- O’Brian, George Orwell’s 1884
I wrote this piece a couple months ago, but I didn’t want to publish it because of reasons. Anyway, I just found it on my laptop, so here is my review/social commentary (?) on John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
In recent weeks, the must-have accessory at my high school has not been the new Coach bag or the latest color of Toms or even the gorgeous scarves the Community Action Club is selling to help build a well in India, but a book: blue cover, chalked out lettering, goes well with every outfit. If you do not have your finger on the pulse of high school fashion, I am of course talking about John Green’s latest and greatest novel, The Fault in Our Stars.
To briefly recap, the book stars Hazel, a sixteen year old girl diagnosed with terminal lung cancer whose tumors have briefly stopped growing thanks to a new wonderdrug, giving her a few extra years of stolen time.She is morose and morbid and bitingly funny, which of course garner her the love and affection of fellow cancer victim, Augustus.They are both obsessed with a fictional book detailing the life of another young cancer-stricken girl named Anna and ends mid-sentence, leaving the two wondering what happened.They end up meeting the reclusive author, who is, surprise surprise, a complete dick who had a daughter die of cancer.Everything he says is an allegory for the characters struggles, of course.I don’t really want to give away anything more, but by the end of the novel the characters are able to face their difficulties with a newfound sense of hope.
However, all the book really leaves me with is a faint bad taste in my mouth and about a million quotes I can superimpose over my latest instagram shot so I can prove to all my tumblr followers (shout out to the eight of you) how totally genius and profound I am. John Green is a master at creating characters that are more interesting versions of the people we are or the people we want to be.Hazel and Augustus are smart, funny, well-read, and have the kind of sweet, awkward love story I dream about.The rest of the book, however, falls into cliché and the worst kind of emotional manipulation.The book tries so hard to be deep and meaningful and funny that the incredibly crafted characters cannot actually tell a story with any true profundity.
In the end, the book is more a representation of its readers than anything else.My classmates carry it around as if it were a badge of nerdy honor.It is the anti-Coach bag, a symbol of the non-cool that is the new cool.To them, it shows that they are offbeat and different; they are trying so hard to be uncool that it makes them cool because they so obviously don’t care what others think. The book has come to represent a movement of false worldliness and the beauty of outcasts that I simply cannot stand.
The reason being is that the kids who carry around The Fault in Our Stars are not really outcasts at all, simply people who are trying to look like they are.
Ten years ago, trying to be an outcast would have been unheard of, but with the rise of nerd culture, outcast is the new jock.With everything from The Big Bang Theory to the Star Trek reboot to Style Rookie telling us that it’s okay to be weird, America has embraced its nerdy side and flown its freak flag.
Don’t I wish.What’s really happened is that certain facets of nerd society have become cool.For example, watching the Big Bang Theory is normal, but actually being like one of the guys on the show? Still socially unacceptable.Watching the latest Harry Potter movie when it came out at midnight, cool.Dressing up as characters with a group of your friends, still pretty cool.Going dressed as Ginny accompanied by your father dressed as Dumbledore, totally weird.
It’s a fine line between nerdy-cool and just nerdy and John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, walks it with aplomb.His references are just obscure enough to make his readers feel superiorly smart for knowing them, but aren’t really anything beyond what you would have read in your high school English class.(Great Gatsby, anyone?)What John Green has really done is created a group of people who feel that because they like Harry Potter and occasionally write poetry, they are smarter than the rest of us, and must therefore break off into groups, identifiable by their Pizza John shirts and copies of Chameleon Circuit albums and talk about profound matters and video games.They can’t have cool friends because being an outcast is how all the smart kids who grow up to be writers spend their high school years.They also can’t be seen with the real nerds: the kids who come to school wearing Captain America t-shirts and can name every element on the periodic table.
In fact, using youtube, they have managed to create their own pop culture bubble.With the rise of Charlie McDonnel and Alex Day, along with others, the Green Empire extends now past his novels and those he recommends to the ears of his fans.Now to be a nerdfighter, you must not only do all of the above but also listen to and enjoy all these British boys singing about Doctor Who and super-experimental eps that belong more in an arthouse than on a teenager’s ipod.That too allows nerdfighters to bask in the sense of superiority that is theirs by default as the are obviously the only teenagers mature enough to understand that Kim Kardashian is stupid.
The club has gotten so exclusive that it has created its own language, its own inside jokes, its own clothes, its own conference.If I said DFTBA anyone but a nerd fighter, they would look at me like I was crazy.Same goes for trying to bring up giraffe sex in conversation, or wearing a Pizza John shirt to school.But for nerdfighters, these are markers of someone in their tribe.They serve both to recognize members of the same tribe and alienate those unworthy of being nerdfighters.
John Green once said that he liked being a nerd because “nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.” And I completely agree with him.Yet the culture that John Green is at the head of is one that believes that being a nerd applies only to John Green-related things.Being really enthusiastic about anything else is simply weird.
The purpose of creating the nerdfighter community is that it would be an all-inclusive place where people would be accepting; to create an online escape where people could nerd out without being judged.Yet, as it has grown, it followed the path of every high school clique.You have the queen bee: John Green and his brother Hank.You have the inner crowd:Chameleon Circuit, Wheezy Waiter, Michael Aranda, and a few more youtube celebrities.Then the minions: those fans who watch and comment on every video, have bought 2-D glasses, and own every single one of John’s books.Yet even beyond that are the outcasts.The nerds who are nerds in the wrong way.
Nerds in the wrong way? According to John Green, this is not possible.According to his followers, it is.There are the nerds who read too much and are more fascinated by Tolstoy than John Green novels.There are the nerds who love superhero comics and the fanfiction they inspire.There are the nerds who can talk about American history for hours, the nerds who love old cinema, the star trek nerds, the nerds who know the 800th digit of pi.
Being a nerd, to me, is about liking things that you know are unpopular, or at least not mainstream, and standing up and saying you like them anyway.Nerdfighters are fans, nothing more, nothing less.There’s nothing wrong with liking John Green and his brethren, even if I do find his books a little too manic pixie dream girl.What is wrong is co-opting the weird and the nerd.
In the end, all nerdfighteria has done is create yet another clique true nerds don’t belong in and while I admire the Green dream, I can’t help but hate the results.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead (1862)
- Edith Wharton, House of Mirth
Lolita by Vladmir Nabakov
God, where do I even begin with this novel? The language is so absolutely, gorgeously, tragically beautiful that it makes me want to cry. Every word in the novel was chosen and each has double, if not triple or quadruple, meaning, leading the reader down a meandering and illusory path through the disturbing events of the book. The language saves the plot; his gift for words makes Humbert almost sympathetic at times, something that, beginning the book, I would never have thought possible.
The story in and of itself is horrific, comprising of pedophilia, rape, and murder. Like most other readers, there were times that I had to put the book down just to process the absolute awfulness of what I had just read. It is the story of a young girl’s childhood being stolen, and with it her sense of self. Yet, there were also times I had to put the book down as a result of the beauty of a passage or Nabakov’s genius with a metaphor. One in particular that I liked was his reference to the Poe poem Annabel Lee. If you read Lolita, I urge you to read the poem beforehand, you’ll know why within the first few chapters.
Nabakov once said that language can elevate anything to the level of high art (or something to that effect), and Lolita is exactly that: horrendous events elevated to the level of high art by the beauty of language. The novel reads as a true representation of the way memory works; Humbert plays with his readers and is a trickily unfaithful narrator. He uses every word and device and delusion in his arsenal to draw the reader’s sympathy towards him and sometimes I found it working. This in and of itself is a representation of the way those in the novel see Humbert: sympathetic and likable simply due to his cultured and handsome facade.
All in all, I found this book to be an incredible masterpiece of the English language, both in its characters and in its use of words, for better or for worse.
- Masha Pessel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
The Last Samurai Helen DeWitt
I actually finished this book about a month ago, so apologies if this review isn’t up to snuff.
I absolutely adored this book. It was more than 500 pages, but it felt so much shorter and when it ended I just wanted it to continue. It’s the type of book that once you start, you have to bring it everywhere and you take it out even if you have just a minute. I would read it while walking to class—and occasionally while in class (sorry Mark!)—while waiting for the train, while curled into odd positions on my couch (random side-note: have you ever noticed how it’s much more comfortable to read contorted into positions that most olympic gymnasts would be jealous of?).
The premise of the novel is simple: a prodigy grows up in London without a father, raised by his extremely intelligent mother and a video tape of the film The Seven Samurai. The book alternates views between the mother’s diary and the son’s. The mother, Sybilla, is an ex-Oxfordian linguaphile (a word I think I just made up). This leads to some incredible discussions of and revelations about language and the nature of words. I wrote a post about it a while back which you can find here. Suffice to say I can now read Ancient Greek (not understand it, but at least read it aloud. It’s a good party trick)
So on to the other themes of the novel, namely that of creating one’s own identity and how family and upbringing come into that. Growing up, I didn’t see my parents, especially my mother, all that much (call it poor little rich girl syndrome), and I definitely connect with the search for a more perfect person to call your parent. The ones you have are flawed and far too human and thus you can reject them as your own and find someone better. For me, this was my high school Literature teachers, who I adopted as my mothers. There is a tragedy in loneliness, especially the loneliness one feels tugging at one’s heart where comforting words and idolatry and daily reminders of love belong. Ludo’s search, though taken to great lengths, is one that is recognizable to anyone who has ever seen a parent’s mistakes.
These themes are only two of many; they are simply the themes I connected to most. The book is also a discussion on the nature of genius, the usefulness of academia and the current education system, and the human condition, just to name a few. It is also incredibly well wrought with characters that seem both real and essentially human.
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict…
I’m currently reading Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai and it’s making me feel the constraints of the English language as I never have before. There is so much writing in the world to be explored, so many stories to be told, so many beautiful poems and incredible characters and heart-wrenching works of genius that I, as someone who only speaks English and a little bit of French and Mandarin, may never get to read; if I do read them, it will be in translation and the beauty of the work may be lost. I can’t help but think that the best piece of writing in the world is in some other language, Portugese maybe, or Indonesian or Icelandic, and that no matter how good the translation, I will never get to read those words as they are meant to be read. I feel like I am missing out on some necessary human experience by only speaking English, and that thought makes me unbearably sad.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics —Marsha Pessl
I really liked this book. It followed Blue Van Meer, genius and obsessive annotator, through her senior year at high school. I loved Blue and her father; both characters were extremely well drawn and the type of people you long to meet in real life. Compared to their sharp and exact boundaries, however, the rest of the characters faded into obscurity. I couldn’t understand why Blue had any desire to join the Bluebloods or become best friends with Jade. I also didn’t enjoy how most of the action happened in the last ten percent of the book, introducing mysteries and clues only within the last couple chapters. I would recommend this book though. It’s acerbic and somewhat cynical and a poignant look at high school, learning, language, and life.
- Haruki Murakami (via philphys)
Threats —Amelia Gray
This book was definitely up there on the odd and literary lists. It was an incredible depiction of the madness that surrounds us and how it impacts us. It wasn’t an easy read, but it was a compelling one. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book; you have to read it with a certain state of mind and openness, but if you can do so, the book is rewarding. It’s a hard book to talk about as the topics it brings up (madness, memory, threats) are so personal and so precarious. Also, the author’s creativity with the titular threats is somewhat frightening. Example: “Curl up in my lap. Let me brush your hair with my fingers. I am singing you a lullaby. I am testing for structural weakness in your skull.” See? Supremely creepy.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This book was intriguing. I can’t really say whether I liked it or not, but it was interesting. The ideas expressed, that you can’t know someone based on the superficial contours of their life, the wiggliness of time, the placement of blame, were all handled beautifully. This was a work of literature, not a book. It’s the type of novel you finish and you immediately want to go discuss it with someone else.