Before Donald Trump spoke to a sea of brain dead Floridians, indoctrinated kids wearing patriotic beauty pageant dresses sang about “cowardice,” “pride,” and Trump’s nonexistent presidency.
In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.
A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like
If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.
Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.
Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.
The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.
As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.
The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.
Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.
Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:
“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.
“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”
“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”
Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.
The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.
Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars
Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.
People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.
“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”
Mother Night is the first-person account of Harold W. Campbell, Jr., an American spy in World War II who has been so good at his job that he’s lost his own identity. Follow Campbell as he recounts the tangled web of his personal history as a writer, spy, Nazi propagandist, and more.
Spies Make for Unreliable Narrators
I’ve encountered passages from many Kurt Vonnegut books over the years, but Mother Night is the first book by Vonnegut that I’ve read in full. It’s Vonnegut’s most favorably rated book on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good place to start. However, in hindsight, and given my general dislike of World War II fiction, I probably should have stuck with Slaughterhouse Five. As much as I sometimes enjoyed Vonnegut’s ideas and famed dark humor, I was unable to grow attached to Mother Night‘s story or characters.
The story starts off by employing metafiction. Vonnegut describes himself as the editor, not the writer, of the novel’s first-person account. It’s mildly interesting, but this ultimately has little to no impact for the reader. Adding another layer to the onion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got an onion.
Once you get past the intro, you meet Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the book’s first-person narrator. Campbell is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison for war crimes, specifically his involvement with Nazi Germany’s propaganda during World War II. While in prison, Campbell writes the story of his life, which is what you read in Mother Night. It’s the story of a man who has done both normal and questionable things. Throughout, Campbell claims he is an American spy who was embedded in the heart of the Nazi movement for a confusing mix of reasons. But is Campbell always telling the truth in his autobiography?
“How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?” said Wirtanen. “Hmm?”
Can a man like Campbell even believe himself?
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Uncertainty is one of Mother Night‘s core elements. Is Campbell being truthful? Is Campbell good or evil? Can good or evil be defined at all—if so, how, to what extent, and by whom? In Campbell’s case, does truth matter if it’s not a truth everyone else believes?
As a fan of unreliable narration, I enjoyed Vonnegut’s exploration of these questions through Campbell. However, for me, there is something missing from Mother Night. These questions are intriguing, but they have no depth on their own. They must be asked and answered through characters you love (or hate), characters that make you feel something. Unfortunately, Howard W. Campbell’s narration is dry, at best, and the supporting cast, though sometimes well-described, never seem that meaningful. Considering Nazi death camps get a few mentions, I feel like I should have had a more visceral response to something in this book.
Perhaps it’s my own dislike for certain parts of Mother Night—the subject matter, the appearance of pointless metafiction—but, after a while, I found I didn’t quite care if Campbell was being honest or not. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I didn’t care if his various romances worked out because they were boring—or, worse, melodramatic—loves. I didn’t care about those who hated him because they didn’t matter. For me, Mother Night is one of those books where I realize the ideas and messages have value, but find they are ruined for me because the characters never take hold of my emotions.
Kurt Vonnegut’s famous saying from Slaughterhouse Five, which also makes an appearance in Mother Night, is “So it goes.” It’s a salty way of expressing the inevitable nature of things, usually death. C’est la vie. I think Mother Night can be boiled down to a couple of words, too: So what?
Quotes from Mother Night
“You hate America, don’t you?”
“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me…”
Most things in this world don’t work, but aspirin do.
His mother understood my illness immediately, that it was my world rather than myself that was diseased.
Self-destructive after a life of bad luck and bad choices, a man’s drunken car accident leaves most of his body covered with life-threatening burns. While he struggles to survive in a depressed state in the hospital, a mentally disturbed woman helps heal his psychological wounds with stories of their past lives as lovers.
The Power of Storytelling
Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle opens with its narrator, a cynical, unnamed man with an unfortunate past. The narrator has narrowly survived a horrific car crash of his own, drunken making and must now begin a new life. His body is so completely burned that he is unrecognizable, a grotesque, patchwork figure reminiscent of gargoyles. This is a far cry from the man he was, one whose handsomeness made life easy and gave him a rather successful career as a porn actor. As he slowly recovers in the hospital, he reflects on the painfulness of his childhood, the imperfection of his former life, his selfishness and vanity, and, most of all, how much he wishes he could have it all back, if only to be out of his scarred body. As his depression worsens, he dreams of committing suicide once he’s released from the hospital.
But there are people around him determined to see him not only survive, but thrive, with the life he has been left with, scars and all. One person invested in his well-being is a mentally ill woman by the name of Marianne Engel. She’s an unpredictable artist—she sculpts grotesques/gargoyles—with a personality that changes from day to day, if not by the hour. She’s absurd, she’s weird, she’s crazy. She believes God speaks to and through her. Despite all this, the narrator is intrigued by her, and she shows him love when he feels no one else does. If nothing else, he can halfway accept love from her, as she is broken, too.
Of course, Marianne would show him love, as part of her insanity—or is she insane?—is that she believes she and the narrator were lovers…hundreds of years prior to their meeting in the hospital. She believes they are reincarnated souls, together again to right the wrongs between them, but also destined to repeat some of their worst mistakes, too. To prove the “truth” of this to the narrator, Marianne tells him the story of their supposed past, hoping to coax memories out of him while he heals.
If The Gargoyle were simply about a broken man whose relationships heal him, it would not be an original plot, but Davidson would write the hell out of it. But after the first quarter to half of the book, the story stops being about the narrator’s physical and emotional struggles as a burn victim and starts being about his relationship with Marianne Engel and the stories she’s telling him, which include not only their supposed past love stories, but similar “forever love” stories about other side characters in the book. Davidson wants you and the narrator to question whether Marianne Engel is possibly telling the truth, whether reincarnation and a love you would die for are possible. As a lover of fantasy fiction, that plot doesn’t scare me off; it’s just the way Davidson presents it that is frustrating.
The Gargoyle has all the traits one expects from a good book—well-rounded characters, a strong and original narrator, and interesting plot points. If you take all of the various mini-stories as Marianne tells them, and review them individually, some, perhaps even most, are good. But when you put the straggling pieces together to make a single work, things don’t mesh so well. The parts that make up the whole are too different to blend smoothly. In other words, you are likely to enjoy part of the whole, but not the whole itself. It’s the same way I love tomatoes, chocolate, and garlic, but don’t want them in a soup together.
Perhaps the problem is that I was not invested in the narrator’s relationship with Marianne Engel—past or present—and so a meandering exploration of it failed to grab me. The story I was interested in was their mutual recoveries through each other and the people from the hospital who cared for them. Whether their healing and leaning on each other meant they ended up together or not didn’t matter to me. When Marianne’s stories go on for so many pages, taking us away from her and the narrator’s present struggles, the book’s tone changes considerably. In some respects, this becomes a big romance, even if the narrator is an unconventional lead and the writing is “deeper” than what one often sees in the romance genre.
Wasn’t the idea of a mentally ill woman caring for a physically and emotionally scarred man enough of a plot? A highly-detailed reincarnation backstory seems superfluous.
I loved the narrator in The Gargoyle and don’t regret reading the book. But after all the dramatic lead-up, the ending is anticlimactic. Readers are never given a definitive answer as to whether Marianne is insane, but it’d be hard to think of her as otherwise, even after our narrator has some “spiritual experiences” (after going off of morphine) that seem to lend credence to her tales. In the end, the narrator is healed and whole in a way his body never can be, but some of his journey is marred by the tangential side stories.
I can see myself reading other books by Andrew Davidson in the future because he is indeed a good writer. Even so, The Gargoyle does read and feel like a first novel, so don’t be surprised when you encounter bumps in the road.
Quotes from The Gargoyle
I understand that some people find God after misfortune, although this seems to me even more ridiculous than finding Him in good times. “God smote me. He must love me.” It’s like not wanting a romantic relationship until a member of the opposite sex punches you in the face. My “miraculous survival” will not change my opinion that Heaven is an idea constructed by man to help him cope with the fact that life on earth is both brutally short, and paradoxically, far too long.
Boredom was my bedmate and it was hogging the sheets.