Wednesday, July 23, 2014

'The Fault in Our Stars' is a book that even adults should read

John Green attends 'The Fault In Our Stars' Nashville red carpet at Nashville War Memorial Auditorium on May 8, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. Rick DIamond/Getty

Warning: this post contains a major spoiler for The Fault in Our Stars. If you have not seen the movie or read the book and intend to, stop reading now.

As we all recently learned from Ruth Graham at Slate, The Fault in Our Stars is a Young Adult book, and people over the age of 17 ought to be embarrassed to be seen reading it because of the following reasons: YA fiction asks us to "abandon the mature insights" we've acquired as adults; YA fiction doesn't contain the "emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction"; YA fiction is pleasurable and satisfying; and because graduating to the adult library stacks will afford us the "thrill of growing up."

Well, after having read (and cried through) TFIOS more times than I care to admit, I can say that, regardless of whether or not Graham's concerns over YA fiction are true of other books (for some, yes; for some, no) Green's novel doesn't warrant those accusations. Are there exchanges of dialogue in TFIOS that will make you roll your eyes? Yes. Does Green at times rely on sentimental conventions? Yes. Does Green sometimes spoil a potentially  nice metaphor by explaining why the metaphor is a metaphor? Absolutely. But good luck finding a book — even a Grown Up Book — that doesn't disappoint its readers in some capacity. Besides, when an overall narrative is worth reading, audiences are often willing to overlook a sloppy over-explanation here or a strained romantic action there.

Of course TFIOS is not a perfect novel, and it's not even one of the greatest ever written. But it does seem honest, and it will confront you with mess, and deal with that mess without over-harmonizing it, justifying it, or downplaying it. This is one of the things good art does: it offers its readers, to use a line from the book, one way to tell a sad story.

TFIOS raises all sorts of good philosophical issues — good, tragically Greek issues like fate, oblivion, the meaninglessness of suffering — that no adult should be embarrassed to read about or think about. These are heavy, universal themes, and hardly juvenile issues. Here's a look at just four of them.

The experience of suffering?

Hazel Grace's love interest, Augustus, has "Encouragements" hanging all over his house: pithy, sentimental one-liners that sound like something Roma Downey would tell you after she started glowing in an episode of Touched by an Angel. One of these Encouragements is Without pain, how could we know joy? In a parenthetical aside, Hazel tells the reader this is an "old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering," but she doesn't really buy it. After all, she argues, "the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate."

Green raises this issue in an admittedly elementary way, but the concept remains worth thinking about. Could joy exist apart from pain? Do we need to first experience suffering before we can truly experience bliss? To what extent does our conception of happiness depend on our formulation of sorrow? This argument, or variations on it, have provided a good deal of philosophical fodder for thinkers over the years. Pain and joy do seem to be inextricably linked: as the writer C.S. Lewis observed after his wife died, "The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before." Green's broccoli/chocolate dichotomy is much less eloquent, but it still makes the same point. There is a relationship between pain and happiness, and navigating the tension between the two is an important aspect of our emotional health.

What is love? (major spoiler here)

A romance is not the same thing as a love story. Romance is cheap; love comes at great cost — in TFIOS, it comes at the cost of Augustus' life. For Graham, TFIOS was a tired, sappy, even if well-written, romance promoting escapism and instant gratification. But, come on! This is a novel where the boy and girl both have terminal cancer, one of them loses a leg and then dies, one of them wears an oxygen cannula even during sex — which leads to awkward undressing. In one of the most gruesome scenes in the book, Hazel finds Augustus almost dead in a car:

I opened the door. The interior lights came on. Augustus sat in the driver's seat, covered in his own vomit, his hands pressed to his belly where the G-tube went in. "Hi," he mumbled.

"Oh, God, Augustus, we have to get you to a hospital."

"Please just look at it." I gagged from the smell but bent forward to inspect the place above his belly button where they'd surgically installed the tube. The skin of his abdomen was warm and bright red.

There's also a moment in the novel when Hazel walks in to Augustus' room to discover that he's pissed the bed. This episode smacks of a line from Yeats: "Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement." Green, quite literally, has given this poetic utterance flesh and blood in the characters he's created.

Is the fault really in our stars?

Anyone who's read Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar is familiar with the line from which TFIOS derives its title: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves," says Cassius. In other words, our failures are not the result of a force beyond our control, but are rather due to our personal actions and shortcomings. Green turns that idea on its head. As one of the characters in TFIOS points out, the young cancer-fighters are star-crossed:

I am … duly impressed by the Shakespearean complexity of your tragedy. Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross … there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.

The stars are major players in his tale. They both figuratively and literally haunt the entire narrative, watching the characters' lives unfold from a detached distance above the story. They also seem to be moody: while they are ultimately rigged against Hazel and Augustus, they still find ways to provide the young couple pleasure. While dining together in Amsterdam, Augustus and Hazel's waiter tells them the story of how a monk invented champagne. After tasting it for the first time, says the waiter, the monk called out to his brothers, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!"

The questions TFIOS raises have their roots in Greek tragedy. "Where once," sings the Greek chorus in Sophocles' play Antigone, "the anger of heaven has struck, that house is shaken forever." Has heaven's anger shaken upon Hazel? Who is ultimately responsible for her suffering? To what extent are our paths beyond our control? Do outside forces impinge upon our behavior, perhaps even overriding or undoing our personal choices? Why does fate seem to favor some and not others? Read TFIOS and these and other questions will control your mind for days.

Does God suffer with us?

The book opens with Hazel bringing telling the reader about her cancer treatment, which includes her weekly attendance at a support group. This group met "in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross." In this basement, the cancer survivors/fighters "sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been." You don't write a book and accidentally include this kind of detail in the fourth paragraph without thinking through the implications of the phrasing.

To invoke an image of the cross is to call to mind various theologies about a suffering God. Christianity teaches that through Jesus, God quite literally suffered a painful, agonizing death, and that by this death, God stands in solidarity with all victims. The stars might be mocking Hazel and Augustus from afar, but the creator of those stars stands close to them and the members of their support group, in the literal heart of Jesus. Of course, that raises all sorts of theologically infuriating questions like, Why doesn't God do anything about cancer? Or, Does the existence of pain prove God is non-existent or evil? The novel doesn't tackle these questions, but it's refreshing to see a popular writer at least winking at them.

Here's how Graham described her reaction to Green's novel:

... when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that's a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I'm being honest, it also left me saying "Oh, brother" out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up?

Well, that isn't a heartless position to take; but neither is it necessarily the mature one to take. Graham is right on one thing: TFIOS is a book written for young adults, and therefore doesn't treat philosophical questions with the same gravitas as a college textbook. At the same time, it's possible that Graham's dislike for the YA genre caused her to plow through some of the book's more mature themes without giving them much consideration.

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