Film, News & Commentary

Rundle's Review: YA novels a window into our own dystopian present

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The current crop of young adult novels are more about the oppression of a chronic underclass than vampires. We envision ourselves the heroine – plucky, yes, but facing almost insurmountable odds and a class structure beyond our control.
Abnegation wear grey clothes, no makeup or decoration, never look in mirrors. They reject selfish action; all thoughts are for others. They’re closest to Amity, who do live for themselves, but through the expression of friendship and love, and are willing, unlike Candor, to lie to please people. Abnegation are furthest from Erudite, who know things, and Dauntless, who prize courage above all, even at the cost of mercy and kindness. Into this world, Beatrice is launched. We join her on the day when she must choose …
Yes, it’s another YA novel/film dystopia you never heard of until 10 minutes ago, in which a young girl at the edge of adolescence must make her way in a world of brutal division, poverty and mysterious and arbitrary power. It may sound to you like The Hunger Games; it almost certainly did for The Hunger Games’ publishers and their lawyers. But what could they do? No one has a monopoly on dystopian visions of a genuinely post-modern world, in which all hope of human freedom and collective improvement has been banished. They couldn’t. There are too many of them. And each of these long novel/film cycles of teen dystopia adds a new twist to the transformation of reality, the complex rules under which people live.
In The Hunger Games, as I guess by now all know, the world — or America — has suffered some unspecified catastrophe that has flung it into a dictatorship centred on a giant capital city, surrounded by oppressed rust belt-style districts, kept poor by servicing the capital and its elites. Each year for the last 75, each district has had to choose two people — youths usually, but not always — to fight in the lethal Hunger Games, gladiator-style entertainments, run like X-Factor-style televised talent competitions, promising riches at the end, but most likely death in combat. Katniss, the heroine, volunteers for the games when her younger sister is chosen and goes on not merely to victory, but to fight the system itself to a sort of draw.
Divergent takes place in a less lethal, but no less harsh, realm — more contrived, but also more psychologically complex. In a world preceded by some unstated collapse back to a mid-industrial past — there are houses, cities, trains and farms, but no cars, TVs or computers — society has somehow organised itself into five orders, exemplifying different virtues. Mid-adolescence everyone must, at a ritual public ceremony, choose to either stay in the order to which they were born, or switch, based on a dream-based “aptitude” test. At the last minute, Beatrice finds herself choosing the Dauntless faction — changing her name to Tris, in the process, as teenagers are wont to do — which sets her on a life devoted to Spartan courage, challenge and death. But she has a secret; she’s a rare “divergent” — her orientations spread equally among the factions. It’s something she has been told to keep to herself, for those who fit into no group become factionless, a despised poor expelled to the outer reaches, living terrible and above all purposeless lives.
As both book and film, Divergent is by far the weakest in the cycle of these all-encompassing teen worlds, which began, in its most recent iteration, with Twilight, but reaches back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, on the other side, John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series, and through there to Lord of the Flies — and ultimately to Peter Pan and the first, somewhat hybrid, “stranded children” novel, R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, an eminently Victorian utopian version of the scenario. For Lord of the Flies William Golding, a long-suffering English teacher, flipped the idea of human nature. Left to their devices, evil reproduces from within the species, in form unchanged.
Two things differ about the current cycle. First is its sheer profusion. For a century, the “lost children” genre was an occasional story model to which one would reach to explore an idea. In the last two decades, both supply and apparent demand has made it a permanent genre, intersecting worlds of kids apart. Adults may be present, but they are of two types: either an outer circle of distant tormentors or demoralised and defeated victims, who must be protected by their more savvy children. There is no generational war; anyone over a certain age who does not already wield enormous power has already lost, and they are regarded with a mix of love and exasperation. In that sense, these new mega-series tap into “secret worlds” literatures, such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and the mildly edgier Secret Seven. The concern of the Famous Five, aside from feasts, was almost exclusively foreigners and spies. The series was a war scare jammed permanently. (Swallows and Amazons is even better, written by an eye-witness to, and sympathiser with, the Bolshevik revolution, it is really an explanation of Lenin’s dialectical politics 1917-1921, through the medium of sailing). Such stories blend heroism projected into the future — the desire for children to protect rather than be protected, a yearning to step up — with a way of registering the intensity of adolescent worlds, tribal, totemic and absolute, the imminent sense of Meaning, and the knowledge that adults do not “get” it.
John Hughes’ 1980s films are the last in that realist cycle, and the appearance of Buffy marks the crucial turn. Adolescent intensity, and collective heroism, is marked by the supernatural. Adults — save for weird outcast adults other adults don’t accept — don’t understand that Earth is a battleground of vast cosmic forces, just as, in real life, they don’t understand that Shane really, really loves me, and I have to get this tattoo, and my life is over, of course I won’t regret joining the Marines. But in Buffy and what follows all this internal and intimate Sturm und Drang, screaming family fights, raging hormones and deep inner uncertainty is projected outwards — it’s the world that’s chaotically tormented, not the teens. They’re cool, continent and on top of it, cracking ironic as they simultaneously get their homework done and plunge wooden stakes into vampire hearts to save the world again. They’re also different in inner-type, teens who’ve passed into a culture where one’s personality must be self-assembled and managed from a much earlier age. The Famous Five and The Breakfast Club are recognisably the same type of teen, for all their cultural differences — bounded not merely in circumstance, but in style of self. But from the ’90s, teens in texts, and to a lesser extent real life, lurch forward to be a new type of subject, sometimes ironic, but always in the world alone.
What a world it is, too. By the time the Twilight series breaks dawn, the post-war arc of prosperity and rising equality and opportunity has been broken for a generation. Children born within the new world of cheerfully enforced inequality — and, in the United States, internalised self-blame by the poor — know nothing else; their parents are the same defeated types, bewildered by a broken dream. But in Twilight, Bella, the heroine, is equally lost, subject to a broken family, a bad school, a lack of place in the world — until she meets Edward, boy vampire and old soul, and becomes aware of an entirely other world. The vampire/human division follows the new class division entirely — the vampires are simply the 1% from the perspective of the 99%. Thin, attractive, their taste running to the sort of modern art and architecture favoured by bankers, the vampires don’t have to work, due to their centuries-long investments. Bella’s people  work, but not in proud industrial or farming jobs — they’re service workers, scratching by, clueless as to why they can’t get ahead. The vampires live in a world where value and capital circulates in an entirely different way. Effortlessly, culturally and economically the vampires seem to live apart. They are above all, continent, self-controlled, a reversal of the traditional idea of the vampire as insatiable. Yet it is Edward, refusing to consummate with Bella for fear that she will become a vampire herself, who teaches Bella continence and control — the control that the American underclass is alleged to lack, consumed by meth and obesity and teen pregnancy. Some have seen this abstinence obsession as religious in character, but it is nothing of the sort. In a culture where restraint itself is a luxury for the rich, and something that helps them stay that way, abstinence becomes a fulfilment of desire — and it’s that paradox that makes the series so compelling.
The vampires don’t suck blood — they’ve sucked value out of the economy and hoarded it for themselves. One would say that there were affinities with old images of anti-Semitism, if the world had any sort of link to concrete identities and forces at all. But the humans lack any sort of theory that would model the world, while the vampires, like capital, the movements of money and derivatives, have total control and no character, not even that of flesh and decay. They are money. The Hunger Games and Divergent are a step on from that, and a step back. In Twilight, this otherworld is threaded into ours, but also outside of it. These otherworlds, and a dozen others like them, isolate the teenagers not merely in a forsaken part of the world, but in an abandoned history. The content of the Hunger Games at least is drawn from a wider series of nightmare images — the author says she got the idea while channel switching between American Idol and news footage of the Iraq invasion aftermath — and the films draw on the imagery of North Korea and Mussolini as much as anything. But the sense of people, mostly teens, being set against each other apes reality shows: co-operation is merely a prelude to betrayal, the only reality is the individual, the only real connection humans have are with their biological families. No wonder the blonde mistress of ceremonies of The Hunger Games resembles a demented Margaret Thatcher.
It’s easy to conclude from that, and from the rust belt aesthetic of Divergent, that these are projections of anxiety into the future by the generation that will have to live in it. That has been so generally and widely expressed that it cannot possibly be true. At least 50% of the readers of these “YA” novels are adults, and the figure may be higher — adults tend to lie about these things. Those who have entered the world of zero-hour contracts, falling wage power, rising costs, cities being remade for the global rich — and above all an insistence that there is somehow a logic and moral legitimacy to the process — are more likely to be feel that such scenarios serve as an analogue for their experience, and also a catharsis of it. Bad as things might be, no one’s forcing you to slaughter your friends in malign tournaments.
Quite possibly, the adult reception of these new dystopias masks the a very different way in which teenagers are reading them, not as forecast of the future, but as a guide to the present, a tool whose very extreme nature serves for the shaping of self. That these adolescent worlds are an analogue of high school, particularly American high school, goes without saying — Divergent’s five-fold tribal division is a fantasised version of the real tribes S.E. Hinton mapped in The Outsiders and other novels. But it also draws on wider social categories and fuses them together — Abnegation faction seems to be some sort of fusion of emos and Amish, the latter now widely established in present American culture by umpteen reality shows(!). Amity seem to be student Christians, with a fixed and undifferentiated attitude to others, the Erudite are the student politicians, social committee, etc, already on the way to power (though in Divergent, by another unsatisfying wrinkle, the Abnegation run things, entrusted by all the other factions to be incorruptible). Much of the diegesis of both these series concerns not external courage, derring-do, but internal courage — the complex processes of self-shaping by which adolescents in a hyper-individualised culture must square up to a series of challenges that are not physical but social, emotional, connected to deeply embedded social knowledge. Glee does this too, and it uses the techniques that the classic American musical has always used — when an interpersonal encounter gets so heavy that it can only be resolved by a fuck or a fight, the whole case bursts into song instead. And like all musicals, Glee dispels the tension as soon as it accumulates, over and over, while these dystopias keep the pressure up — which is why, one suspects, they have the feel of emotional honesty to them.
They are, in an internal, psychodynamic sort of way, realist texts, not fantasy, at a time when any realist rendering of such conflicts and challenges would fall short. That the lead characters are girls — here and also in Marsden’s transitional War series — marks an expansion of the idea of what a female hero can do, of course, but also marks the degree to which the hero’s task has become a process of integrating self and world, rather than merely vanquishing the enemy. Male readers, one suspects, are happy to project themselves into a female character for that sort of set of challenges — the usual genderless role of the male is reversed. It is girls becoming young women who represent the universal process of transition that must be made in the world we live in. What Beatrice/Tris has to handle is world divergence and her own — the multiple identities of adolescence, the greater fluidity of sexuality, the breaking-down of the stable sub-cultures of the high modern/postmodern era — at the same time. All Bella had to do was not get bit. All Molly had to do was finish that detention. It’s a measure of how transformative these books and movies are that even a perfunctory and derivative effort like Divergent can move the whole cycle on and prepare for god knows what’s coming next.
Divergent (2014) directed by Neil Burger, screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, from the novel by Veronica Roth
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, from the novel by Suzanne Collins

9 responses to “Rundle's Review: YA novels a window into our own dystopian present

  1. Sources for the Hunger Games, not mentioned, also clearly include the Roman Empire, with its Bread (panem) and circuses (games), hence the glittering central city with its citizens, and the drudges living at the periphery. Not that that is a very good description of the Roman Empire.

  2. “Swallows and Amazons is… really an explanation of Lenin’s dialectical politics 1917-1921, through the medium of sailing”
    Wait, what? I spent my childhood reading Swallows and Amazons and my undergraduatehood reading Marx, and I just can’t swallow this. Please explain?

    1. Ransome was a Yorkshire Fabian (of which I have fond regard, having been introduced to history by one in Don Dunstan’s Adelaide) who worked for what became MI6 in Russia during the (1917) revolution, and was sympathetic enough to the Leninist faction(s) to be burnt by Riley’s network, then arrested on return from the USSR. He wrote the novels to supplement his meagre journalistic income.

  3. It doesn’t hurt, either, that everyone with money to spend either is or has been a teenager – making the sales demographic for this kind of thing as big as it can get. That might also help explain their proliferation.

  4. ..oh, and .. yeh, thanks Gruyndle for the wedge of verbal pyrotechnics – I’ll read the lot when I finish this bottle, the only way to last when you have been given lease on 2,000+ words.

  5. Interesting to see the Brits revisit Enid Blyton too with the Utopia series. Like the film Children of Men, the apocalypse is one of global infertility. Who would have thought Enid Blyton would be a future model for resistance.

  6. “Those who have entered the world of zero-hour contracts, falling wage power, rising costs, cities being remade for the global rich — and above all an insistence that there is somehow a logic and moral legitimacy to the process.”
    Not just for those just entering this world, but for the enlightened few of us who have been in the workforce for 30+ years and grow increasingly despairing of a world that has just gone wrong.
    And with 2 teenage children who have devoured this stuff, I found this most interesting. While successive generations baby boomers who claimed all the power early and are holding on to it like life itself, the otherwise oppressed Gen X who were too late on the scene to get any of the power but had the qualities so clearly lacking in the preceding generation to do something with it, the appallingly vacuous and self-entitled gen y prats, who will inherit the power that Gen X ultimately reject as false, and lost the will to claim due to enforced ‘abnegation’ from above. Gen Z, is that the right term for today’s teenagers and very early adults, may just be the last best hope on the horizon for the west, and perhaps the world.
    My lasting hope, and perhaps revenge, is that my children will be the masters of the next mini baby boom being experienced here, the grandchildren of the baby boomers, hopefully keeping them from power. Gen X may yet have its revenge on their oppressors, two generations behind.
    I fear for my children’s future, made so much harder by the monotonously stupid and frighteningly short-sighted politics of today, embodied by the no carbon tax, no mining tax, giant-corporation schmoozing Tony Abbott type.
    Go get ’em teens, and hit the buggers hard. You’re going to have to, as we will be leaving so little of our wealth to you, and so many of our problems.

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