Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars is John Green at his absolute best (which is how he is, like, always).  It is electric and touching and deep and thoughtful and funny and true.  It is what writing has the potential to be and what readers like me are hoping to find every time we crack the spine on a new novel.  The novel follows 16 year old Hazel, a girl diagnosed with terminal cancer that is being kept at bay through a radical (unfortunately, fictional) drug and requires her to lug around an oxygen tank because her "lungs don't know how to be lungs."  Attending a support group, she meets 17 year old Augustus Waters, who is recovering from bone cancer and is an amputee as a result of it. 

I know what you're thinking: Gee, Lagerfeld, this sounds like a hoot and a holler of a good time! Believe me when I say that even though you know you will go into the novel and most definitely cry, the tears are sweet and cathartic because they come from that place in all of us that is moved by the spirit in all things, great and small.  

There is something you have to know about me: I'm like, super into the Romantic sublime.  Reading this book was, for me, a sublime experience.  John Green's writing skill is unparalleled.  He is able to take this material (two young kids with cancer!) and make it funny and touching without being overly sentimental and maudlin.  He doesn't resort to easy outs, or the stereotypical depictions of the person with terminal cancer in their last days, and indeed, he sends up those very conventions.  At one time or another, all of us, have been kept awake by the churning of our minds trying to grapple with our own mortality - the finality of it all, the great unknowingness that lies beyond what our senses can apprehend, the totality of the one certainty we know - that we will die and that there is nothing to prepare us for how we handle those last moments before the great unknown.  What allows us to go about our mundane (and thrillingly so!) existences is that for most of us, death is an abstraction.

This book talks about what happens when death isn't such an abstraction any more.  When your cells, when what makes you, you goes into overdrive.  When that basic drive to just make it in a workaday world, when taken up by your own cellular material, gets ratcheted up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  How can you hate your cancer?  How do teenagers,  at that very moment in life when your own mortality is never more abstract, deal with their own impending end?  How do you reconcile the futility of existence?  How do you shout into the eternal void?  How do you cope with the crushing loneliness of knowing that shout is never heard?

These existential questions are in the book, all wrapped up in teenage (sometimes gallows) humour, lovable characters, and a story that simultaneously references Anne Frank, German philosophy, and all sorts of other thought-provoking material that sets of sparks of ideas and deep thoughts.  You can't really see the entire picture until you step back from the book and think about what John Green is really trying to say.  And what he is trying to say is big, and beautiful, and comforting even in its sadness.  He is a brilliant, brilliant author and I wish that every book was as enjoyable a read, and as intellectually satisfying a read, and as emotionally resonating a read, as this one was.

Here's where the Romantic sublime comes in.  Wordsworth, Shelley, and all those foppish Brits mooning about the countryside were so taken by nature that they existed in this kind of stunned awe when faced with nature's totality.  We can't really comprehend the enormity of glaciers, wind, the oceans, or mountains.  But in trying to do so, when we miserable cretins put our limited faculties at the task and try, the limits of our capacity to understand boomerang back on us and reaffirm the glory of humanity.  The fact that we cannot but yet we still try - reaching and reaching and reaching until we hit that invisible point at which we can go no further, but oh the glory of the attempt!  That is the Romantic sublime.  It is a metaphor for existential crises that has sustained and nourished me - that captured my imagination lo many years ago when I took a course on the Romantics in undergrad.  

The Fault in Our Stars is a book that speaks to the sublime.  The sublime of human existence, of mortality, of the great shout into the void.

Read it.  I defy you not to love it.

I feel like talking about 50/50 in this same post, cheapens The Fault in Our Stars.  I'll save that for tomorrow.


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