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The Fault In Our Lies

posted Jun 3, 2014, 7:42 PM by Timothy Vienne   [ updated Jun 4, 2014, 6:33 PM ]
I just finished John Green's magnificent The Fault Is in Our Stars (right on time for the movie, of course). I must confess a peculiar connection to the author. A friend of mine who attended high school with him introduced me to his work when I began my journey into fiction-writing. The book of his I read then was An Abundance of Katherines. His new novel far exceeds, in my opinion, the range of his previous work, although it remains as firmly in the genre as any young adult novel could attempt to be. In fact, the similarities between this book and Katherines are so many as to be noteworthy on their own:

1) The protagonists have astonishing mental acuity for 16 and 17 year olds. I knew some smart people at that age, but no one with the literary and philosophical prowess of either a Gus or a Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars. A similar super-genius appeared in Katherines, except that he had an autistic kind of intelligence in which he remembered exquisitely irrelevant details. The self-imposed exile of pubescent intellectuals is an enduring theme for Green. It could be due to his own upbringing: the high school he attended, I learned from my friend, was a superb private boarding school in Alabama with teachers who were more like professors. It is possible Green grew up in an atmosphere in which he had the resources to become that well-read and well-spoken at 16 or 17.

2) The protagonists are very casual in their approach to serious subjects. This facet of the novel probably explains its popularity among the target audience, which prides itself on maintaining an apathetic distance from the real world. Of course this demeanor is a mask for insecurity, but the style is an effective way to privilege the characters' experience of life without demeaning it with patronizing nostalgia. Hazel and Augustus are experiencing the world as young adults, not remembering their younger selves from some future vantage point.

3) Sex is voyeuristic. In Katherines, the protagonist ends up watching a sex act performed in public, while in this novel cancer patient Hazel observes another character groping his girlfriend. Unlike the virginity of Katherines' protagonist, in Stars Hazel and Gus do make love with each other at the ripe age of 16. Yet the culminating sexual experience between Gus and Hazel in the Stars is only briefly described: perhaps because of a desire to avoid any association with erotica or out-of-genre sensitivities. Yet it seems there must be a different reason. Green knows how to inhabit bodies in his writing, and he's not afraid of broaching carnal subjects. Why is sex experienced by others so transparently vivid while first-hand sexual acts are censored? Perhaps sex in the author's mind, at least for high schoolers, is something that can be watched in others but whose personal experience is (presumably) transcendental. It can't be directly approached, just as the inner sanctum of a temple is shrouded in mystery. 

Given all these typological similarities, the explosive emotional range of this novel shows how clever a writer Green is. He takes  simple, straightforward elements (one could say cancer is even a bit over-done in the literary market), and characters that have become for him stock-in-trade, and produces a tragedy that can rival the classics. This book wants to stare into death's face and divine its meaning, all within the idiom of an American teenager. None of the characters are spared the reality of death's severing power over human life. Hazel and Gus are both deeply aware of where their cancer is taking them while they desire to live a life unconstrained by the crushing burden of imminent demise. Kafka would have been proud.

To give but one example of this cutting dialogue: 

"'The thing about dead people,' he said, and then stopped himself. 'The thing is you sound like a bastard if you don't romanticize them, but the truth is... complicated, I guess. Like, you are familiar with the trope of the stoic and determined cancer victim who heroically fights her cancer with inhuman strength and never complains or stops smiling even at the very end, etcetera?'"

Green doesn't just avoid cliches about death. He takes them head on, trying to see through common metaphors of death to what lies beneath. He spares little in his analysis as his protagonists search for some meaning--any meaning--in their approaching demise. So the question is, does Green lead them anywhere? Does his story show death unmasked, as it is, without any recourse to intellectual short-circuits?

Not quite. The lies we tell ourselves about death are too deep even for this novel. Green ends up relying on mathematics, a strange but familiar theme in his novels (the protagonist in Katherines is obsessed with composing functions), to build a scaffolding of coherence in the midst of time's unrelenting march to the end: 

"There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1 .... Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus than he got. But Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity."

The commingling of set theory and metaphysics is fascinating. Yet it doesn't really answer the question about how to face death. Mathematics exists because of unproven axioms on which everything else is built. The reason there are an infinity of numbers on a continuous number line is because a continuous number line is defined to be so. There is no metaphysical or other reason for this, nothing but the sheer power of postulation. In fact, a number is its own mystery. Numbers don't really exist outside of our heads--no two apples are in fact alike--even though we have so much use of them. If they do in fact exist, they would have to be based on some higher power, some order beyond ourselves.

Green does hint at this in the novel when Hazel's dad speculates that the "universe wants to be noticed". Yet this obtuse statement is not much more profound than the many flaccid verses in posted in Augustus' home. The universe does not have any agency, nor does it ever appear to notice anyone. If it did, it is not altogether clear if this is a good thing: the universe brings as much evil as good.

What The Fault in Our Stars lacks is an appreciation for our past, for the many who have wrestled with these questions before, for the traditions of answers people have proposed to the dilemma of mortality. The only religious figure is an absurdly flat character (Patrick) who leads a vaguely Christian support group for cancer patients. For some reason, Green chose to make Patrick an asinine representative of sentimental religion, even though the stamina of a man who leads a support group of people who perpetually die is worthy of a novel of its own.

This reality is not so much a comment on Green per se, but on the Western enterprise, which as it draws toward a postmodern conclusion, is probing into uncharted waters and discovering very little. Hazel and Gus have to face their own deaths with only the answers they invent, or those given to them by an eccentric Dutch novelist. I appreciate this book whole-heartedly. I know I will read it again and again. Yet I think it only walks up to the dark question of the end of our existence, leaving fragile traces of an unrequited hope. The only moment in the book where true meaning is found is in the bedroom, but that is precisely the place Green leaves unexplored.