15 May 2012
This is a slick novel aimed at young adults, particularly girls. It’s part high-school romance, part dystopian future thriller and, clearly, I’m not the target audience. However, I mostly write about recent novels, and that’s what this is. It’s even in English, although I’m not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ English either. With its sentences like this. You know. Short.
Heroine: feisty, capable 16-year-old girl, writing in the first person, in that clipped present tense. She’s so tough and determined to survive in one of the worst ‘Districts’ in Collins’ future America that it takes the whole of part 1 for her to realise that absolutely everybody finds her feisty toughness adorable. Even the ‘Game-makers’, whose feasting she interrupts during her assessment by shooting the apple from the mouth of the sucking pig on their table – I’m not making this up – decide to rate her at an almost unprecedented 11 out of 12. I know we don’t have to believe any of this nonsense – I went to see the latest Marvel movie last week and enjoyed it, mostly – but I’m finding it hard to go with the flow.
Katniss Everdeen – is katniss a purely American word? Even the complete Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t recognise it, but then, neither does the US-based Merriam-Webster online – is the one who puts food on the table. Dad, who taught her hunting and basic survival techniques, was blown to bits in a mining accident and Mother tends be a bit useless. Gale, a boy of 17, is the love interest, not that she realises: he’s another hunter, so they learn to help each other in a comradely way she’s comfortable with. And… it’s the day of the Reaping. This surprisingly religious-sounding word – in a novel otherwise bereft of any references to organised religion – refers to a cull of one adolescent girl and boy from each of the twelve Districts that are all that remain of the USA. There had been a District 13, according to the media, but all that remains of it are the ruins that are occasionally shown as a warning to the others of what happens if you cross the government in the ‘Capitol’. Don’t ask me why Katniss doesn’t question this, as she implausibly questions absolutely everything else the governing cadre presents to the oppressed population.
Why a cull? No reason, just sheer oppressive nastiness, an annual reminder of who is in charge. It’s random, sort of – the poor get extra rations if they put in additional name-tokens in exchange for ‘tesserae’ – and it’s a fight to the death. Of the 24 ‘tributes’ – and doesn’t Collins love these references to Imperial Rome for anything connected to the Capitol? – only one is allowed to survive. And, as in all the other dystopian future games we’ve ever come across, it’s televised.
It isn’t Katniss’s name that comes out of the pot, but that of her adorable, vulnerable twelve-year-old sister Prim. Katniss volunteers to take her place which, luckily, she is allowed to do. Cue media hullaballoo, VIP treatment, beauty pageant – it’s a kind of extreme X-Factor combined with the Gladiators tv series and Miss World. Luckily, Katniss and the boy tribute from her district knock them all dead. Their ‘stylist’ is a genius, creates costumes and hair-styles that seem to be on fire, so their usually unfashionable District outshines the others in the parade. Later Katniss gets headline publicity for her high rating following her stunt with the pig and the apple (would Collins’ target audience get the William Tell reference?) and at the interviews things couldn’t get any better when she knocks everybody dead, again. And then they do. Get better. In his interview ‘Peeta’, the boy tribute that Katniss can’t help liking, reveals that he’s had a crush on her for as long as he can remember.
And it’s that bombshell that ends Part 1. It’s a bombshell because, obviously, Katniss hasn’t seen it coming – and also, as Collins has reminded us approximately nine or ten times, in these games you have to kill absolutely everybody else in order to survive. Eleven times. (I’m guessing.)
And I see that Part 2, roughly the middle third of the novel, is to be ‘The Games’. Katniss is obviously going to win – but I’m guessing that, somehow, Peeta doesn’t die. Or if he does it will be to save her. And what about the two players from other Districts that Collins has chosen to name? Thresh – yes, really – presents himself as a killing machine. And darling little Rue, a darker version of the adorable Prim, what about her? Her only skill, she tells the interviewer, is running away. What’s Collins going to do with that? Have Katniss defiantly refuse to kill her when everyone else is dead, like Captain Kirk in that episode of Star Trek?
(Sigh) I’m still guessing that Peeta doesn’t die – because, reader, the bombshell that ends Part 2 is that the Game-makers have unprecedentedly changed the rules: two tributes from the same District will be allowed to survive. It’s all been like this. Not major rule-changes, but whenever any problem looks insoluble, our friendly author provides a stupidly implausible get-out. It’s not a novel, it’s a video game. Early in the game, Katniss is dying of thirst, having found not a single bit of water in two days of jogging through the forest that is this year’s ‘arena’. Down she goes, ready to give up hope – into mud. Mud! Doesn’t that mean water…? Later, she’s suffering from debilitating burns from a Game-maker-generated forest fire… until some ointment with almost ‘magical’ properties is parachuted with unfeasible precision right on to her bed-roll. (Luckily, ‘sponsors’ watching this on television can pay for this sort of thing if they like you.)
And so on, and so on. Trapped up a tree with a gang of nasty tribs waiting below to kill her, she sees Rue, who points to the nest of genetically modified wasps that behave in that nasty, vindictive way you see in cartoons. Using the serrated blade of the knife she luckily salvaged from a dead tribute (don’t ask), Katniss can saw off the branch and send it crashing down on to them…. I know it isn’t about plausibility – as I said, I watched a Marvel superhero movie last week – but every crisis has a simple solution. Stings from those nasty wasps? Rue, now her friend, knows a remedy using chewed leaves. The nasty gang’s pile of booby-trapped supplies? Fire off three carefully-aimed arrows – retrieved from one of the nasty gang, stung to hideous death – at the sack of apples hanging conveniently above, so they fall and blow up all the mines.
Short-term alliances are formed – for a while it looks as though Peeta is helping the nasty gang, but he’s only fooling – and, in ones and twos, 24 are reduced down to six. Rue is dead, speared by a nasty trib that Katniss kills ‘before he’s taken out the spear.’ The nasty ones, ‘Career’ tributes from the rich Districts who train for years for the chance to win, are the straightforward villains. As for Cato – who coolly dispatches their fixer once his mines have destroyed their supplies – he’s Voldemort.
Katniss’s adventures are all in bite-size episodes. Running through them are reality-show references – she never forgets, after a lifetime of being practically forced to watch the Games, that hidden mikes and cameras are everywhere – and those clunky high-school romance elements. Peeta has shown he’s not a traitor after all, but Katniss finds herself thinking about Gale at the same time. Until… ‘I push the whole thing out of my mind, because Gale and Peeta do not coexist well together in my thoughts.’ Earlier on, she’d been feeling ‘conflicted’ about them. Clunk.
And we’re getting the inevitable note of defiance. Peeta, on the night before they are taken to the ‘arena’, tells her he wishes he could ‘think of a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me.’ Katniss wants to dismiss what he is saying, but she can’t. And as she manages to survive what the Game-makers and the other competitors throw at her, she takes up the same ‘noble cause’ she’d been sarcastic about before she knew she could trust him. Her first direct kill comes quite late on, and she feels a pang of conscience as she realises how awful it is to kill a fellow human being. She is learning to hate the Capitol, thinks back to something that Gale once said about trying to do something to undermine it. As early as Part 1 there have been references to resistance fighters, like the girl she once failed to save from being taken up into the Capitol’s helicopter. She turns up, without her tongue, as one of the servants in the Capitol: she’s an ‘Avox’ now. (Geddit?)
Of course, this is only the first of a trilogy. I’m assuming we know who the winners will be at the end of this one, and that the next two will be about the glorious fight for freedom from the Capitol’s decadent brand of oppression. I bet District 13 isn’t a smouldering ruin but a hotbed of revolution, which would account for the girl being caught in the next one along, District 12. And there, Katniss and her two lovely boys will learn all they need to know. It’ll be like a District Spring. Bless.
But seriously. Does Suzanne Collins have a more thoughtful political agenda, in which this all represents something in the real world? Uprisings in countries run by dictators or corrupt cadres? Or, heaven forbid, does the Capitol represent the West, the Districts the rest of the world whose resources and people it exploits?
It would be nice, but no. Collins knows how to write a page-turner, knows how to keep us involved. But there’s something unforgivably lazy about the way she’s cobbled together her future world from scraps – the televised last-man-standing idea, the corrupt governing cadre idea, the god-like manipulator idea from The Truman Show. And real revolutionary movements anywhere in the world become just another narrative trope. In Collins’ world, if the ‘Capitol’ isn’t doing its job, it’s possible for the individual – any individual with the right frontier spirit – to do something about it. The parallel with James Cameron’s Avatar, released the following year, is interesting: brutish (American) oppressors and exploiters; heroic (American) leader of the fight back.
(And don’t get me started on Collins’ vagueness when it comes to distances and areas. A typical District, as she describes it, has the population of a small town, rather like Springfield in The Simpsons, so it is no surprise that everybody knows everybody else. Katniss, for instance, knows Peeta as the baker’s son, the boy who was kind to her at the end of her first ever hunt. But ‘Panem’, her future America, stretches from the Appalachians to the Rockies, almost a whole day’s train journey. She’s similarly vague about the area of the ‘Games’ arena: Katniss jogs in a random direction for almost a day away from the lake where they arrive, so the arena must cover tens, maybe hundreds, of square miles. That’s a lot of forest – and yet she’s always bumping into other competitors….)
Part 3 – to the end
Collins is doing a couple of clever things in this final section. Mostly it’s as before, with one of the main drivers of our interest the huge injustice of the world Collins presents us: the privileges of the few, the cynical exploitation of the masses and the equally cynical presentation of the tributes’ life-and-death struggles as entertainment. So far, so conventional. But as the Game-makers ratchet up the misery for the surviving players with increasingly preposterous extra trials, she makes her novel even more of a page-turner than before: how will Katniss get the medicine Peeta needs for his infected injury? How will they fight off the part-human wolf creatures, each infused with the DNA of a dead tribute? (Yet again, I’m not making this up.) But the even cleverer thing is the way Collins makes what I’ve been calling the high-school romance element into a life-and-death crisis, which has got to be a first. I’ll come back to that.
During Part 3 Collins has got to get rid of four players without making us lose sympathy for her heroes. The truly nasty ones are easy: give them well-deserved deaths, like the girl who gets her head caved in just as she is about to start cutting off what she calls Katniss’s ‘lover-girl’ lips. It’s the Incredible Hulk who does this – sorry, Thresh – who then, of course, kills Katniss as well. As if. What he really does is let her go because she was kind to Rue, his co-tribute from District whatever. Which leaves Voldemort, who kills Thresh – off-stage, so we don’t get too upset – and ‘Fox-face’, a girl Collins decides to dehumanise with this nickname and through her way of slyly appearing and disappearing. She’s a scavenger, and she dies a death that comes out of the comedy of Peeta’s hopeless survival instincts. She steals the berries he’s found which, unluckily, are ‘nightlock’ and kill you instantly.
Then there are three. All along, Katniss is having to look after Peeta, whose thigh has been cut to the bone by – guess who – some days before she finds him. I’ll come back to that, because there’s another not-quite off-stage death to come: Voldemort, aka Cato. He’s a psycho – his rages make him not quite sane, which is always a good enough reason to have characters like him killed off – and he has state-of-the-art body armour. In the end, all it does is to stretch out his death for hours in the jaws of the wolf creatures. Hollywood, and ‘Now a major motion picture’-type novels, love a nasty death.
Peeta’s life-threatening wound is another neat device. It brings him and Katniss close in a convenient cave where she can nurse him and there can be lots of snuggling. Reader, it’s time for the love angle: throughout the rest of the novel what we get is Katniss’s dilemma. She has to keep up the appearance of being fully participating member of the ‘star-crossed lovers’ fiction whilst having no such feelings. Their mentor is playing it up for all it’s worth because it goes down well with sponsors. (He’s Haymitch, a comedy drunk in Part 1 but increasingly important to their survival as the novel goes on. I don’t know if Collins is deliberately giving us the wrong impression about him early on, that it’s part of an act.) She is constantly having to think about what will please the viewers, especially when she realises that a touching love scene will bring more food parachuting in.
Collins complicates matters further by making Peeta’s crush on Katniss a genuine one. And it isn’t just a crush. For the sake of the cameras – and therefore their next meal – Katniss encourages him to talk about his feelings for her. He’s loved her since the first time he saw her at school, aged five. (I told you District 12 was a small town.) Collins has to make Katniss very obtuse indeed not to understand that for Peeta this isn’t an act for the cameras. For something like 250 pages she’s thought he’s been playing the same game as her – while he doesn’t realise that’s all her signs of affection are an act. And Collins will occasionally turn the screw a bit more by throwing in a scene in which Peeta, town boy that he is, makes a mess of some forest-craft activity that Gale could have done in his sleep. Katniss, of course, is only now beginning to recognise what she feels for the boy back home.
It’s corny as hell, but Collins loves it so much she makes it the main driver of their survival, taking it right up to the last couple of pages: if the high-ups in the Capitol suspect it isn’t real love, they’ll punish one or both of them. The Game-makers rescind the ‘two survivors’ rule-change just before the end and our plucky heroes call their bluff with a staged suicide pact. It’s only credible if they are a genuine Romeo and Juliet pair – so Katniss has to keep it up through the days of televised triumph or lose everything.
The very last line lets us know that this is going to be a main plot driver for the beginning of the next novel in the trilogy. She is holding Peeta’s hand – he’s only recently discovered that his love for her isn’t mutual – and is ‘dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.’ How is she going to deal with her complicated love-life back home? Reader, you’ll have to go and buy the next book. And, who knows? Perhaps you’ll find out how she’s going to lead a revolution against that nasty government that does such nasty things.
I won’t be reading it. I’m sure Wikipedia has a summary, which will do for me.