Monday, February 17, 2014

Uncooked Thoughts On (Half) The Hunger Games

I'm just getting around to reading The Hunger Games. I know, I know what you're thinking: if you're going to read a book like that, why not read it when eight zillion other people are reading it? Why wait?

I don't have an answer. All I can say is: I seemed to always have something else to read. I'm still in the middle of book 2 -- so these thoughts are raw, and they're only on half the trilogy.

You probably know the basic story. It's a dystopian future; every year the powers-that-be run the Hunger Games, in which teenagers have to fight to the death -- partly as an expression of political power, partly as reality-TV-to-the-max; we follow the story of Katniss, a tough, fatherless, no-nonsense girl from a poor part of a poor district who hunts illegally to help feed her sister and mom.

These thoughts aren't about the political aspects of the book -- interesting as those are -- but more about the personal aspects. The Katniss aspects.

One thing about the story I think is really good is the depiction of living under the gaze of public opinion. In the story, this aspect of life is carried to an extreme, because in The Games, public opinion can make or break you. In The Games, if you appeal to people they'll donate or sponsor you, providing you with medicine or food you need to live. Katniss ends up having to present particular narratives not of her own choosing -- a romance narrative, a personality narrative, an emotional narrative -- just in order to survive.

This seems to me an interestingly exaggerated form of something absolutely characteristic of human life. Because we all make decisions with an audience of public opinion. Its easy to think of this as a particularly modern problem -- with social media and all -- but I think it's just that form that is particularly modern. Really, people have always had massive and intense opinions about how other people live, and just like Katniss we are living among those opinions the way we live among air and water.

One of the things I thought was really perceptive about the way Katniss has to construct her public identity is that her public identity is not necessarily opposed, or even really distinct from, her own identity. It's more subtle that that.

A cruder novelistic investigation into this issue would present the-true-Katniss, and then the-fake-Katniss, using interior thoughts to show us the difference and opposing them in stark contrast.

But what these books do is more subtle. As you maybe know, Katniss has to play up and often simply fake her romantic feelings for her fellow Games participant Peeta to engage her public in the right way. But instead of the cruder version, which might be along the lines of "I don't love Peeta and I have to pretend to love him and that's an awful trade-off" Katniss often says she isn't sure how she feels, that sometimes it's real and sometimes it's fake and sometimes she can't really tell the difference herself.

I thought that was smart. Because isn't life sometimes like that? If not about romance, then about other things? You make these choices, about your career or how many kids to have or where to live or whatever and you're making them for yourself but you're also making them in the context of a social world -- and who really knows the degree to which those things feel right because they feel right in context or because they reflect some true inner self. It's not like the two things are really separate.

A second thing I was struck by, though, is that when it comes to one of the central conflicts of many people's lives -- people young and old, and especially girls and women -- the story kind of avoids the whole thing and evaporates the issue. I'm talking about appearance.

Having grown up often not having enough to eat, Katniss is quite thin. It's a ritual for The Games participants to be fed the most luxurious foods in the few days preceding competition ... and of course it's in Katniss's interest to put on a few pounds. So Katniss prepares for being in the public eye by sensibly stuffing herself full of food and sweets. It makes sense in context, I just thought it was an interesting choice, given that in 21st century North America this is the complete opposite of what most girls and women would be doing to get ready to have the eyes of the world upon them.

It's also worth noting the way most of Katniss's decisions about her appearance are made for her. Again, it makes sense in context: Games participants have teams of handlers who make every decision: what to wax, how to do the nails, what to wear, what hairstyle to have. Again though, I thought it striking that decisions many of us would be agonizing over -- how to dress for just the right form of necessary feminine attractiveness and also for essential freedom of movement -- aren't even things Katniss has to think about.

One last thing: sex. WTF? How can a book have multiple scenes in which two teenagers sleep all night in the same bed together and this is not an issue? If you interpret the book literally, they're not having sex (so far, anyway). How can their not having sex not be an issue in some way for either of them? Am I being naive? Is there metaphorical sex happening? Are we supposed to interpret the kisses and "time alone," as sex, as we might do appropriately do when encountering novels from past centuries? I don't think so, for various reasons. But isn't this weird?

OK, I'm getting back to reading. And no, I'm not planning to see the movies. Are you kidding me?

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