Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

(Warning: If you haven’t read “The Fault In Our Stars” or seen the movie, there are spoilers.)

We are all going to die. How’s that for a spoiler?

John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars” makes this very clear from the first page. The book’s narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager in Indianapolis, Ind., is suffering from depression due to her repeated contemplation of death. That wouldn’t be particularly out of character for any American teenager, but Hazel Grace has an excuse – she has terminal cancer. The only thing holding it tenuously in check is a drug whose effects over the long term are uncertain. 

In the course of going to a cancer support group at a nearby church, Hazel Grace meets Augustus Waters, another teenage cancer victim who is immediately smitten with her. Through the story that follows, the two discover how to care about each other despite the mounting obstacles that disease and doubt throw at them. 

“The Fault In Our Stars,” of course, takes its title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Cassius laments the fact to Brutus that, though they both seem fated to be slaves to Caesar, they themselves are to blame. This reference is one of several namechecks that Green employs to boost the philosophical heft of his story. At first blush, it is not possible that two cancer victims could be responsible for their fate. The disease, and so, we are led to believe, the universe, does not care who lives and who dies. But death is not the issue here. It is how our characters meet death, and life. 

As has been observed this week with the premiere of the film based on the novel, “Fault” is the latest in a number of works catering to the “young adult” reading market. It is in our teens when the burden of existence hits us with its most vehement force. We suddenly find ourselves thrust, in some aspects unprepared, into making choices between our happiness and others’, having to do without, perceiving the inequalities of life, and we are struck by the colossal, inescapable unfairness of it all. Our inadequacies and our urges impose themselves with soul-crushing ferocity. Some do not survive the impact. These first stirrings, we perceive, point to a hole within us that must be filled, and refilled, we think, for as long as we breathe. And so, we begin to make choices. Hazel later tells us that people often don’t understand the choices they’re making.

One of the great early realizations of my life came when a child my age died. Suddenly, I understood that it wasn’t just something that happened when you’re older. It could happen to me. And so, for years afterward, I would pray myself to sleep, pleading with God to let me at least live through the night. I didn’t want my parents to suffer my leaving them. And even though I believed in a heaven and eternal peace, I wanted no  part of it just yet. I wanted to live.

Hazel, however, does not believe. She later admits that she sees a belief in heaven as “a kind of intellectual disengagement.” Forever, she tells Augustus, is “an incorrect concept.” But the novel opens in a church, with a support group that Hazel tells us is “depressing as hell.” The group is led by a testicular cancer survivor who reminds them each week that they are meeting “in the Literal Heart of Jesus.”  Make of this what you will – at first, the leader Patrick seems easily dismissible comic relief peddling the lame consolations of the church. These show up later in the encouragements that decorate Augustus’ home – hung on the walls by his parents to keep their spirits up. “True Love is Born from Hard Times.”  

This is a recurring motif of the story, that “Fault” will be different from the usual life-affirming fictions we turn to about cancer patients fighting the disease with dignity and courage. What we will see is honesty, not sugarcoated inspiration.  But the more I thought about the story, the more I realized: Where else would the characters be but the Literal Heart of Jesus? And though we may feel encouraged to laugh with the angry, borrowed cynicism of a teen at an emasculated worship leader repeating easy catchphrases, but we are dismissing another victim, not only of cancer, but existence. And we are all, in some sense, victims of existence. A young person with cancer is only able to live day to day, but aren’t we all just doing the same? To paraphrase Philip Roth, life isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.

Augustus lets us know from the beginning that he expects his life to be extraordinary. He confides to the group that his greatest fear is oblivion. It is his belief in a life beyond this one that makes him anticipate a purpose. “I was supposed to be special,” Augustus says when his cancer reoccurs, and he feels cheated when it seems he will be denied everything he has hoped for.

One can take the spiritual metaphors a step further. For example, cancer as sin. Augustus is killed by a cancer, which is in fact, himself. The cancer grows and cannot be escaped. “The Fault In Our Stars,” it seems, is that there is a fault after all. But this story isn’t interested in a cure as much as a diagnosis of the depression known to the sick and the whole. Augustus seems the step-child of the two philosophers Green mentions. He shares Kierkegaard’s love of metaphor and is his own individual. Though he has faith in his own personal immortality, he has been through enough to intimately understand doubt. Like Martin Heidegger, he has accepted the inevitability of death but knows the difference between what we think we know about life and what we understand through experience. It’s not necessary that the reader know these things, but Green keeps pointing them out, along with the gentle nudges in the direction of existentialism, such as a reference to “Waiting for Godot.” He wants this story to be more than what it appears on the surface.

And so we have just the sort of scenario ripe for teen ridicule – a couple of doomed lovers fated to die young, finding in their brief time together that one eternal truth the movies and pop music taught us – that through love they can briefly touch immortality and find peace. But just a second. Didn’t we start off talking about death? So we did.

Over the novel’s course, we understand that both Augustus and Hazel have a short time left on earth. And tucked into “Fault” is a devilishly post-modern device – a parable on the roles of the reader and the author. Grace begins her association with Augustus by recommending her favorite book “An Imperial Affliction,” by Peter Van Houten. We learn a few details about the story and the author through their conversation. The novel’s protagonist is a young girl dying of cancer. The book ends in mid-sentence, to mimic, we suppose, the interruption of life by death. The author is now a recluse living in Amsterdam. But Hazel Grace wonders what happened to the characters once the book is done, and would like to know before she dies. Augustus sets the plot in motion by eventually bringing her face to face with the author.

Do the characters in a book die when the book is over? We presume our fictional worlds go on, just as life on earth continues without us. But if we were to meet the author of our story, what would we ask him? That’s why one can look at Hazel and Augustus’ trip as a journey to meet God. They fly through the clouds to encounter the elusive man who gave them a kind of wisdom, the man who lives in a libertine city and set in motion the universe within the book they adore. And of course, he has no answers to give them, displays indifference to their pain, and ridicule for their condition. (Your mind can’t resist the connection when you see Willem Dafoe playing Van Houten, since one of DaFoe’s most notorious roles was that of Jesus.)

They instead move on to the home of another author, Anne Frank. Hazel, with weakened lungs and uncertain stamina, climbs the endless sets of stairs in the Frank house to get to a hiding place, one of the world’s most famous, where a little girl was able to transcend her own life by transferring it to the pages of a book. We can protest that Anne’s story itself is often lost in sentimentality, her humanity scrubbed clean by our need for a pure heroine, where we even divorce the triumph of her optimism from the reality of her death in a Nazi concentration camp.  But Anne still endures, partly through our devotion as readers and partly through the belief that she still has something to teach us.

A few moments stand out as we move to the story’s close. Like their earlier association with “An Imperial Affliction,” both Augustus and Hazel live beyond their lifetimes. Augustus gets to hear Hazel give a eulogy for him, and he leaves her a eulogy through an e-mail to Van Houten. After Augustus’ death, Van Houten reappears, to reveal that his alcoholism and anger come from the loss of his own daughter. The author called our young heroes “side effects of an evolutionary process that cares little for individuals,” but he told his dying child they would be reunited in heaven. Even God must deal with the loss of his child.  

Hazel perceives in herself, following a conversation with her father, that she has come to terms with some belief in eternity. When he tells her that the universe deserves to be noticed, she later says that we want to be noticed by the universe, each of us, as individuals. The Christian retort to that idea is that, the universe did show just such a concern, but in our never-ending need to be special, we disregarded that concern because it wasn’t on our terms.  After turning the idea around in her mind for a while, Hazel finally says, “Who am I to say these things may not be forever?” We have circled back to the Literal Heart of Jesus, looking for a message from beyond, and a kind of peace is made for the sake of peace of mind.  

“Some infinities,” the novel tells us, “are bigger than others.” This is a paradoxical way of saying a few things. We might feel something like infinity in a short time shared in the presence of a beloved other, based on our ability to elevate and venerate those moments. But there is an even greater infinity beyond our perceptions, an infinity we can only momentarily touch in this life, an infinity beyond death and the meanings we invest in life – an abundant infinity, the same infinity that hung the stars.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here.