At a recent writing session, I heard about a new publishing house that was looking for female authors writing about female protagonists with an emphasis on YA novels.
I immediately started brainstorming my pitch.
But the fact is, I’m sadly out of touch with YA fiction, aside from vaguely remembered paperbacks from my tweens and the obligatory Harry Potter novels I swallowed whole after moving solo to Denver in my early twenties.
Like all good writers, I decided the first step was a little research. A trip to Waterstone’s in London’s Piccadilly Circus (one of my favourite hangouts) revealed a mind-numbing selection sprawled across an entire floor.
Where to start?
Handily, a table at the top of the stairs contained multiple copies of John Green’s Paper Towns. I was vaguely aware of him as a New York Times best-selling author, but I’d never gotten around to reading any of his work.
I took the easiest answer as the correct one and ended up with three John Green novels from the library: Looking for Alaska, The Abundance of Katherines and The Fault in Our Stars. All of them were charming, surprising and moving. I’m now a huge fan of John Green for the following reasons:
He is a) nerd-level smart, b) able to incorporate philosophy and absurdities into the same sentence, c) willing to take on BIG themes and d) really fucking funny. There are so many times throughout the book when I burst out laughing – loudly and almost always, embarrassingly, in front of strangers.
And with that, let’s dive into…
The Fault in Our Stars
Our protagonist is Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 13. Thanks to an experimental drug, the tumors shrank, but left her with ‘lungs that suck at being lungs’. And her case is terminal. It’s only a matter of time before she leaves her loved ones behind.
She imagines herself like a grenade, set to explode without warning, and she wants to minimise the damage she inflicts when she goes. To that end, she contents herself with staying in, watching bad TV with her parents and reading everything she can get her hands on.
But at the cancer support group her mom forces her to attend, she meets a boy.
Augustus Waters is a 17-year-old cancer survivor whose brush with death left him with an amputated leg and a determination to live life with wonder and appreciation and love deeply. He’s charismatic, witty and loves a metaphor. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also gorgeous.
Augustus shares with the group that his greatest fear is oblivion. Hazel’s response is to point out the inevitability of death and the forgetfulness of time. We will every last one of us end in oblivion. Her advice: ignore the gnawing fear.
How can you be anything but smitten?
There are two lovely passages in the book that tease out Augustus’s fear further. The first comes when Augustus, as Max Mayhem in the video game The Price of Dawn, heroically throws himself on a grenade to save a group of school children.
A throaty voice said, “MISSION FAILURE,” but Augustus seemed to think otherwise as he smiled at his remnants on the screen. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, and shoved it between his teeth. ‘Saved the kids,’ he said.
‘Temporarily,’ I pointed out.
‘All salvation is temporary,’ Augustus shot back. ‘I bought them a minute. Maybe that’s the minute that buys them an hour, which is the hour that buys them a year. No one’s gonna buy them forever, Hazel Grace, but my life bought them a minute. And that’s not nothing.’
He continues the thread a little later in the book:
‘I fear oblivion…that I won’t be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good, you know? And I fear that I won’t get either a life or a death that means anything.’
The two are drawn together, and part of their bond is over Hazel’s favourite book. This book, narrated by a young girl with cancer, ends mid-sentence, presumably with the narrator’s death. But neither Hazel nor Augustus are willing to let the author off the hook with this literary gesture.
As they seek answers to how the story ends, their journey takes them through an emotional landscape of love and loss, with a side trip to Amsterdam.
However the author, when they find him, doesn’t provide easy answers. But he is damn eloquent. Here’s an example:
‘Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip?
Of course, like all interrogations of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether – to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile – there is a point to it all. I fear there is not, my friend, and that you would receive scant encouragement from further encounters with my writing.’
‘Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” Easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found among our stars.’
One of the things that stands out to me in all of Green’s books is how sarcastic his characters are. They’re all dealing with death, whether that’s the death of a friend, a relationship or the realisation of their own demise.
But why does facing death bring out this impulse so strongly?
John Haiman in Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language says that sarcasm is ‘overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression’. And William Brant in his Critique of Sarcastic Reason discusses the prevalence of sarcasm in teenagers as they try to work out truth and push the boundaries of what is considered polite.
But it is Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose description of sarcasm resonates most, especially in the context of this story. In Notes from Underground, he said that sarcasm is:
‘…usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.’
All three share the sentiment that sarcasm acts as a defense against the senselessness of life and helps provide the distance we need to protect ourselves in the face of inevitability.
No spoilers, but I will say that both stories, the fiction they chase and their real-life love affair, contain a surprise ending that subtly shifts the meaning of everything that has come before.
I’ll end with a final quote from the author I’ve grown to admire over these three books:
‘Sometimes it seems the universe wants to be noticed. That’s what I believe. I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it – or my observation of it – is temporary.’
[image from Unsplash]