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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2 Responses so far.

  1. RAK says:

    " 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"

    Isn't that the point of the ending, because is that not how one would feel after a civil war?

  2. Right: I agree. That's exactly the point I was leading up to in the next paragraph, in fact.

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