10/16/13

The Mockingjay Revisited

Three years have passed since the last installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, and in that time the hype has mostly died down, sporadically rekindled by film adaptations. Rereading Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay without fandom hysteria in the background still led me to the same conclusions I arrived at three years earlier: this book is pretty damn good. 

The unsophisticated, monologuey tone permeating this novel may lead one to expect poor writing, or at least the dramatic overseriousness that tends to accompany published amateurism. Neither is true. Collins has mastered figures of speech, unintrusively inserting them to detail the finer points of her story. 
“Did you love Annie right away, Finnick?” I ask.

“No.” A long time passes before he adds, “She crept up on me.”
I search my heart, but at the moment the only person I can feel creeping up on me is Snow. 
While the informal voice of the book firmly sets it in YA territory, Collins repeatedly explores “adult” themes, such as psychological abuse and prostitution. These subjects are dealt with both empathetically yet also in cold strategy: although Katniss’s shocked internal monologues are as human as anyone’s, the presence of the horrors never fails to move the plot along. Nothing in this book exists for itself. It is all one long litany of war grinding slowly on the hearts of its soldiers. 

It naturally follows that this novel would lack sex. That’s another thing. Despite the laundry list of violence – faces are melted off, people ripped apart, torture described as plainly as the weather – Mockingjay never strays into racy or exploitative territory. A refreshing departure from most of today’s literature. The romance is all-pervasive, certainly; it crops up every five pages, reiterations and restatements of a lopsided love triangle, but stays within the bounds of occasional kissing. 

This novel is special in its understanding of human relationships. Katniss learns to open her mind to unlikely allies and then deal with their deaths; she breaks charity with old friends. The wounds never truly heal, another unusuality in YA lit. 

In the majority of the YA genre, sides are split cleanly; you are either on the main character’s side or you are not. You are a good person or you are not. You are loyal or traitorous. Strong or weak. Right or wrong. Mockingjay (the series as a whole, actually) does away with these dichotomies: there is President Coin, leader of the “good guys,” but in the end just another autocrat. Or is she? Katniss decides so and kills her, but then again, after her sister’s death, Katniss was all for another round of child gladiatorial combat, given that the victims were rich and privileged. And is that any kind of thing for a hero to be supporting?

Katniss Everdeen is a brilliant main character because of her character deficits, not in spite of them. An appalling trend in literature today is the usage of the protagonist as a mouthpiece, a proponent of an idea or a morality. Main characters are frequently used to explain some Important Life Lesson™ to the audience, which is a logical occupation, for stories are born of conflict, and if nothing is learned at the end then there really is no point to it all. But the real problem comes when the author uses their character as a bully pulpit, playing on natural reader sympathies to advocate an agenda. For goodness’ sake, we want to read a book, not a sermon! 

Collins’ biggest victory lies in her ability to sidestep ingrained character roles; her second greatest achievement is a mastery of human interactions. Mockingjay showcases these two powers beautifully, and while the unsophisticated manner of its sentences may turn off readers accustomed to classics, and the excessive gore inside its pages may turn off those habituated to YA, it is definitely worth a read. Even three years later.

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