Death and taxes come for us all. Easy enough to grasp, handled in other books I’ve looked at like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and The Giver, but not with slow deliberation. The kids in Fault in Our Stars by John Green know death is on the way and wait for it, giving themselves over to love and adventure before their time is done. Too bad they’re asshole teenagers being handled by an author more interested in structure and reference than characters.
The story handles the love affair of Hazel and Augustus, two kids who meet in a support group for cancer survivors. Told from the snarky point of view of Hazel, we get an inside look on how someone with their whole life ahead of them deals with the fact that their life will be short and painful. At times very moving, the story is cut with the usual young adult fair of boning and parental angst. Because as the bards Smith and Jazzy once said, parents just don’t understand.
While not presently on any list for books banned or censored, the Fault in Our Stars was ironically removed from a school reading list during the 2014 Banned Books Week. As the book deals with death, depression, sexy times, and foul language, some parents thought it was inappropriate. If I remember correctly, Green responded by applauding the community for embracing and/or discovering immortality, a funny and interesting way to approach the subject.
This is the part where I get all literary critical, feel free to skip or go to the podcast to learn more in a more conversational and disjointed way.
While generally well-received (they made a movie, you guys, and people cried), this reviewer has some issue with how the book is written. Green is a fantastic writer, able to get in the heads of asshole teenagers, make them expressive and interesting. The problem comes with the manipulation of the reader with the structure and references available. All writing is manipulation, bar none, to make the reader understand and feel what the writer wants you to understand and feel whether he or she is selling you cancer kid love or a brand new car. Green uses classic techniques for audience manipulation including the “Save the Cat” moment and an reference to Anne Frank, both of which are blatant and unwarranted.
For those of you not aware of screenwriting techniques, “Save the Cat” (coined by Blake Snyder in his book) is a moment early in a story (mostly film screenplays) where the writer puts in a scene to make his or her protagonist look good to the audience. The scene often has little to do with the story, inserted only for this purpose. For the first couple dozen pages or so of Fault in Our Stars, Hazel is the typical asshole snarky teenager, so Green slips in a scene in a mall where Hazel and a little girl get really cute and explain lung problems and how oxygen tanks work before the girl’s mom drags her away. This scene informs the reader that Hazel is nice to curious girls, and mothers of curious girls (and by extension, the world) see Hazel as an Unclean. Thus, the audience feels bad for Hazel and roots for her. Neither the little girl nor the mother ever come back to the story, and that’s fine because they served their purpose.
Besides serving as shorthand for “hey, this kid ain’t so bad after all,” the scene lets us in on the calculated nature of the book. No other character but Hazel from the narrative is here, it’s a down moment in the action of the story, and if you removed it you only take out a small bit of Hazel’s character development, so clearly this scene was designed to manipulate you with character development. And that’s fine. As I said, this is a technique used all the time in books and movies to great effect. Using it only shows that the author has set out deliberately on the telling of the story, probably from outline or in editing, not organically growing the plot and allowing it to follow his characters. Both methods are valid and based on the author’s strengths and the story’s needs.
What this deliberation of writing does tell us, however, is that the rest of the book has had at least that much time, thought, and energy put in it, which brings us to Anne Frank. Later in the book, Hazel and Augustus get to meet a hero of theirs in Amsterdam, he disappoints them, and they go to the Anne Frank house and kiss for the first time to applause. The only reason for this scene’s setting is so Green can get a comparison to Anne Frank and his protagonist and by extension cancer survivors and Holocaust survivors, a gross and somewhat exploitative take on a sensitive subject.
We know that by analyzing the previous “Save the Cat” scene that Green has been deliberate with how this story has developed. He chose to have Hazel and Augustus enamored with a fake author and to have the character of the author live in Amsterdam. That gets the lovers to Amsterdam, where they can then go to the house where five people hid out from Nazis for almost two years before being found and all but one of them murdered along with six million other souls. The fake author could have lived anywhere on the planet, but Green chose Amsterdam so he could have them in the Frank house for the kissing scene. No other reason exists other than the random happenstance that Green visited Amsterdam, thought it was lovely, wanted to write about it, and then threw in the kissing scene in the Frank house because he ran out of Amersterdamian locations, a reason that would be both a disservice to Green as a writer and flat out ridiculous to anyone with a thinking brain who has read more than one novel.
The worst part about this reference to Anne Frank? It almost works until you think about it. Anne Frank’s diary is a proto-YA novel, written from the point of view of a young girl in an extraordinary situation dealing with ordinary problems, i.e. her period, her parents, the boy she likes, etc. She is also doomed by circumstance, just like Hazel, Green’s protagonist. Before you begin Anne Frank’s diary you have an idea that she died in the Holocaust and that’s why the diary is important. From the outset of Fault in Our Stars, you know Hazel is dying of cancer and that’s why we should listen to her story. Both protagonists are facing tremendous odds with humor and well-written prose, facing their dire circumstance and living their lives the best way they know how. In a way, Hazel is an extension of Anne, living out the romance and getting the passionate kiss and going home, even if going home means dealing with tragedy but still living the life outside in the world that Anne did not get. They are admirable people in extreme circumstance.
But one of them is not real. Hazel is a creation of a Green, a brilliant, white male writer living in modern United States with the gift of hindsight. Anne was simply Anne, a genuine fourteen-year-old Jewish girl living in a kind of hell where she could die at any moment at the hands of people, not a random chance disease, and writing in her diary her thoughts and feelings even after she knew it might find its way into the world. And that’s where the comparison falls apart. Treating Anne Frank as a fictional character, her house where she lived as a setting to stage a kiss between two doomed lovers, is a disservice to her memory. It turns that memorial for sacrifice and gross human cruelty into the top of the Empire State Building at the end of Sleepless in Seattle, a place for love’s chance rather than a quiet center of the horrific misdeeds of a species and the wonder of the human spirit.
Had Green centered the comparison in the novel, had Anne’s diary and struggle be the heart of Fault in Our Stars rather than a fictional narrative and author he made up, then I may have a different take on the matter and it would have been a different book. Hazel, comparing herself organically with Anne I could have stood, a fictional character attempting to make sense of her situation by holding on to someone she felt a kinship toward, someone close to her situation but different. She does this, but with another fiction, another device that the reader does not have a connection to. Green left Anne’s story alone in one scene, and all I am left with is the text of Fault in Our Stars and one scene that causes me unease within what otherwise is a well crafted story.
There’s a further argument about the comparison to the systematic cruelty of humanity versus the random curse of nature that is cancer, but I do not have it in me to go that deep. I just don’t have the knowledge or the philosophical means to try and force a perspective on two subjects that at their core are horrible for the human condition but could not be more different in their modes of attack. Death and dying are final enough without bringing Anne and Hazel down that road any further.