John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was recommended by a sixth form student, who said reading it had changed her life. Any book that can be that influential is worth reading, so I downloaded it to my kindle as soon as I got home. It coincided with a Times article about how this ‘nerd’ had become a teen-lit favourite, and I’d watched his ted-talk about Paper Towns (the title of one of his books) and how online education has the potential to change the world (he is apparently also a prolific vlogger, having tutored his brother in maths, I think, and put all the tutorials online and continued) – a topic for my other blog, perhaps.
I liked it quite a lot; it grew on me as I read it, definitely. The protagonist, Hazel, is suffering from a severe cancer which is, for the moment, under control, and meets a fellow cancer-patient, Augustus, at a support group her mother makes her go to. There’s a lot of potential for tragedy in this book, and Green doesn’t really pull the punches – there’s no miracles in this novel; I get the impression he’s not interested in the easy way out, but the hard questions.
A literary mind
One of the things I loved about this book was its attitude to literature; Hazel is obsessed with a book, about a girl her age who has cancer, and her urge to find out what happens after the end of the book is one of the major quests of the novel. Hazel is an incredibly literate protagonist and her narrative is filled with references to poetry and novels. Of the book with which she’s obsessed, she says:
Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal
I have a book like that – The Sparrow – which I am constantly torn between buying for everyone I know, and being reluctant to give it to them in case they don’t like it and we can’t be friends anymore. I wonder if in some way this novel also reflects Green’s own literary evangelism – there are so many literary references that I ended up highlighting lots in my kindle and going in search of the poetry – and finding some glorious things as a result.
Green also questions what a novel itself should be:
This comment, however, leads me to wonder: What do you mean by meant? Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether—to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile—there is a point to it all.
He is gutsy, certainly – I love literature that seeks to explore and challenge itself, that wants to produce something with depth and layers to be discovered. And on top of this, there is some beautiful writing where you just think: yes. I think teenage fiction should be this challenging.
As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
What I love about this sentence is the way that it is just something everyone can relate to, that slow nodding towards sleep where you’re still fully aware of being awake but that any moment you won’t be. That there is no ‘in between’ – you’re either asleep or awake, in love or not, but there is a moment when you just become aware that you’re on your way, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
So, what are the flaws?
Green makes some fairly obvious choices, but they are all rationalised and clearly explored, so they don’t feel too out of place. I found Hazel’s voice slightly irritating at first, but I suspect that is because it is very teenage. She uses ‘like’, like, a lot, and doesn’t always allow to breathe. But once you let the narrative become dialogue, it becomes much more fluent and I did find the contrast between this and the intricate literary musings quite intriguing. She reminded me of some of the students I teach, who speak in quite a straightforward, stereotypically teenage way with fillers, false starts and slang, and then will come out with a profound commentary on the nature of Fitzgerald and Elliot. Several of Green’s critics seem to think that his protagonists speak in a very unrealistic way; I disagree.
The novel didn’t change my life, but I did finish it very quickly because I thought it was excellent. Novels which challenge, with a thorough emotional experience, always interest me beyond the closing of the pages,and this definitely did that.
http://metatfios.tumblr.com/ – an exploration, or at least definition, of the literary allusions in the novel
http://johngreenbooks.com/ – John Green’s website, with his vlogs
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table;