Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reaping Rewards (The Hunger Games)

So for the past few days I’ve been getting in touch with my inner 13-year-old girl, as I’ve been reading my way through the Hunger Games trilogy. Friday night, once I was home in the invisible embrace of my wifi network, I synchronized my Kindle to make sure that the free download of all three books had in fact been executed. And of course the best way to really truly check this was not simply to visually verify that all three cover images were on my shelf, but to actually tap and open the first book and read the first page. Which, I admit, drew me in right away, so much so that I spent a good chunk of time on Saturday devouring the first book. (It’s not terribly long, and it’s written in deliberately straightforward first-person prose.) I was so enthralled by the end of the opening volume that I made almost no effort to resist the temptation enabled by the whole e-reader set-up: I closed the Hunger Games file and opened the Catching Fire file and started reading the second book. In my defense, it’s a trilogy-by-design and the first book ends on an almost egregiously To Be Continued vibe, so I wanted to know at the very least where the second book would pick things up, how much would be assumed or explored or implied or what.

I didn’t have as much time to read on Sunday, but I toted my Kindle onto the VRE on Monday morning, stayed awake on the afternoon ride home to keep reading (a ride which was unexpectedly extended as we hung out at one station for fifteen minutes so paramedics could come on board and check over a rider, who apparently was fine after all because no one was carried off the train on a stretcher or anything), and finished Catching Fire this morning. I was a few pages from the end when the train pulled into Crystal City, so I kept reading as I walked very slowly down the platform, across the street and into the Underground, and hit END OF BOOK TWO by the time I rounded the second corner. Knowing that I needed to make up some walking speed to get to work at my usual arrival time prevented me from immediately plunging into the finale, and I may very well try to hold off another day or so.

As I alluded to on Friday, one of the things impelling me to read The Hunger Games is the fact that it’s all anyone is talking about lately. I already had a plan for doing mostly re-reading this year, but the omnipresent Hunger Games coverage has disrupted that a bit. The bright side is that the timing worked out reasonably well, since I finished the first re-read endeavor and hadn’t yet started the second. And, as is well documented hereabouts, I like to do things in orderly fashion with beginnings lining up with beginnings and so on. So, this afternoon I’ll read some new comics I had the foresight to shove in my workbag over the weekend, and tomorrow I’ll watch some more Smallville Season 7, and then the Thursday and Friday commutes together should be just enough time to read all of Mockingjay. Then I’ll be done with The Hunger Games and I can start The Dark Tower next Monday – the first Monday of the month, no less! – and that will be acceptable enough to the anal-retentive little pop culture curator in my head.

Anyway, it may be a bit premature to judge The Hunger Games before finishing its climactic third act, but I can say that I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s very outsized and over the top, but it’s a coming of age story AND a sci-fi dystopia story, so you kind of have to expect everything to be huge and a little bit ridiculous, which sounds negative but which are actually story elements which I’m quite fond of. Slice-of-life is all well and good but I will take gladiatorial combat including genetically-engineered war-animals pretty much every time. Although of course Collins very wisely grounds the genre elements in a fair amount of slice-of-life stuff, in the protagonist’s relationships with her family and friends and authority figures and so on.

OK, granted, I have a soft spot for old boozehound characters, but: HAYMITCH FTW
Beyond the pulpy page-turner of a plot, there are a couple of things that jumped out at me about the story so far. (Not a lot of these are going to be plot-spoilers, but they’re essentially theme-spoilers, I guess? So if you plan on reading the books and like to discover things like that as you go along, consider yourself fairly warned.) One is just a little personal bit of amusement. When I was in college I wrote my thesis on folklore and did a lot of reading along the way on the analysis of fairy tales and children’s stories (which ended up being significantly less fun than it sounds). And I learned a fun word: coal-biter. It’s a catch-all for the common trope of a protagonist who rises up from nothing, who is so humble that they live among the ashes and sometimes literally eat black coal; Cinderella is obviously the most well-known example. A lot of people have already observed that Katniss’s story is half Cinderella and half Most Dangerous Game, but the majority of the Cinderella analysis is (probably rightly) on the dreamy dress-up angle, how she gets to dress up in these magical transforming/transformative gowns and go to balls and things like that. The flip side of that is that she comes from District 12, the poorest and most backward district in Panem, and the single industry that supports District 12 is … coalmining. There’s a lot of practical, non-folkloric justification for that narrative choice. District 12’s loose real-world analogue is West Virginia (I think) and coalmining is a real enough industry there. And the whole notion of coal as a fuel source opens the way for the symbolism Katniss’s stylists employ to incorporate fire into her signature looks throughout. But Katniss as a straight-up coal-biter, that got my attention right there.

The other thing I’m genuinely impressed by is how subversive it all is. And yes, I know as I knew going in, The Hunger Games is all about a big, evil, corrupt, entrenched totalitarian government and small but significant acts of rebellion against it, but that’s not the kind of subversion I’m talking about. I led off this post making fun of myself for falling under the spell of a book written for tween girls, but while Hunger Games has a certain universal appeal there’s no denying just how much little girl bait it makes use of. The protagonist is female, and has not one but two love interests. She becomes famous and gets to be on television, and go to parties, and get amazing makeovers including dresses (including, as things progress, bridal gowns) and shoes and makeup and jewels. I was going to say the only thing missing is ponies but then I remembered the opening ceremonies of the Games, during which horse-drawn chariots figure into the proceedings. And yet! All of these things, superficially appealing to the average sixth-grade gal, ends up undercut in major ways. Katniss spends a great deal of mental energy figuring out how she can rescue or protect her love interests, when she’s not busy reflecting on how she never wants to get married to or have a family with either one of them or anyone else, an attitude which makes perfect sense in the context of the story (as opposed to being presented as something about her which is “broken” and requires The Love Of A Good Man to set right). The tv appearances and galas and spectacle are all part of the state-sponsored opiate of the masses under the control of the evil Capitol, and Katniss sees right through all of it and pities the people who’ve always lived in opulent decadence, rather than envying them. She likes people who are genuine, even if they’re flawed, and disdains the vapid and the phony. She’s no saint herself, but she takes charge of situations in her own aggressive, impulsive way. The point being she’s not the protagonist because she looks pretty and boys fight over her (*ahem ahem BELLA SWAN ahem*); she’s the protagonist because she kicks ass and how she looks while doing it is irrelevant.

And not for nothing, but Collins doesn’t shy away from female body image stuff in the books, either. In my reading of it, at least, she manages to touch on both anorexia and bulimia and, without being preachy about it, get across how terribly destructive they are. Again, there are meaningful reasons directly connected to the narrative for this. Panem’s rigid system of haves and have-nots ensures that most of the populace is forever on the brink of starvation, which gives Collins the opportunity to point out that being able to count someone’s ribs does not mean they have a good shot at a modeling contract, it means they are close to death. Similarly, at one banquet some of the upper-crust offer Katniss a purgative when she says she’s too full to eat anymore, and she suddenly realizes that while her people are starving the wealthy elite have so much surplus food that they binge and purge as a matter of course, cue shock and disgust and outrage. A reasonable thematic callback to (at least the popularized images of) Roman imperial decadence which Panem’s Capitol is clearly modeled after, but a target I’m still happy to see held up for ridicule in any case.

So yeah, a pulse-pounding adventure yarn with a strong female role-model at the center of it, and subtext galore that self-reliance is good, conformity is bad, and superficial appearances are meaningless. Basically I can’t wait for my daughter to read these books in another five or six years.

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