Quick Disturbing Dystopian Thoughts

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“So we forgive each other?” The crooked smile climbs up one more time. “Again?”
And I look right into his eyes, right into him as far as I can see, because I want him to hear me, I want him to hear me with everything I mean and feel and say.
“Always,” I say to him. “Every time.”

xx

“You’re still trying to protect me. Real or not real,” he whispers.
“Real,” I answer. “Because that’s what you and I do, protect each other.”

xx

In my rereading of Mockingjay last week, I began juxtaposing Suzanne Collins’ finale with Patrick Ness’ middle novel, The Ask and the Answer. While the books occupy different parts of their respective trilogies, the jarring amounts of violence, torture and death contained in their pages–and what’s more, the pervasive current that relentlessly questions whether good exists, make the compare and contrast impulse natural.

Easily Mockingjay’s most striking quality is how easily Collins’ lets her main characters “get off” so to speak from actively participating in the trauma and carnage brought on by Coin and Snow. Quite understandably and indeed narratively logically consistent with the larger series structure, Katniss suffers from constant post-traumatic stress disorder while simultaneously enduring the physical repercussions of a Quarter Quell’s electric shock. She’s also shot and knocked out for good measure. Peeta, on the other hand, succumbs mentally and spiritually to the Capitol’s injections of Trackerjacker poison and devolves into an unstable and fragile figure.

And what a shame that Collins lets that occur.

Peeta’s character has always been about taking agency in his life. He tells Katniss just before the start of the 74th Hunger Games that he will not allow himself to be a tool objectified by the Capitol.

“I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,”

That Collins denies him that freedom, that she reduces him to desiring himself dead, unable to understand his “true” feelings about Katniss, and an eternal player of the “Real or Not Real?” game, initially is brilliant. It demonstrates war’s totality–the fact that even after shots and spears and arrows may halt–brokenness is permanent. I thought I loved the author for her willingness to sacrifice Peeta’s soul to ground her points about the horrors of war.

xx

“Oh, no. It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people?” says Peeta. “It costs everything you are.”

xx

“It’s not that you should never love something so much that it can control you.
It’s that you need to love something that much so you can never be controlled.
It’s not a weakness.
It’s your best strength.”

xx

And then I wrapped up The Ask and the Answer. Not unlike Peeta and Katniss, Viola and Todd are cast into ordeal after ordeal without respite and startle themselves when they find themselves capable of murder and death. But what makes their tale far more gut-wrenching is that Ness dares to suggest that something might be far more deadly to a character than losing his or her autonomy.

In Panem, the checkmate to Collins’ characters is when they are tortured. In New World, the equivalent to Ness’ characters is that they torture.

Over and over again, Todd and Viola, in a crude paraphrase of the language of the book, collapse and rise again, though in many of the processes they’ve yanked others down with them. Viola arrogantly sneaks out to meet Todd—and sacrifices the life of her friend. Todd astonishes himself by applying his moral blinders that enable him to (almost) mercilessly shackle the Spackle. And then the women.

Further, Ness places his characters in situations where they must choose to bomb, attack, massacre and terrify. And The Chaos Walking series is replete of pages of Viola and Todd–agonizingly–do just that.

Forget that Katniss and Peeta lost their souls to their aggressors–this is exactly into which Viola and Todd transform. A much more chilling and morally precarious proposition.

(And yet, and yet, and yet, and I want to suggest that Ness comprehends that only in participating in their own moral demise, can Viola and Todd ever redeem themselves. If they retain agency while becoming monsters, that same sense of self will be what catalyzes their redemption. But I’m not sure if I totally agree if grace can be a self-initiated thing.)

Collins, through Coin’s relentless ruthlessness, her suggestion of another Hunger Games, her authorization of the exploding parachutes, wants to argue of sin’s perpetual stronghold. But she does not go far enough to show just how evil spreads generation to generation, relationship to relationship, old to innocent.

xx

“…you’ll learn that war only destroys. No one escapes from a war. No one. Not even the survivors. You accept things that would appall you at any other time because life has temporarily lost all meaning.”

xx

“There’s always a choice,” Viola says by my side.
“Oh, people like to say that,” the Mayor says. “It makes them feel better.”

xx

“”Todd,” I say again, a catch in my voice. “On the ledge, under the waterfall, do you remember what you said to me? Do you remember what you said to save me?”
He’s shaking his head slowly. “I’ve done terrible things, Viola. Terrible things-”
We all fall, you said.” I’m gripping his hand now. “We all fall but that’s not what matters. What matters is picking yourself up again.”

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One thought on “Quick Disturbing Dystopian Thoughts

  1. I love everything this post is about. And mostly, your last credit to Ness for allowing T&V’s agency to be both their downfall and redemption… it’s so spot on. That what makes his novels more complicated and messy than HG.

    A minor critique…
    I’m not sure Mockingjay’s “most striking quality” is “easily” how Collins lets her main characters off the hook. You even admit later that you admired how Collins allowed her characters to be so devastated by the effects of war… until you read The Ask & The Answer. Saying that it’s “easy” to see that Collins is letting her characters off the hook does a disservice to your own discernment (and Ness’).

    And, despite the fact that V&T are certainly more implicated in atrocity than K&P ever are, I believe it’s not only watching Rue die that gives Katniss PTSD, but all the times she herself killed. Katniss knows (and Peeta, to some extent), that while she was a pawn in the games, she still CHOSE to kill people — and that haunts her alongside a dozen other things in Mockingjay. It should also be credited to Collins that she implicates Gale much heavier than K&P, giving him enough agency to be implicated in the violence and destruction in Mockingjay — which is, of course, also what ultimately makes him unattractive to Katniss and most of the readers.

    (So, for example, if The Ask & The Answer included a perspective from Lee, let’s say, would we find him a lot more attractive than Todd, since he remains a hero and never becomes the villain?)

    Which brings us somewhat nicely full-circle to your last post, and the question of whether we really should have found K, P, G, V, T (or L) attractive in the first place.

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