Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Hunger Games, Collins

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

            Over Christmas break, I read The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, because vacation means you are supposed to consume junk food, in this case in the form of a YA bestselling novel. I sought out this book for my vacation reading because I found the premise of it (which I learned of from friends and by seeing the preview for the upcoming film) intriguing: It’s some unspecified time in the future. The United States has endured a civil war and now the victors – The Capitol – lord it over the 12 surrounding Districts, hoarding food and goods for themselves and keeping the rest of the country in poverty to maintain the status quo. As a yearly reminder that rebellion against the Capitol doesn’t pay, two children between the ages of 12-18 are chosen from each district as "tributes," to compete in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death in which the last child alive “wins.” Of course, there are plenty of surprises to keep those pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and now, two days after finishing the book, all I can think about is buying the next one in the trilogy.

The best part, for me, was the richness and novelty of the descriptions both of the Districts and the Capitol. Anyone with a penchant for fantasy or science fiction knows what I’m talking about – the fancy machines that wash your hair for you, the plethora of food available at the push of the button, and outlandish costumes and fashion trends of the make-believe future and, in contrast, the brutal life in the poorest District, where hunting is illegal and workers must buy back the food and goods they produce at crippling prices. And then, of course, there’s the embedded social commentary.

I don’t know whether she intended it or not, but a lot of what goes on in the world of The Hunger Games might very well be taken as a critique of the issues facing our own society today. The Capitol taking wealth directly from the hands and mouths of the rest of the country seems strongly reminiscent of the claim that the 99% is being oppressed by the 1% in the U.S., which the recent “Occupy” movement has brought to our attention. And some of the discussions between Katniss and Rue, another Hunger Games tribute from a different district, call to mind Marx’s analysis of the worker who, because she lacks ownership or even the ability to purchase the goods and services she produces, becomes alienated from her work and her society. Here is a conversation between Katniss and Rue to explain what I mean: “‘I’d have thought, in District Eleven, you’d have a bit more to eat than us. You know, since you grow the food,’ I say. Rue’s eyes widen. ‘Oh, no, we’re not allowed to eat the crops.’ ‘They arrest you or something?’ I ask. ‘They whip you and make everyone else watch,’ says Rue. ‘The mayor’s very strict about it.’” Of course, we don’t whip people here for stealing or for entering the country illegally, but we do arrest and deport our own food workers on a daily basis, and you can’t tell me there isn’t an element of power and humiliation inherent in that punishment, too.

I could go on and on, making comparisons between the Capitol and the current United States. There’s plenty more to say about it. But in the interest of starting off 2012 with happy thoughts, I’ll end my analysis there.  The good news is that you don’t have to register any of this between the lines stuff to enjoy The Hunger Games. Regardless of your political ideology, you’re sure to feel both sympathy and admiration for Katniss Everdeen and many of her fellow tributes as they navigate the massive, manipulated, and deadly game they have no choice but to play.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tropic of Capricorn, Miller

Tropic of Capricorn
Henry Miller

“I will not do this. I will do some other thing! Very good. But can you do nothing at all? Can you stop thinking about doing anything? Can you stop dead, and without thinking, radiate the truth which you know?”

            This book is a strange combination of elements – stream-of-consciousness, dada, spiritual text, and coming-of-age tale. Like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it tells an at least partially autobiographical tale of the artist from youth to young-adulthood for the purpose of figuring out how the artist became the way he is, and how he reached his particular understanding of his role. There’s also a similar lack of delineation between one section and the next (one wants paragraphs, chapters, section headings – and is continually denied such comforts). Unlike Portrait, however, Tropic zips between ages and stages, so that the reader has to pay close attention to where Henry is at every moment. No matter how much things change, however, the obsessions of the protagonist remain the same: sex, writing, suffering, and truth.

            It’s easy to get distracted by the portrayal of sex in this novel. It’s not surprising that the book was banned for “obscenity” in the States, and had to be published in France. The large middle section, the womb of the book, if you will, is consumed with images of Miller having sex with everyone from hookers to his wife. I was reminded of Norman Mailer’s alleged misogyny in An American Dream in these sections, and there is at least one episode where the author appears to describe raping a woman as a wonderful experience (for him). Still, I think that the sex is a distraction for us, almost like a trick – an arrow pointing in the wrong direction - though it may have been a path to renewal for the author. What is more interesting is the spiritual aspect of Miller’s ruminations.

            What the author is interested in here is figuring out what is essential and what is true – not merely what happened, or what we, in an everyday sort of way consider to be “true,” but so much more. He claims to want to get to the “thing in itself,” a la Kant. Not “how does one become successful?” but “What is worthwhile?” One thing he claims again and again to absolutely not be worthwhile is the backbone of America, and capitalist culture in general – i.e. “making a living.” Though he holds a few jobs throughout the course of the book, for him making money is worse than beside the point because it gets in the way of the real work of life.

This disconnect between working and actually living life is the central problem, a problem which is perhaps greater for the artist than for any other worker. Miller seems to oscillate between the belief that the artist is the only toiler with any hope of stepping outside the “automated process,” and the concern that even the artist is missing the point – that even expression gets in the way of the true goal, which is silent acceptance. Probably the best example this is Miller’s friend, Grover, who as a young adult suddenly becomes a born-again Christian and hence the most “alive” person Miller has ever met. The difference is not religion, but rather that “if once, like other people, [Grover] had thought it was necessary to get somewhere now he knew that somewhere was anywhere and therefore right here and so why move?” Why indeed? Perhaps we feel we have to because, as Miller seems to realize in Tropic of Capricorn, we are all caught in the wheel of suffering (samsara in Buddhism). In Tropic of Capricorn Miller seems to reach some profound realizations on his own path to enlightenment (/artisthood?). The beauty of the book is that, if one can get past the distraction of the “obscenity,” observing another’s journey can help others along the path, too.