Sunday Salon: Becoming Ambilextrous

Peggy's Cove, NS, just down the road from me: Take a gander at the name of this rather downtrodden boat,  Yikes.

My mother got a Kindle.  Yesterday, as she headed off to the National Book Festival (where, lucky devil, she got to hear Suzanne Collins speak about the Hunger Games trilogy), she began to fret about whether she should take it with her: would a Mall full of bibliophiles react with horror to the sight of the device?  She worried that buying a Kindle was an abandonment of paper books. "There's only one solution," she told me, "I'll become ambilextrous."

I am filled with envy on both the Kindle and the NBF fronts.  But I can't complain, since I have spent the last week reveling in the Atlantic Film Festival.  So far I have only managed to post one review of the seven films I saw (of Howl, based on Allen Ginsberg's life and poem), so I hope to rectify that today, along with catching up on my Oahu diary and reviewing my most recent read, the brilliantly named The Ask and the Answer, which is the second installment in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy.  We will see how far I get, however, because this term Sunday is a teaching prep day, and a giant pile of Oedipus quizzes has my name all over it.  And of course I wouldn't mind making some progress through my current books: Ann-Marie Macdonald's Fall on Your Knees (epic in scope, I've barely made a dent at 200 pages), Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry (which I should have read years ago for my comprehensive exams.  Oops.), and Marc Eliot's biography of Cary Grant.  There are also some DVDs in desperate need of returning: the Martin McDonagh-penned In Bruges and the classic Man of the West, which I can't seem to remember whether I have seen before.  Hmm.

Wish me luck!

Howl (Atlantic Film Festival)

Last night I ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of the Bowery.

That is to say, I spent an hour and a half in company with the new movie (part biopic, part legal drama, part animated hallucinterpretation of the poem) based on Allen Ginsberg's Howl.

I am starting at the end of my first experience with the Atlantic Film Festival, which has been unfolding languorously around Halifax for a little over a week now.  And a giddy week it has been for me: I missed the festival entirely last year, and - determined not to let it slip by again - I found myself on a frenzy of ticket buying.  Seven films in as many days, and all of them more or less gratifying.  Two of them Cannes award-winners.  Several by directors whose work I already admired.  None of them Canadian (through no fault of the programmers, since they included a panoply of intriguing Canadian and Maritime films at times I couldn't make them, including the rather bleak national entry for this year's Academy Award).  And I still have regrets: I didn't manage to make it to the new Woody Allen film, although I wanted to.  I comfort myself with the knowledge that it is almost certainly fairly awful.

More backstory on Howl, which stars a surprisingly good James Franco.  Last week I was talking to a friend from my department about the film, and she said "You know he is getting his doctorate in English, right?".  "Ha!" I scoffed, "Where?".  "At your program," she said, surprised to be delivering this news, "At Yale."  I thought she was lying.   I knew I had arrived at Yale a decade and a half too late to overlap with David Duchovny; it just seemed like the taunting of fate that I then left a year too early to coincide with another movie star.  (Once I saw Duchovny on "Inside the Actors Studio" while I was in the throes of my dissertation.  James Lipton asked him about his Yale years, which seemed fine at first, but then he said something like, "You left... before completing your dissertation.  What was the title of that work?".  And David Duchovny, possessor of fame and wealth beyond most people's wildest imaginings, just sort of, well, crumbled away, collapsing in on himself as he travelled mentally back to the masochistic, excruciated mindset of someone in the advanced stages of pursuing their doctorate.  He curled forward and shook his head slowly, and I thought, "Yes.  Yes: you never lose that terrible anxiety of underachievement, no matter what else you accomplish in life.  David Duchovny, I know exactly how you feel.")

As it turns out, my friend was only telling me true. James Franco has just begun his Ph.D. in literature and film.  So all I could think throughout this film was how very different my seminar years of graduate school would have been if this Ginsberg-tinted Franco had been a part of them.

But, the film:

It is a sort of a quilt of a project, a stitching together of "interviews" with a youngish Ginsberg (played by Franco) at the moment when his book Howl and Other Poems has landed its publisher in court under obscenity charges.  His reflections on poetry, inspiration, and his biographical influences (most notably a series of men he loved and situated as muses and often priapic heroes in the poem) are interlarded with animated illustrations of the poem, which unfurl like whisps of highly sexualized smoke, and with scenes from the trial itself.  The casting of the film is phenomenal: in the trial scenes, for instance, the uncomprehending prosecutor is played with convincing bluster by the suddenly gray David Strathairn, while the coolly eloquent defense is portrayed by who else but Jon Hamm, who delivers a defense of literary freedom like he is pitching ad copy to a skeptical corporation.  It is all brilliantly rousing, even before you see a line of famous character actors playing professors and critics of literature, called in as "expert witnesses" on the necessity of words like "snatch" to the artistic integrity of Howl.  And, more impressively, it is rarely clear.  The court scenes don't succumb to the Hollywood conventions of juridical process any more than they have to: most of the time the witnesses and lawyers are merely muddling through some very murky ethical and aesthetic territory as they attempt to establish a concrete legal conception of literary value.

The least compelling aspect of the film is the animation, sad to say.  This isn't because it is an objectionable choice: it is in fact a compelling formal experiment, and if ever a poem were made for this sort of experiment, it is Howl.  But the aesthetics of the CGI don't match the polish or complexity of the rest of the film: they seem clumsy where everything else is elaborately casual, and the human forms seem wooden exactly at the moments when they should be as organic and sinuous as a vine.

As the credits began to roll, I turned to the colleague sitting next to me in the theatre.  "So," I said, "will you be showing your freshmen this film in 'Introduction to Literature?'".  "Well, I had high hopes for it," she replied with a laugh, "but ... no, I don't think so."  I thought back to the students sitting next to us, texting persistently through the first twenty minutes of the film, who got up and left in the middle of the umpteenth cartoon copulation to grace the screen.  As they stepped in front of me, two of several departures that didn't seem related to the film's quality, I had to wonder whether they weren't (oddly) unready to be "dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts."


I've been salsa-dancing.

I mean, not uninterruptedly, to the exclusion of all else, since last I wrote to you at the beginning of the month.  I've been doing other things as well: I had some delightful guests come to stay. I got pummeled by the first few weeks of classes, and saw seven films at my new obsession, the Atlantic Film Festival.  I spent some 20+ hours exercising.  But in making my account to you of where I have been all this time, I want to be sure to testify that yes: I have taken up salsa.

And it couldn't be more delightful: my sassy teachers started us off with the most basic deprogramming of our belief in our own lack of rhythm and grace.  We spent a half hour playing air-guitar (losing our inhibitions), walking rhythmically in a giant circular conga line (asserting that every single one of us could, when push came to shove, keep a beat.  Because if you lose the beat in a conga line, push most definitely comes to shove.), and somehow by the end of our first hour we had learned the two basic steps of the salsa.  My first day of dance class was also my first day of the new semester, so I got to observe the introductory lesson plan from both teacher's and student's perspective.  This may be the first time I have actually taken a class since I started teaching my own: I was astonished and impressed by how clearly I could see the structure of the lesson, and how smoothly it all came off.

Since then we have learned the basics of partnering: how the lead communicates the next move, and how the female partner receives it.  This latter is particularly difficult for me - I always find myself anticipating what the next move should be, rather than waiting for a signal.  The result is chaotic: better to follow your partner into error smoothly than to anticipate correctness discordantly.  So salsa is proving to be quite the weekly psychology lesson for me.  (I also learned that when I am concentrating really hard on something, I can't look my partner in the eye.  What's that about?)

At any rate, my apologies for the brief silence of Sycorax Pine.  Here's hoping it will be a bit more garrulous around here from now on.

Sunday Salon: Earl, Survived

"Look, it won't be a direct hit," D assured me by phone from Honolulu.  "It is going to go up the Bay of Fundy, and you will just get the edges of Earl as he goes by.  It won't be serious."

"Hmm," I said, as I continued to ready my Halifax home for the hurricane. "I'm not sure it is so easy to predict the path.  After all, we have unusually warm ocean temperatures right now." In the last few days all my neighbors and colleagues had repeatedly reminded me of what had happened when Juan hit the city 8 years ago.  My neighborhood was without power for a week.  80% of the trees in the city's most glorious park were lost.  Get lots of extra cash, they told me, in case the banks lose power.  Make sure you have water, and batteries, and gas.  Don't go out to the shore to watch the waves (???); you'll be swept away.

Earl was supposed to hit around 9 a.m. on Saturday.  I couldn't get to sleep the night before, a combination of jet lag and excitement.  The streets were eerily peaceful.  When I woke up briefly at nine, nothing was happening.  The house was hot and close from being shut up so tightly.  I fell back asleep.  I only awoke when the power went out.  The first thing that hit me was how strangely silent my house was, without the buzz of all those appliances and the whirr of the fans.  But it wasn't silent outside - the windows were shaking with the storm.

I couldn't figure out how bad it was, because I don't have a radio.  Without the internet and the television, I suddenly realize how profoundly info-isolated I am. Certainly I couldn't just trust my eyes and ears.  I spent much of the day reading, and cleaning, and reading, and cleaning. (I had guests from DC who were supposed to arrive that morning.  Presciently, they had rescheduled their flight to arrive on Sunday.)  It's amazing how much of this you can get done without the call of movies to be watched, blogs to update, and gyms to hop off to in the car.  I made my way through most of The Masque of the Black Tulip, a frothy dual historical romance, set in part among Regency aristocratic espionage units and in part in the world of the modern academic who is studying them.  It had been languishing in a state of disgruntled neglect for much of the week while I tore my way through Mockingjay, the last of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games books.  I continued to ponder the tumultuous effect Mockingjay had on me, and the complexity of its choices.  I obsessed about a typo I had found in the first sentence of one of my blog posts about the book - a typo I couldn't correct without internet access, curse you, Earl. Torment.  I made some progress in Anne-Marie Macdonald's Nova Scotian epic Fall on Your Knees, in which the full force of familial tragedy comes crashing down on four sisters in early twentieth-century Cape Breton.  I contemplated what I would read next, and settled on The Ask and the Answer, the second book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy.  What better way, after all, to soothe the loss of one trilogy than to hop back into another.

The day stretched out.  The rain stopped, and the wind didn't.  I went for a walk, and discovered a neighborhood more densely populated than I had ever seen it.  Faced with electricity-less homes, every single one of my neighbors had ventured into the surreally sunny outdoors, where they were leaning steeply against the gales, surveying the damage to their trees and houses, and even getting up the odd game of extremely unpredictable catch. As the evening approached, marvelous smells began wafting up from backyard grills, as everyone rushed to use up their meat before it went bad.  I, alas, have no grill, so I looked mournfully at my fridge, unable to open it.  I ate some fruit.

When the sun went down for the night, so did I.  Oh, I read by candlelight for a while, which was very romantic, in a soporific sort of way.  But really, without electricity, my life became very simple, very plain. It is a greater leap into history that you can normally force yourself to imagine, and a greater humbling.  I fell asleep at 8:45 (about half an hour after sunset).  When I woke up at 6 the next day, the power still hadn't come back on.  I began to wonder how I was going to feed my guests.  All the stores and restaurants around me were closed, watching their supplies rot.  

A quick call to D in Hawai'i produced the news that the whole of the metropolitan area was powerless, and the problem probably wouldn't be fixed until after the long Labor Day weekend. (D, you see, knew more about the situation in Nova Scotia from seven time zones away than I did in the midst of it.  The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away.)

"Oh," he added.  "It looks like the storm took an abrupt right turn at the mouth of Fundy."

"I'm sorry," I replied, unsure if I had heard him correctly, "Are you saying that it came right over us?  That it was, what's the word I'm looking for, a direct hit?".

"Yeah, I guess so." A brief pause. "I was wrong."

I crowed.  Loudly.

The power, blessedly, came back on later on Sunday, leaving me just enough time to clean out my now-rotten fridge and run off to the airport to pick up my friends.  The weather was stunning, so we made our way out to Peggy's Cove. The quintessential Nova Scotian fishing village turned tourist draw, it has the most photographed lighthouse in North America.  The winds were still violent, and the waves were as vast and white as anything I have ever seen in Canada.

It wasn't a hurricane by the time it hit us, but a severe tropical storm.  That's too bad (and at the same time rather lucky), because then I could say that in my first thirteen months in Nova Scotia, I had been hit by two hurricanes.  I lived for four years in North Carolina, and how many hurricanes hit me?  None.  And not a single tropical storm.

Canada: defying stereotypes year after year.

On Gale, Peeta, and the Ending of Mockingjay

[Spoilers ho!  Many and bold.  Proceed at your own risk.]
On the epic conflict known as Peeta v. Gale:

Much as I love both characters, I never understood the nature of this debate. The structure of the romance in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy seemed clear to me from the beginning: Gale is a false hero, a handsome childhood love who failed to capitalize on the romance until a competitor came on the scene. The dead giveaway that he wasn't the primary hero was how little time we as reader actually spent with him in the first two books - for us (as for Katniss, apparantly) he was a figure of affection in absentia.   Even he knows it: after receiving a kiss from her in Mockingjay, he tells her that the only form her love for him ever takes is a desire to alleviate his pain.  Romance as palliative.  This is no less love - it is motivated by her excruciating sense that she can't bear to see someone she loves so dearly suffer - but it is less than lust. Looking back over the novels, it's clear that he's right, although it also emerges that this is the primary way that Katniss loves everyone.  Most of her encounters with Peeta are initiated for exactly the same reasons: to cauterize pain and to cut short difficult conversations.  The journey that Katniss travels with Peeta is into her own romantic enjoyment, which, significantly, she describes in all the books as a "hunger."  This is perhaps the only shard of hope we get at the novel's end - the idea that the Hunger Games of the title has been transformed from a figure of starvation and violence into one of pleasure and longing.

But this volume responds to the unevenness in the love triangle by devoting the bulk of its romantic energies to Gale.  We get substantial time with him, and he is fleshed out significantly as a character - enough so that his final fate seems peremptory and unsatisfying, like much else about the novel's conclusion.  He is, in fact, a lot like Peeta in his feelings for Katniss - (nearly) unfailingly honest and supportive, and capable of seeing her strengths even when she can't.  Unlike Peeta, however, he has broader loyalties.  Peeta has one and only one purpose in existing - Katniss - while Gale has loyalty to his family, her family, the workers, District 12, the resistance, and above all, vengeance.  This makes him a healthier human being (although his obsession with violent vengeance tips the scale back in the direction of mania - this sort of gleeful violence can be traced back to the fact that he didn't have to go through the murderous crucible of the games like Katniss and Peeta.).

What it comes down to is this: we know, within the moral boundaries of western YA's operation, that Peeta will come out the victor in the romance, because, of the two, only he is unfailingly humane and just.  This is what makes it impossible for Katniss to survive without him (although it also seems unlikely that she would survive the loss of Gale's friendship, a point which the ending neglects, but I guess she has survived a lot of losses).  A heart that is shaped by vengeance, these narrative rules tell us, isn't a heart that can truly triumph in love.  Gale has a streak of cruelty that make make him a sexy alpha hero, but should give us pause when we think of the person we would like ourselves (or our friends, siblings, children) to fall in love with.  I am torn here: Peeta is undoubtedly the kinder and the fairer of the two, the one I would rather trust Katniss's heart with.  But there would have been a certain realism to her ending up with Gale as well - a realism that defied all the expectations of narrative structure - because (1) people don't always (or even usually) choose their nicest or best amorous options, and (2) romantic heroes should get to have flaws and selfishness too.  Seeing him struggle against his opposing interests (the battle of anger against love) would have been fascinating, just like watching Katniss's internal conflicts was.

Gale is the figure of absolute honesty - the person Katniss can trust with her suspicions and paranoias and confidence, and whom she can count on for an honest opinion of her plans. Collins goes to a lot of effort to undermine these strengths of his over the course of this last novel, all totally plausibly, fracturing his closeness with Katniss slowly and organically.  Peeta, although his love is (as it turns out) less complicated than Gale's, is not so easy to trust, and Collins made much of this to great effect in previous novels. Theirs is a relationship based on performances, on being watched, on playing a double game with their audience and each other, all with the purpose of winning.  Katniss doesn't know Peeta when the series begins, so she constantly has to negotiate his sincerity and the extent of his performance.  But his gift is in always performing the truth - he shapes sincerity in such a way that it serves his purpose, whereas Katniss layers on her public personas at the expense of the scarred self underneath.  This is why she never recognizes herself when she watches her exploits on television, but Peeta is always essentially Peeta-ish.

But there is a major problem with the abruptness of this last book's ending, both in its resolution of the love triangle and of the question of Katniss's recovery and future.  We have spent an entire book learning to take Gale seriously as a romantic rival, and in the process Peeta (poor sympathetic Peeta) gets lost in the shuffle.  This is a narrative problem if (as has been clear all along) he is the one our heroine will need to end up with at the trilogy's end.  He has been through significant trauma, but this trauma serves as a distancing agent, keeping him apart from both Katniss and us, rather than a means of exploring his character in greater depth.

If more time had been spent with the development of Peeta and Katniss's new relationship, it would have sat better with readers. (I can't help but think that maybe this isn't what Collins wanted.  Maybe we're meant to feel uncomfortable with the idea of a happily ever after to this story.) But it feels like this should have been several novels, with time to explore some of the issues it raises (like how Peeta and Katniss come back together) in greater depth. There is rich soil to be turned in the question of how it is you trust yourself (your heart, your body, your sleeping vulnerable self) with someone who is battling a trained, murderous revulsion for you.  Not to mention how he comes to parse his instincts, distinguishing the learned from the felt.  Both Peeta and Gale have stories that never got told here.

There has been a lot of discussion about feminist problems with the conclusion to the novel.  Normally this is just the sort of problem I would jump into, cannonballing into the political waters with feminist glee.  But in this case, I think that readers might be imposing a bit of a narrow model of what a successful woman should look like on Katniss. The Epilogue, with its ambivalent description of how Peeta's longing for children persuaded Katniss to have them, is problematic in its brevity, but also interesting. It deals honestly with the fact that having children is a matter of some psychological struggle for this couple (an issue that Collins has been hinting at from the very beginning), because it raises all sorts of questions in Katniss's mind about what kind of expectations for happiness and safety she should have in this world.  Look, I too felt the twinge of a wish that Katniss, instead of squirreling herself away in a defunct district with her new family, could continue to be central to the building of this new world, and a touch of disbelief that she would be abandoned by those making the new society, given her symbolic value.  That's what we (like the television audience of Panem) want of her - an emblem of public feminine strength. But Katniss herself would have hated that.  She never wanted to be a symbol, resented those who co-opted her for political purposes, and idealized the quiet, forgotten life.  What was her dream of an alternate life with Gale?  That they ran off into the woods together to live subtly and alone.  (She and Peeta have never had the luxury of privacy, and learning how to be together - alone - is another facet of their falling-in-love that I really wish Collins had given us.) The public life is not the only one worth living, and it is not the only one of value and dignity.

The fact that the new society banishes Katniss to her ravaged home district, without attempting to use her propagandistically, is perhaps the greatest sign of hope I got for the future of this new world.  The real loss to the new government isn't Katniss, who was never good at politics the way she was at violence, but Peeta.  He had a rare gift for synthesizing public opinion into a politically useful form (of saying just the right thing, as Katniss thinks of this skill), coupled with a lodestone ethical sense, that make me mourn for his life spent in seclusion rather than public service.  The fact that Peeta ends up caring for nothing but Katniss (and their ambivalently conceived kids) strikes me not so much as a feminist problem (although it is, indirectly) as one of progressive masculism: our culture needs to stop presenting romantic heroism as a matter of self-abnegating devotion to the beloved. (I'm looking at you, Edward Cullen.  Get a hobby.)  Real manhood, like real love, is multi-faceted and filled with conflicting purposes.  That doesn't dilute its dedication.  It enriches it.

And so, again, though I would have chosen Peeta myself as the better man with the kinder instincts, I find myself wondering (heretically!) if Gale didn't live the more fulfilled life, and whether walking away from Katniss wasn't a big part of that....

Related posts:

Mockingjay: First Reactions to the Trilogy as a Whole

I just finished Mockingjay, the conclusion to Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, and I feel... shattered.

It took a week to get here after the release date, a painful lag that left me standing in an aisle at Costco arguing with myself out loud (Peeta-like, as it turns out) about whether to buy the second copy that tempted me from the tables rather than wait on the none too tender mercies of Canada Post.  (Stephen Colbert tells me that the Canadian mail is transported on foot by the Postal Beaver.  Curse that beaver.  Someone get him a prop plane or something.) Other customers carefully avoided me as I picked it up, muttering, then threw it down with stern (almost violent) self-control, only to snatch it back up covetously.  In the final analysis, I walked away to wait.

So it was a week of spoiler avoidance and desultory reading of other, interim things.  A week of jumping at every household noise that could conceivably have been the clunk of the mail slot. And then when I finally got the longed for package, I started it almost reluctantly, afraid that it would disappoint. I read the first few chapters interspersed with other things, wondering if I would even pick it up again that night.  This isn't that gripping, I thought, hubristically.

And then I stayed up all night reading it.  By flashlight, in my lampless basement, the only room in the house cool enough to sleep in during this horrible pre-hurricane heat wave.

So I have a number of things to say about Mockingjay.  More than can be said in a single, easily readable post.  Perhaps more than can be said or absorbed or conceived in a single day's posting, particularly when that day is the day after first reading the novel.  I will add new posts to the links below as I write them.  But let me begin with some basic declarations and reactions:
  • It didn't disappoint.  I liked the second novel (Catching Fire) slightly less than the first (Hunger Games), because it retrod the same ground when I was hoping for something as originally thought-provoking as the first, but I find it impossible to rank the third.  Perhaps this is because it, while unlike the other two, ties the whole series together, and the series as a whole was so effective and fascinating for me.  I gave Mockingjay (and by extension the trilogy) four stars, which in my mind is slightly higher than an A-.  
  • I gather from reading a number of excellent blog reviews and reactions (like those at Slate and Dear Author) that I am in the minority in this high opinion of it.  So I hasten to add: it had flaws, perhaps many of them.  And as a resolution to a long and tense narrative, it didn't produce any feelings of relief or happiness or (ha!) glee.  It left me feeling battered and desolate - almost totally without comfort in a brutal, fragile world. Almost. I wrote D (still asleep in Hawai'i) an email, which read, in its entirety: "Finished Mockingjay, and feeling totally shattered.  Call and tell me you love me."  
  • But I don't think this is a sign of its failure, but its success.  The purpose of art isn't to make me (or you) feel better - that would make it no more than an opiate - but to make us feel and think any number of things with as much urgency and complexity as possible.  A novel which moves me to passionate feeling and debate, as this one did with both its strengths and weaknesses - is a novel I will go back to time and again as a reader and a recommender.  A novel that makes me want to write more than can be contained in a single post?  That makes me want seek out any one who has read it to talk about our reactions?  That makes me doubt and ponder and substantiate my reactions, and consider alternative interpretations or possibilities?  That can convince different sections of its readership of the romantic superiority of each of two different men, persuade me that I have chosen one, and then reluctantly convince me of the virtues of the other? That doesn't allow me to put down the novel, because I care so much about characters that I feel I know them?  It is a novel that has more than earned its place on my shelf and in my esteem.
  • There will be spoilers in the posts to come. These are not going to be reviews-as-recommendations, intended to help those who haven't read the book yet determine whether they want to.  I love those reviews, and believe in the value of their spoiler-sanctity, but that's not what my posts will be.  They will be criticism, analysis and reaction - an attempt to get into how I felt and what I thought about the details of the novel, and how the text constructs those reactions. I think there is a definite value to this genre of internet writing as well, and it is one that depends on discussing information that would unfairly spoil the novel for those who haven't finished it yet.  The internet has room and need of discussions intended for both those who have read the works under debate and those who haven't.  Let's just be sure to make the distinction clear.
Let the spoilers begin immediately:

In Mockingjay, we find Katniss, the hardscrabble heroine of the trilogy, in truculent residence in District 13 - the lost district, which all the other twelve colonies under the Capitol's exploitative rule believe had been destroyed during a great revolution.  As it turns out, District 13 had made a bit of a devil's bargain with their former overlords, tacitly consenting to non-intervention in the other districts if they were left in peace (to build a resistance, of course!). Now they are taking advantageous of the civic unease that Katniss has fomented in earlier installments in the series to deal a killing blow to the Capitol's power, and they want Katniss to serve as the figurehead for the revolution: The Mockingjay, a sort of mediatized Marseillaise.

In the previous two books, Katniss and the enamored Peeta were sent not once but an irritating twice to the annual Hunger Games as "tributes" of District 12, impoverished miners' country.  The Hunger Games are the world's most oppressive reality show: teenage delegates are sent from each district to participate in the televised event, a fight to the death between children chosen two per district like a colonial Noah's arc of terror.   The express purpose is to remind the colonies of the arbitrariness and ubiquity of the Capitol's power, but like any good hegemonic instrument, they work insidiously to draw their victims into complicity with their own oppression. Not only are the youths forced to fight until only one victor remains (the Games are designed to force them into violence if they resist this), but their districts are drawn into rapt consumption of the televised account of this culling of their future.  You can even show your support for a particularly admirable competitor by donating a gift, which is flown in on a wee parachute at a potentially game changing moment.  It is in the tributes' best interests to be as mediagenic in their game play as possible.

In Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta barely know each other, but nonetheless they come tumultuously and all too implicitly to a mutual plan: they will pretend to be in love, and their romance will hijack the viewers' sympathies, twisting the game to their purposes.  Or at least, this is what Katniss believes the plan to be.  They emerge from their first Games as unprecedented double victors (a miracle they work by surviving till the end and threatening suicide - and the unthinkable, a victorless Games - rather than kill each other), and she can finally talk openly, without performing for the omnipresent Arena cameras and the viewers at home.  Her assertion that Peeta's plan - the false love affair - was a brilliant ruse comes as something of a shock to the poor boy.  It turns out that canny game play and sincerity of emotion aren't alien concepts in Peeta's mind.

The book is fascinatingly laid out as a series of reflections on questions of sincerity and surface: how much of who we are is private, and how much is performed for the audience of society?  And is it possible to pretend an identity without having that pretence leak over and affect who you really are?  How do you determine what this core identity is, or what you really feel?  Are "you" something separate from what the world perceives you to be? (When I originally read the first novel, I delighted in both this aspect and the prickliness of Katniss as a character - the first details we get of her are about her utter unsentimentality.)

So, spurred by the revelation that Katniss's affections may have been more surface than sincere, Catching Fire opens with the two victors barely speaking to each other.  Oh, they still frolic amorously for the camera crews sent by the Capitol to follow up on their romance - Katniss has received some rather sinister threats about what will happen to their loved ones if she humiliates the powers that be by revealing their romance as a hoax - but as soon as they move out of the public sphere they drop all pretense of affection or even conversation. Katniss is grappling with another act of amorous betrayal - her closest friend, Gale, for whom she feels a fierce sense of possession and belonging, has watched on television as she declared her passion and snuggled close to another man.  This has brought on something of a crisis in their ill-defined relationship, and he takes her homecoming as an opportunity to clarify some ambiguities.  But Gale has other passions as well: a budding revolutionary, he is interested to hear that Katniss's performance at the Games has become something of a spark for tinder-dry dissent throughout the districts.  The more Peeta and Katniss's obvious empathy for their late competitors calls the Hunger Games into question, the more the Capitol seems to think it would be better off without them.  When cocooning them in the details of a celebrity wedding fails to contain their revolutionary potential, a new possibility comes floating, oily with sinister intent, to the surface.  This is the year of the Quarter Quell, a particularly vicious variation on the Games held every twenty-five years, and when an envelope holding the Founders' plans for these 75th anniversary Games is opened, the dictum it gives is this: this will be the year in which all of the tributes are chosen among living district champions.  So off Peeta and Katniss go again (hmm), but this time they are rather more certain that the Capitol will see them meet with unpleasant accidents in the Arena rather than emerge victorious again.  Everything seems set to head down that route when all hell breaks loose, and Katniss awakes to find herself in alien surroundings.  She has been rescued, she is told, but there is some bad news.  Peeta was captured by the Capitol, who in their spare time have done a bit of vindictive obliterating.  District 12 - their home - is no more.

Like many second books in trilogies, Catching Fire is more various in its themes and purposes than its predecessor.  Katniss is consumed by the ethical conflict of her love triangle, and increasingly aware that love is a luxury she will be too short-lived to indulge in responsibly.  When I first read it, I talked about the problem of a love triangle - it draws your readers in and starts a lively debate, but if well executed, it is also almost impossible to resolve in any fashion that seems less than cruel.  I spoke in that post of my reluctance to see the Gale-Katniss-Peeta triangle fractured by a final decision; halfway through Mockingjay, in which the triangular tensions are pushed to the limit of all three's endurance, I said out loud to the empty room, "Well, this can't possibly end well."  And it doesn't.  More on this in a post to come.

For the most part, Catching Fire extends the themes of the first volume, and is a marvelous book, but it loses one of the greatest strengths of Hunger Games, which is the quandary of interpretation Katniss (who narrates the novels) is in about Peeta's motivations.  Why does he seem so ... earnest, even as he does things that seem politically savvy?  What is the game he is playing, since she barely knows him, and one or the other of them is going to have to die before these Games are through?  In Catching Fire, we know the game he is playing (keep her alive at any cost, love her for as long as he has left), and the bulk of the tension is produced by the clash between the clear intention of the Capitol to do away with the pair and our readerly certainty that at least one of them will have to survive for the third installment.  But it is also a more explicitly post-colonial book in its concerns - it talks about the way power is wielded and worked, and the power of individual resistance.  The drama of the unrest that was burbling in all the different districts (and the carefully pitched performance that Peeta and Katniss had to give before these foreign, but similarly oppressed, crowds on their victory tour) was compelling, so I was all the more annoyed when I found out that we were headed right back to the Hunger Games scenario.  I mean, can't the Capitol work out any new forms of imposing their will on the colonies? (In book 3, even the revolutionaries go back to the playbook when they are looking for some good ole "we conquered you, now abase yourself" symbolism.)

We seem to be well clear of the possibility of another round in the Arena in Mockingjay, but Collins moves the whole premise in a thoroughly meta direction: all the world's a Hunger Game, as it turns out, and all the men and women merely players.   The rebels are just as eager to co-opt Katniss's persona as the Capitol ever was, and revolution is just another way of pitting innocents against each other in a mortal struggle for the amusement of the empowered.  This is Gale and Katniss's book - he has distinguished himself as a revolutionary by keeping the refugees from blitzed District 12 alive until they could be rescued by District 13, and they get a lot of time to bond and squabble and debate ethics while they go about their strictly-scheduled D13 duties.  You see, the rogue district has only survived by the strictest practice of communalism: private property is discouraged, scarce resources are dispersed according to a precise system based on bodily need, and every citizen has to follow an exact itinerary that is printed on his or her arm every morning.  Slight infractions (like the theft of a slice of bread) are punished harshly.  Isn't it great to have escaped the Capitol?

"Grim" is the word I have most often seen applied to this last book, because, I suppose, of its cynicism about the possibility for escape from the corruptions and evils of the Capitol.  Zoom out to the world "outside" oppression, and you just see the same grindingly evil patterns repeated, infinitely, like an Escher print or a fractal.  Even the "new world" that is established through the heroism of Katniss and Gale and Peeta seems more likely to end in corruption than in utopian reform.  It is Gale's world, after all, not Peeta's, and Gale has long felt that vengeance must be served, even (as is so often the case with revenge) if it demands that you replicate the original crime.  Justice here isn't based on empathy, but on the reversal of wrongs.  Now the victims can be the oppressors.  The only thing that reins in the processes of vengeance is a sort of cautious Malthusianism - the knowledge that to pursue justice to its natural end would be to reduce the population to the point of universal doom.

But this grimness is fascinating and bold, even if it did leave me feeling bereft of any possibility of happiness or solace.  It represents an unusual way of thinking about heroism and the individual in YA fiction: as the last novel unfolds, Katniss's exploits become more and more abortive and meaningless.  This is narratively frustrating (why are we following her around if her actions are all incomplete and purposeless?), but dense with implication. The warfare Homer immortalizes in his Iliad may have been a series of individual encounters between fully fledged, divinity-backed heroes, some with the power to win or lose the war singlehandedly, but fewer wars since have been decided by the spontaneous actions of individuals.  The effectiveness of individual valor is only clear on a much smaller canvas (giving your life for a friend); the larger picture of war and social change is all troop movement and strategy and thousands of discrete tragedies.  Katniss was a PR symbol; once she has played her part in setting the war in motion, she is grist for its mill like everyone else.   This is the opinion that gets Peeta branded a traitor early in the novel; it is unpalatable but absolutely correct. And there is something powerful about the piercing of the fiction that a single strong, valiant, smart teenager can change the course of bloody, cruel history, just as there was something powerful about telling that tale of individual power to our youth at the very moment in their lives when they are deciding who to be.  But it is a cruel awakening that awaits them when they realize that they can't walk into a war zone and stop genocides with the force of good intentions and a band of loyal friends.

Katniss has to discover how change actually happens, and adulthood comes as a birth into cynicism about utopias and revolutions - the kind of cynicism that should make you a better, more careful citizen, although it is not at all clear that this is the effect it has on her.  (This is also, after all, a tale about the scarring effect that committing violence has on the individual, and on her ability to hope.) I think there is room for both types of tales in my library - the kind that fill you with a sense of your own power and possibility, and the kind that remind you of how very insidious the system is, and how very difficult to resist.

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