Friday, June 1, 2012

Bookish: The Must-Read Young-Adult Novel of 2009!

After I put my notes on "The Hunger Games" on GoodReads, I was a little surprised to see that I was in an extreme minority of only-partially-positive commenters -- the book has one of the highest aggregate review scores I've ever seen on that site.  So, I thought I would file my minority report here as well.

The Hunger Games
Susanne Collins, 2008.

Steven King's The Long Walk meets 1984 (meets a less well-known but excellent book, Iain Banks' The Player of Games) in a remarkably well-written YA post-apocalyptic fantasy novel. Collins does an impressive job of invoking and sustaining an internally plausible world and populating it with telling details that don't scream for attention (I liked, for instance, the neoclassical affectations of "the capital.") I was initially annoyed at the amount of time the book would spend setting up perfectly obvious scenarios and then endlessly protracting how long it took for the first-person narrator to think them through, but as things progressed there were enough surprises to keep me on my toes. As an adventure-thriller, Hunger Games works a winning formula very well; the macabre tournament at the story's core is nicely realized.

Underneath the terrific surface, though, it's a book with some conceptual problems. Most obvious is the disingenuous anti-urban, anti-guvment grandstanding. As dystopias go, this is less an Orwellian anti-totalitarian wake-up call and more as if Sarah Palin got clever and wrote a book intended to embody the values of her notorious construct of "The Real America."  I dunno whether this slant reflects an authorial agenda or if it's just something that evolved as Collins went about the work of creating a setting for a good gladiator yarn, but there it is.

There's also a fairly glaring moral dishonesty in how our point-of-view character survives the death-match. The Bad Contestants (who are, incidentally, established as Bad primarily by their association with urban society and da guvment) actively kill. The Good (rural, disenfranchised) Contestants are allowed by the plotting to kill only defensively, indirectly, out of mercy, and by outlasting the hapless. They get to succeed in the tournament -- and how! -- without really engaging in it, a contrivance that allows the book to set up a genuinely complex moral quandary and then resolutely refuse to engage with it.

Well, that's OK. Most adventure stories have wobbly underpinnings if you're worried about that sort of thing. The important thing, maybe, is just that I found The Hunger Games an entertaining and engaging story. And I really did! But I've noticed too -- and this is what makes this a three-star review instead of a four-star review [out of GoodReads' possible five] -- that despite this being the first book of a series, I can't really find any interest in reading the second installment. I'm just not curious about what happens next. That makes it hard to hold up Hunger Games as an especially successful piece of serial fiction.


Elizabeth said...

I enjoyed them all, but thought the series ended somewhat on a weak note. That said, you might actually like the second and third books. Quick reads for the summer when you're tired of gardening.

Morgan said...

I enjoyed it, but that might have in part been because I was so pleasantly surprised with a YA book having a flawed narrator.

The movie is also one of my favorite book adaptations, because it managed to encompass all of the plot points I thought were important and it was also paced well. However, I've heard that it was hard to follow if you hadn't read the book first, so it fails on that measure of success.

Yankee in England said...

I couldn't agree more with most of your points. I should point out if you choose to read the second book or maybe the first part of the third they flow smoothly together so can't remember off hand, it does address in more detail the bad and good guys and moral and ethical dilemas associated with the killing aspect of "The Games" I have not finished the third book yet and can only assume I have hit the weak not towards the end Elizabeth mentioned.

As I read them I do have to admit I thought these are good but there no Snow Crash.

Voron X said...

No discussion of Hunger Games would be complete without a discussion of the Popular Japanese novel Battle Royale by Koushun Takami published in 1999, which was made into a movie in 2000. The movie acheived both domestic and international success, though was deemed rather controversial at the time. It's premise? A totalitarian government, as a form of punishment picks a class of high school students each year who fight each other to the death in a tournament on a secluded island set up for the purpose over the course of three days until there is only one left standing.

Both the book and the novel are neat in that they switch up the points of view and follow a number of different characters, allowing their ultimate death to strike the viewer that much more poignently.

I highly recommend checking out at least the movie (I have not read the book).

Jenners said...

You'll do well to read just the first as the books get progressively worse. The great idea she had was the Hunger Games itself. I wish it had never been a trilogy because I ended up just disliking the second two books. The movie was OK though.