by David AbramsBuy on NOOK »
March 7, 2013
1The Round House
4The Fault in Our Stars
Before starting his book, all I knew about John Green was that he wrote YA novels and had a zillion Twitter followers (OK, fine: only about 1.3 million at the time of this writing). Also, he’s big on Tumblr; quotes by him are always sliding by on my dashboard. Yeah, yeah, I thought, he’s a heartthrob for the four-eyed bookish set—and I wear contacts. On the other hand, I’d been intending to read The Round House by Louise Erdrich ever since it was nominated for, and then won, the National Book Award. I read Erdrich’s The Beet Queen in college, which I enjoyed but don’t remember. For years I’d been meaning to read more of her work. Erdrich has written 14 novels, plus children’s books and poetry, and did you know she owns an independent bookstore in Minnesota called Birchbark Books? (Sheesh—Ann Patchett’s got a way better publicist.)
Let me be frank: I went into this matchup excited to read The Round House, whereas I approached The Fault in Our Stars with curiosity and trepidation.
Hazel, the whip-smart and wry 16-year-old narrator of The Fault in Our Stars, has to drag around an oxygen tank wherever she goes because her “lungs suck at being lungs.” Three years earlier, Hazel was diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer, and the tumors spread to her lungs. When she was 14, an experimental drug called Phalanxifor slowed the growth of the cancer, which has not cured her, only bought her “a bit of purchased time.” At a support group her mother makes her attend, Hazel meets Augustus Waters, who is tall and handsome and devastatingly witty; though he lost his right leg to osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer, he is now in remission. He’s initially drawn to Hazel because she looks like his dead girlfriend, but he falls for her because she’s so damn cool and smart. Next, they both become obsessed with Hazel’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, and travel to Amsterdam to meet him. I won’t tell you what happens after that, except to say that many people have cried through the last third.
The Round House is also about a teenager. Joe, our narrator, is a grown man looking back on his thirteenth year, in 1988, when his mother was beaten and raped on their Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. The crime so traumatizes his mother that she will not speak about her attacker, and Joe—the son of a tribal court judge, and himself a future lawyer—decides to find the culprit on his own. What follows is part crime novel, part coming-of-age narrative, with dashes of magical realism and legalese.
Both novels are wonderfully corporeal. John Green never lets us forget that Hazel has cancer, that she can’t breathe very well, that her face is puffy from her medication. He also wants us to remember that she is a sexual being, capable of desire and, also, repulsion. Erdrich had me imagining teenage boy boners every 20 pages, as well as horny grandmothers, the drool and snores of 112-year-old grandfathers, and the amazing ta-tas of Sonya, the ex-stripper girlfriend of Joe’s Uncle Whitey. And yes, I loved imagining all of this.
The first pages of The Fault in Our Stars are clunky, unnaturally formal, like a bad homage to The Great Gatsby: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed…” And there are too many quites and rathers, as if Hazel is putting on airs. But once she finds her voice, acerbic yet vulnerable, it’s an engaging read. The plot moves forward fluidly. Scenes are dynamic, vivid, and often surprising (a make-out session in Anne Frank’s house, anyone?). John Green wrote a love story between two young people that feels as deep and solid as any successful adult relationship. Furthermore, his depiction of cancer patients is compassionate, and never condescending. Most of this is due, again, to Hazel’s voice; she treats her illness, along with the many clichéd assumptions about terminally ill people, with the proper amount of humor and anger: “The diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.” How can you not love that?
My main complaint about Green’s novel is that at times it’s little too slick. The dialogue between Augustus and Hazel is so clever it felt like I was watching an adorable indie comedy. It was like Juno the novelization (and I even like Juno). That slickness kept me from truly feeling connected to the characters; I didn’t cry at the end of the book, but merely observed which passages might elicit a tear. I also had trouble with Augustus. One, he’s too much a bookish girl’s fantasy (the way he courts Hazel, dear lord, he is too smooth!). Two, his obsession with what Hazel calls “metaphorical resonances” (he often has an unlit cigarette in his mouth, for instance, so that he can control its killing powers), is contrived. I saw John Green in those moments, in his fortress, glowing with delight, and I wished I couldn’t.
The project of The Round House is ambitious: to depict the effects of a vicious crime on not only a family but also a community of people, and to investigate, in tiny, complex ways, how that community remains vulnerable and beholden to a society that doesn’t value them. As Erdrich tells us in her afterword, the novel is based on a factual “tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations.” When I read that I felt sick. It’s a deeply political novel. At times, the prose is phenomenal: “But he was staring at his desk as if he saw through the oak top into the file beneath it and through the manila cover to the photograph and from the photograph to some other photograph or record of old brutality that hadn’t yet bled itself out.” Other times, it was just ho-hum: “When I reached the round house, the sun fell like a warm hand on my shoulder. The place seemed peaceful.” But Erdrich also balances so many tones, from tragic to slapstick to nostalgic, that she captures the richness of a very specific juncture in a boy’s life.
But even then, the book still read like a project. The crime storyline moves so slowly, with a single dramatic scene followed by long swaths of everyday descriptions of Joe and his friends, that I had difficulty remembering its details, or caring. In fact, the book’s seeming unwillingness to stay with the mystery intrigued me—maybe this wasn’t a straightforward crime story, but something far more complicated and, perhaps, dangerous. But I was also frustrated. A lot of the scenes with Joe were downright boring; I didn’t find him to be particularly compelling character. I also wasn’t sure who he was beyond his family’s crisis, and so each time the narrative swerved from that conflict, so did my interest. The book never turned from idea into experience.
The first copy I received of The Fault in Our Stars had a printing error, so all the even-numbered pages of the first two chapters were replaced with pages of Green’s author interview from the back. I communicated this to my editor and intended to put it down and read The Round House while I waited for my replacement copy, but I ended up reading around the error, missing pages be damned. When I finally turned to The Round House, I started catching myself putting it down to do something else. Watch some episodes of Homeland. Clean my tea kettle. Check my email. Anything but read.
The Round House didn’t do what I want novels to do, which is to whisk me away, to rearrange me and make me see the world anew. The Fault in Our Stars didn’t do those latter two things, but it did keep me engaged. To my mind, that makes it the more successful of the two books.
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By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: I’ve got a theory. John Green is the millennial generation’s John Hughes.
Like Hughes, Green is somewhat older than his core audience, but also like Hughes, he’s able to capture the tenor of the times in a way that just feels “right.” Green writes books about spirited young people who want to do awesome things because awesome things are worth doing because they are awesome.
That sounds condescending, but I mean it as a compliment. As a teacher of college, I spend my days interacting with millennials, and as a dyed-in-the-flannel Gen Xer, well steeped in the slacker ethos, I often look at them in admiration, even as I don’t understand where they’re coming from. I think humankind is a pestilence bent on destroying each other and the planet in the process. The millennial generation thinks they can and even should save the world. That’s a bigger divide even than Team Edward v. Team Jacob.
While Hughes’s most popular film was probably Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s a bit of an outlier in his oeuvre, as Ferris, “a righteous dude,” is unlike any of the other protagonists from either his major (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club) or minor (Weird Science) teenage-centric works. Hughes was a chronicler of the outcasts and outliers, and in the Hughes universe, as embodied in the characters of The Breakfast Club, everyone was an outcast, even the sportos (Emilio Estevez) and princesses (Molly Ringwald). The true John Hughes character in Ferris Bueller is actually Cameron, Ferris’s best friend.
It would be hard for me to overestimate the impact Hughes’s films had on me. For one, they were set and often filmed in my hometown of Northbrook, Ill. He researched The Breakfast Club at my high school, the same one he’d attended 20 years earlier. I was just a hair younger than the protagonists of his movies when they came out (14 at the time of Sixteen Candles). More importantly, he seemed to be able to tap into something elemental about being young in the world during the 1980s. The triumphs of Hughes’s characters were not big and awesome, but small and provisional, like Anthony Michael Hall’s “king of the dipshits” being allowed to drive the hottest girl in school home in a Rolls-Royce.
Green’s protagonists, at least in the three of his novels that I’ve read, stalk bigger-game, larger-canvas experiences like facing down cancer and travelling to Amsterdam to meet their favorite reclusive author. Hughes’s characters are frequently inarticulate, but Green’s are always charmers of the Hazel and Augustus varieties. They’re hyper-verbal in a Gilmore Girls fashion that causes me to simultaneously admire them as “wonderful” characters and distrust their genuineness, what Judge Lepucki has identified as some elements being “too slick.”
I could go even further with the comparisons between Hughes and Green. Hughes, in concert with his characters, lived an almost reclusive life, while Green is playing Carnegie Hall. Green rallies his fans as a kind of mutual support group with his Nerdfighters. Hughes’s characters are generally left to live alone, or at best, in pairs.
I feel genuinely good about John Green being one of the next generation’s spokespeople, but as much as I enjoyed reading The Fault in Our Stars (and I did, tearing through it in a day), like Edan Lepucki, I finished with dry eyes, and the hard heart of someone who isn’t wired to believe. This is likely a failing in me, rather than the book.
What worries me, not about Green’s work, per se, but the “we should be awesome” ethos in general, is what it does to the young people who are not being awesome, who do not have a mission or a quest. What I see in my students is a kind of anxiety over achievement, an expectation that success, big success, is what we are meant for, and if this is not happening, they are off track, or worse, defective.
As a young person, and even today, I always found comfort in John Hughes’s work, his message that it wasn’t important to be special, you just needed to be human, and in living, you’d survive, but given the challenges the millennial generation faces, that comfort may not be sufficient.
Kevin: I’ll admit I’m one of the many people who cried at The Fault in Our Stars. Of course, I’m a crier to begin with—if anyone ever interrupted Hoosiers with a car commercial starring horses and featuring John Hiatt singing “Is Anybody There?” you couldn’t get me off the couch without a ShopVac. But since I’ve become a parent, anything that puts suffering in the vicinity of children pushes my buttons like a monkey in a Skinner Box, which, if I saw one, is also something that would make me cry.
Even so, I never felt manipulated by The Fault in Our Stars. I think it’s a lovely, lovely novel, one of my favorites of this year, and if it’s the kind of book that is being eagerly devoured by young people, then it’s a hopeful one, as well.
Your analogy is not only very astute, it forces me to draw a straight line between two points in my life that I have never before felt the need to connect. That is, the time I met John Hughes, and the time I met John Green.
I met Green a few times, actually. His first book, the excellent Looking for Alaska, was released right around the same time as my first novel in 2005. (I just checked and they were released the very same week.) We both lived in Chicago and had mutual friends, so John G. and I inevitably bumped into each other in those first months after publication—at book events and readings and parties, and so on. I didn’t get to know him very well, but I found him completely charming, and I envied his energy, even in those pre-nerdfighting days. Even though I hadn’t much of a YA habit, I picked up John’s novel because I liked him personally, and I have been an enthusiastic rooter for his career ever since. What I respect about John is the very thing you cite—a kind of ethos that one shouldn’t ask whether you can do something, or even whether you should do something. Rather would it be better (or more awesome, as you say) to do something than not to do it? For instance, would it be better to announce that your wife is expecting during a Google+ Hangout with Barack Obama, and then ask the president to name your unborn baby, than it would be to not do that? Yes, it would be better.
You and I were socialized to believe we were too cool to do almost anything. Our generation has been paralyzed by slacker inertia. Our hero is David Letterman, whose job it is to have the greatest gig in the world and act constantly like he doesn’t want it. That has always been the Platonic ideal of success for you and me and our peers.
Maybe that’s why John Green’s books make me cry. Because he reminds you that you don’t have to be like that.
I met John Hughes only once. It must have been 1993, probably around the time they were wrapping up production on the Hughes-penned film Baby’s Day Out, which is, I should point out, a movie about a millennial in larval form.
I was a copywriter at an advertising firm, and one of our clients was the Chicago Blackhawks, and one of the perks of that job was awesome Blackhawks tickets. I was at a game with my boss and friend Jim Coudal, and we were sitting directly in front of John Hughes and three other members of the film’s crew. Midway through the game, the Hawks scored a tying goal. The stadium erupted and after embracing and high-fiving everyone to our left, right, and center, we turned to the men behind us and held up our palms for ceremonial slapping. John Hughes, an alleged Chicago fan, stared disapprovingly at us, hands deliberately at his sides.
Can I make you feel the lingering sting of being left hanging—in full view of 20,000 screaming hockey fans celebrating a Jeremy Roenick one-timer—by a middle-aged man with the words BABY’S DAY OUT embroidered on the back of his faux leather jacket?
John Green would have given me that high five. He’d have given me a noogie and hugged me, too.
John: To my mind, the mystery element is oversold in The Round House. While what happens to Joe’s mother is central to the narrative, it isn’t structured as a whodunit, or even a whydunit, and there was a part of me thinking, as I read it, that I wouldn’t have minded a little more plot mechanics at work.
But that’s not Erdrich’s thing. If I was Michiko Kakutani I would say that Erdrich is in the limning business. What I take from her work is the moments outside the main thrust of the story, Joe and his buddies peeking through the window at the damaged body of the reservation priest, Joe watching his Aunt Sonya’s “performance” for his grandfather.
What The Round House left me with are incidents that I find my mind wanting to revisit, to turn over and look at from a different angle and see different things. The Fault in Our Stars tugged at my heartstrings, but The Round House gets below the strings to something I cannot articulate or understand. I read the book with less “pleasure” than The Fault in Our Stars, but it has stuck with me for several weeks afterward.
It’s hard for me to say which book I would’ve chosen if I were tasked with judging this matchup. I enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars more as a reading experience. I’ve recommended it far and wide to the young people in my life, and even some of the not as young people. But The Round House revealed some things about the world around me that I otherwise never would have seen.
Kevin: Tomorrow we have two books that I have recommended over and over to other readers this year—Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (I spoke to a book club just yesterday and spent most of the time trying to convince them to read Bernadette next.) Although I enjoyed both novels a terrific lot, however, I’m not sure I’ve ever recommended both of them to the same person. What kind of reader is Judge Elliott Holt? Is she a Bernadette or a Jun Do?
I will celebrate the result either way.