John Green knows how to charm me – I’ll give him that), Gus arranges to use his own still-unused wish on a trip with Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam, where Hazel and Gus will meet Hazel’s favorite writer and ask him what happens to the characters in his novel after the novel ends. Anyone who has spent five minutes in the company of a novelist knows that no writer would ever answer this question, and Hazel’s hero is no exception.
Using the paradigm above, Hazel is Kid A, of course, and Gus is Kid B. Hazel’s life has not been pleasant or safe, of course, thanks to her cancer, but she meets the other criteria for Kid A, and she has certainly never met anyone as intense as Gus. Similarly, we are never told that there is something dark in Gus’ past – besides cancer, of course. Since both Hazel and Gus have cancer, there is no need for the death at the end of the novel (and there is one, of course) to be caused by suicide or risk-taking behavior. Hazel and Gus do have a series of adventures – ranging from the Amsterdam trip to various antics designed to help their friend Isaac cope with the loss of his eyesight (from cancer) and the loss of his long-time girlfriend. Gus seems to have a special intuition for devising physical stunts to help people get over pain and disappointment; every scene in which Isaac is being consoled reads like a variation on the “unmanned flying desk set” scene in Dead Poets Society.
Which brings me back to my central point: The Fault in Our Stars is a novel about an adult’s careful, artistically-rendered construction of teenaged characters. In many ways it is a lovely novel: it is certainly funny and sad, and it mostly sidesteps the clichés (or mocks the ones it cannot sidestep) associated with dying children. I read it quickly and with great interest. John Green is a great talent – but his talent is not at characterization per se but at his ability to portray teenagers as they see themselves rather than as they in fact behave and speak. I would have told the story differently – but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating what Green did in this novel, which is certainly worth reading.
I have this book (of course) and have wondered about how talented John Green really is. I’m glad to hear he lives up to the hype. I also found your thoughts on what makes a book about teenagers a YA novel vs. an “adult” one–the depiction of how they see themselves vs. how they actually are–really interesting. I’m trying to think of other examples of this and i can’t right now, but I sense a scouring of my book database in my near future.
I think the theory more or less works, but only in the sense that this is what separates “fiction and literature” from “genre” books (YA books being one such genre).