Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review Of Divergent

This is so totally about a fight club for kids. Deal with it. What is it with novels like this, in the same vein as Hunger Games, that make the reader so blood-thirsty to watch children fight? I don’t know, but it’s wooooorrrrkkkking! Probably deep inside we all wish we had what it took to take a punch as a kid, and deliver a wallop back. Or maybe we all long to test our mettle against the hard earth or against the deeper scarring scratch-test of human aggression. That question, “Do I have what it takes” doesn’t merely haunt us, but it inspires us to take on new challenges and develop our raw potential. To that end, the author pushes the characters farther than the reader is often willing to go, but it all ends well. Sort of.

Thankfully, this story goes beyond the theme of kids studying to crush a trachea with a single throat-chop. The mental-spiritual survival, and not mere kill-power, of young people is probably closest to the author’s intention in character/plot development. Much in the same way that the kids in the narrative are run through rigorous training and testing to toughen them up physically and mentally, so the reader is sent through the rigors of self-doubt, constantly prodded with internal questions about one’s deepest fears and preparedness for crisis. Roth wrote the book while studying exposure therapy in the treatment of phobias. Figures. In a very real sense, this book is a form of mild exposure therapy, and the case may be made that the protagonists’ drills in fear stamina and resignation to panic may actually help the reader to understand and form new coping mechanisms with their own fears as they ‘witness’ so many other stories about how others overcame their fear. Her material is solid. The Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick by David Carbonell (2004) specifically directs a person to explore their fear, overexpose themselves to it, and ultimately vanquish it by a tactic Roth illustrates in the book time and time again: resigning to, and fully experiencing, the fear episode. It’s counter-intuitive, but—damn it—it works! Provided the fear is confronted in a safe environment, Roth states that the brain can actually ‘re-wire’ itself to disarm the mind’s overreacting fear response. Now that’s a lesson I want my kids to learn.

Imaginative fiction is a gladiatorial arena for fictional personas, and they ‘literarily’ fight to the death of all that is false and evanescent, and what survives is unshakable and can be counted on. The characters are placed in simulated scenarios where their life is threatened, or they lose those they love, or they suffer to the furthest degree of their pain-threshold. The plot oozes with moral themes and practical tools young people can put to immediate use in their lives: Facing your fears, considering your strengths and weaknesses, liking you for you, understanding others’ strengths and weaknesses, facing rejection, asking good questions about motives—why people think and behave differently than you do, and the power of choice in every situation, to name a few. At some point a child is old enough to learn that the baby kitty they dropped off at the animal clinic for peeing all over the house was not being sent to another happy home, but rather, the paper they signed at the time of drop-off was a queue for lethal injections; and it’s at that ripe age (which is NOT my kids’ ages just yet) that parents should seriously consider encouraging their children to read this sort of literature. That is, if you’re running short on pain-and-fear simulators, then this book can function as a mild simulation for youth to see how certain ideas and values play out in fantasy worlds, which, by the way, may not be as far away from our time as we might like to think.

Roth, in the conversation with the author at the back of the Katherine Tegan Books edition, states that she likes her characters to have a quality of ‘agency’—“they take charge of their lives in environments that make it hard for them to do so.” Beatrice, the protagonist in focus, is, according to Roth, “always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior”, much like people in the real world create new possibilities and ‘move the plot along’ in their life story. In his book titled Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, author Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi states something very similar, “Our best moment usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” There’s no room or time to hope things get better…‘better and worse’ are personal decisions we make on how to interpret and experience the impersonal world. It’s an Agent thing.

The religious overtones of the book are especially intriguing. The Abnegation faction has many parallels to religious people (which, for what it’s worth, I think the author happens to be), and this association is pretty much spelled out in a couple of places. Abnegation types are selfless, deeply committed to their values and the perpetuation of those values, and produce people with strong wills, if not a very bright head. Erudite, the intellectual faction, constantly bucks Abnegation’s mindless acceptance of traditional values (Roth was also studying the fascinating and deeply disturbing Milgram Experiment, and tendencies towards austerity and self-debasement which they force on society at the cost of comfort and prosperity. This sets up the inevitable conflict between factions which makes for a nice ramp-up in the last quarter of the book.

The message is solid: no one can make you into something they want you to be. Labels don’t define you. You are free to choose. And you don’t have to choose between honesty, selflessness, peace, intelligence or bravery. Be them all in the best way you can. It was perfectly stated by Four—one of the characters Roth admits is one of her most 3-dimensional and relatable, and one you can imagine being friends with outside of the book—“‘I think we’ve made a mistake,’ he said. ‘We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that. I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.’” This sentiment, of how to live beyond labels, will ultimately, I assume, come to a head in the other books in the form of a courage to endure living factionless, and, consequently, often alone. Sometimes the high value placed on community requires one to deny and live apart from a community, so-called, that is destructive or suppressive of the lives and desires of its constituents. Tris’ words near the end closes this part of the series nicely and lifts our expectations to a more advanced revolt in her future against communal conformity, “I am no longer Tris, the selfless; or Tris, the brave. I suppose that now, I must become more than either.” Good form!

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