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The Hunger Games: The Perfect Book

I have just become the billionth person to read The Hunger Games, and I have found it perfect.  It is a book with no mistakes, a monument to every rule of popular fiction craft that writers workshops teach. [1]

If you read English, it’s virtually certain you know what The Hunger Games is about, but to recap just in case: it’s about a young woman who is forced to fight to the death against other teens in a sport designed to entertain the elites and degrade the peasants.  Suzanne Collins executes this narrative with a tiger-eye for popular science fiction best practice.

The heroine, Katniss, is plausibly developed with admirable strengths and complementary weaknesses, both arising from the same personality and life experiences.  Her strengths make her a very plausible contender to win the Games.  She is juxtaposed with other plausible characters with individualized personalities that fit their social backgrounds and provide plausible allies and antagonists.  Collins avoids all the romance clichés that typically beset young female protagonists.  She avoids all the tropes of unintentional female disempowerment.  She avoids silly assumptions about what constitutes useful survivals skill in a fight to the death.  She steers clear of making characters transparent villains or impossibly heroic heroes, instead depicting everyone as humans within social circumstances.  She remembers to include needed physical details, using all five senses and accounting clearly for necessary factors of weather, surroundings, materials, food, water, clothing, physical health, etc. that would be relevant in the Games.  She remembers that her main cast is hungry, and appropriately focuses a lot of detail on food.  Her social commentary is relevant and easily comprehensible for a broad readership in our times.  Her chapters are of reasonable length, each one flawlessly ended on a page-turning cliffhanger.

Her prose style is the most invisible that I have ever read.  It gives all the needed exposition on physical details, motives, feelings, plot events, political background, etc.  It uses flawlessly correct grammar (to a degree sadly unusual in professionally edited popular fiction today).  Her sentences flow; her pacing is swift.  Her dialogue is not stilted.  Her futuristic “Panem” has plausible future jargon terms.  Her style is characterized by absolutely nothing.  It includes no interesting imagery or metaphor, no linguistic quirks, no inventive sentences, no atypical vocabulary, no poetic descriptions.  Reading it is like telepathically imbibing the book without any language interface.  It is exceptionally easy and utterly forgettable.

It is absolutely impossible that this first-person “voice” of a contemporary A+ college freshman could in any way belong to a minimally educated coal miner’s daughter who has grown up in the boondocks between the working class and wild forest.  It’s a gloss over real engagement with her character; “a phony,” Holden Caulfield might call it.

As for the characters themselves, I like them.  They’re well sketched, but at their deepest, they are not much more than sketches, their conflicts easily explained, their emotional dilemmas as neatly summarized as a lawyer’s closing statement.  (This flatness is exacerbated by the fact that our point-of-view character is Katniss, who is–by authorial design–emotionally clueless, and while this cluelessness is very consistent and in-character, it necessarily blunts deeper emotional insight or content that we might have gotten from a character like Peeta.)

In sum, The Hunger Games is a very safe book: easy to read, easy to understand, easy to enjoy, consummate in its execution, and for a runaway national bestseller that often seems put forward as the gold standard of storytelling today, extraordinarily unambitious.

John Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice (vol. 2, ch. 6), “Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect” (1290).  He was speaking primarily of the visual arts, but the spirit of his maxim is applicable to literature, for the expression of human life on the written page is, too, a wild and savage thing, indeed, a living thing, as anyone who has ever escaped into a book well knows.  Ruskin observed, “And in all things that live, there are certain irregularities and deficiencies that are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty” (1280).  The great books that sink prongs into the heart are not afraid of imperfection–like Dostoevsky’s sloppy, repetitious prose; Dickens’ almost indecipherable “tangled banks” [2]; Tolkien’s overreaching world-building, boring generations with Tom Bombadil; or Frank Herbert’s bizarre contention in Dune that only a man can understand both “giving” and “taking” enough to become the messiah.  These infusions of mess defeat us and, therefore, capture us.  They push our brains and our hearts beyond sense and comprehension; they desterilize the room, and so we love them.

***

When I say, “we,” of course, I mean “me.”   You mileage may vary, as the popularity of The Hunger Games illustrates.  It is true, too, that The Hunger Games shows no signs of aspiring to comparison with Dickens or even Dune.  It is designed to be fun, and it is fun.  It’s modern day old pulp science fiction, better rendered than most.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, more than most books I’ve read recently.  And in the end, it’s not The Hunger Games I’m faulting so much as its media frenzy.  That this is a current “standard” for what constitutes an especially fantastic book is sad.

And it is part of a deeper sadness in me for our civilization’s loss of respect for the humanities, for literature, for provocative thought at all in the poetic dimension.  This loss may not be quantifiable in terms of car manufacturing or jobs in Silicon Valley, but we will pay for it, are paying for it.

Notes:
[1] Please understand this as a metaphor.  I don’t literally mean to say the book is unimpeachable.  For example, I have heard some provocative arguments about ways its racial discourse could be improved.  However, as far as the craft of fiction goes, its craft is remarkably spotless.

[2] This image is explored by George Levine in Darwin and the Novelists.

Citation:
Ruskin, John. “The Savageness of Gothic Architecture.” 1851-53. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: Norton, 1993. 1280-90.  Excerpt from The Stones of Venice. Print.

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3 Comments

  1. Jessica Greenlee

    Now I want to see you do a deeper discussion of imperfection in art–if not here, then over at your livejournal page. One or the other, please.

  2. Jessica Greenlee

    I keep waiting for you to mention your followup thoughts on the series, but you haven’t. So, to all concerned: Arwen has a followup post on the series over on livjournal page. It’s worth looking at!

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks, Jessica. I didn’t post my followup to Geek Girl because my followup is just wild blather off the top of my head. I enjoyed reading the series though. It reminded me of my teen years when enjoyable books were easy to come by and I wasn’t instantly annoyed to death every time I encounter the same cliche for the thousandth time.

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