Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Not a Book Review: Hunger Games

I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (at the recommendation of i3ears). This book filled me with that rare combination of delight and rage. Let's start with the delight.

N.B. This post is has some spoilers, so I'm putting the rest of this post below the fold. You have been warned.

The world of Hunger Games is fascinating, especially if you are into dystopian future stories (and I am). The progressive disclosure of the world is very Neal Stephenson-like. The game masters are wonderfully inhuman; indeed, all of the people from the Capital are inhuman (with the sole exception of Cinna). As the story is told in first person, we get to be involved in all of Katniss's thought processes. For the majority of the book, this is a good thing (we'll get to the bad later). I found myself riveted to the world of Panem and wanting to learn more.

But that's where the good stuff ends. The first rage-inducing thing I noticed was that Collins employs cheap "page-turner" tricks to keep you hooked. The most common trick is manipulating the chapter points. In a well-written story, the chapters end when the action has died down a little, when the tension has lessened some.:


However, in Hunger Games, the chapter breaks come right as the tension is highest:


If you're not looking for this trend, you can easily miss it. The first time I noticed it was in a Clive Cussler book, I think. It seems to be a common trick of the popular pulp-fiction books. This trick works because we as readers like to find natural stopping points when we're done reading. The most obvious stopping points are the ones the author gives us; chapters, sections, breaks, etc. But by placing the ends of the chapters at the high-tension spots, we the reader think, "Well, I was going to stop reading, but I have to find out what happens now!" Then we tell our friends how we stayed up until 2AM reading because we couldn't put the book down. Once you notice that the author is jerking you around, it gets really annoying. 

This technique also allows the author to gloss over what would be considered poor transitions. For example, a few pages into chapter 17, after a particularly abrupt chapter transition, you'll find this transition:
I pull my arms inside my jacket and tuck my knees up to my chest. Somehow, I drift off to sleep.  
When I open my eyes, the world looks slightly fractured, and it takes a minute to realize that the sun must be well up and the glasses fragmenting my vision.
If you can put aside the lack of context, you'll see that Collins masked the poor transition from one day to the next by shifting it earlier in the story to the middle of the dramatic event that just occurred. The most egregious example of this is when Collins simply ends the book in the middle of a conversation! I stared at the book slack-jawed

But those cheap tricks are nothing compared to the inherent and substantial sexism the book espouses. It's not the "Women belong in the kitchen" sexism of the previous generations, but a new sort of sexism. Katniss is a powerful woman, despite being only 16 years old. She illegally and successfully hunts for food and provides for her family, essentially assuming the father role after her father was killed when she was 11. She is clearly one of the strongest tributes and definitely stronger than her district mate, Peeta. On the surface, she represents gender equality

And yet, she is so inexorably tied to the two men in her life: Gale and Peeta. She's constantly worried about what Gale would think of her pretending to love Peeta, at the same time entirely clueless that she actually is falling in love with Peeta. She's entirely taken in by Peeta and doesn't even really realize it. At one point in the book, she's taking care of him, and their mentor is urging her to love and kiss him more and more. The story is that the mentor has to have them appearing to be in love so he can support them more. But it comes off as the mentor whoring Katniss out to the audience and to Peeta (an alternate interpretation exists that stems around the commentary that the hunger games are like the Roman Gladiators and Katniss and Peeta needing to ham it up for the audience. I'll accept that, but I don't think it's any better).

Much of this stems from the fact that we only hear Katniss's point of view. Still, it doesn't really matter what we learn later of Peeta's and Gale's intentions. This book (should) stand alone. And so, my final impression of Katniss was of a strong, young woman who nevertheless is completely lost in the world and reliant on the men in her life to lead her.

I was going to remark on how the book is a young adult book and, as such, has little in the way of long words or complicated sentences. But that just seems petty at this point. Plus, after reading Anathem, I think most books will seem easy. Suffice it to say, if you shut your brain off, Hunger Games is a great book. But don't expect too much.
Post a Comment
All rights reserved. Take that!