Monday, February 27, 2012

The Fault(s) in His Story

In which I express my disappointment with the beloved John Green's latest novel and receive worldwide scorn (or would, if anyone read this blog).

I owe Jon for this post since I originally wrote it as a comment on his blog. Some minor editing has been performed.

First, let me say this: I love John Green's writing. I like that it's funny and smart and doesn't treat teenagers like they're all horny morons who do nothing but play video games or pine over Hollywood actors. He has what I believe is a perfect grasp on male friendships. I could go on, but all of the above has been said before and you're reading this for the criticism, not the praise. I know what you want.

As for The Fault in Our Stars, I thought Green's intelligence (and ego) got in the way of the story. This manifests itself most egregiously in his main characters' dialogue, which I found completely unbelievable. Even if you accept that Gus and Hazel possess expansive vocabularies (and I don't accept that in the case of Gus, who is a stud basketball player, plays a lot of video games, and reads the literary equivalent of fast food), I don't know any teenagers whose every conversation drips with metaphor, irony, and witty rejoinders.

Secondly, as he does in all of his books, but especially in this one, Green sacrifices story on the altars of theme, metaphor, and symbolism. It's almost as if he's writing in the hopes of impressing high school English teachers enough to use his book in place of the dusty classics. This one was so full of metaphor that it became impossible for me to read about the smallest detail without wondering what hidden meaning I was missing. I felt like I was in eleventh grade again, with Mrs. Rief prodding me to notice the symbolism on every page. A piece of playground equipment isn't just a piece of playground equipment. Kissing at the Anne Frank Museum isn't just two horny kids kissing. Stuff falling out of trees into a Holland river is probably more than just nice imagery. And even if it isn't, there is so much metaphor and symbolism and theme that you think it must be. It pulled me out of the story (what little story there was) time and again.

As a result, I didn't feel the emotion I know Green intended me to feel. It's hard to fall for the characters when Green insists on asserting himself with such attention-seeking regularity. Whenever I began to get sucked into the story, there was Green, pants off and waving them in the air, to remind me that he--HE--had written this. And wasn't it so damn full of MEANING?

Also, I found the references to the "genius" of Peter Van Houten off-putting, since he was invented by Green. Nothing says massive ego like having your characters gush about the genius of the words of another character you created. Disagree? Try this on for size:

"There are two kinds of people in this world," Lester said. "The kind that stop for a raccoon crossing the road and the kind that swerve to hit it."

Billy was speechless. He had never heard such truth spoken so eloquently.

Gagging yet? Unless I'm mistaken, Hermione and Harry didn't sit around talking about how wise professor Dumbledore was. Rowling let the reader make that conclusion. Possibly because she didn't feel the need to remind her readers how flipping smart she was every fifth page.


And speaking of Van Houten, his reappearance at the funeral was something out of a bad movie and an editor never would have let a rookie author get away with it.


On the other hand, there are things to recommend the novel. Much of the writing, while self-aware and overdone, is gorgeous. And Green excels where it counts most: in telling the truth. I've never had cancer, but the way his characters handle it-their thoughts, reactions, fears, hopes, etc.--felt authentic to me. And it's balls-to-the-wall ambitious to tackle the topic of teenagers with cancer in the first place. One might argue that it takes a certain amount of ego to even think you can pull it off, and one would be right. Nevertheless, I admire authors who are ambitious, even if they fail. Perhaps because they fail. And for kids who have or have had cancer, the book is probably a comfort and might even be profound. If that's the case, and from what I've seen online it is, then despite its many faults, I'm glad John Green wrote it. My opinion isn't worth much when compared to a fifteen-year-old kid going through chemotherapy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Glen's Superpower

I've heard it said that everyone has a superpower. Glen's was sharpening pencils. He was the best I've ever seen. He knew it too. How couldn't he? There came a time in that year, 2004 I think it was, that the rest of the class simply gave up on doing it themselves. Whenever their pencils got dull or broke or a new one was needed, they brought it to Glen. And I let them. It was an arrangement that worked for everyone. The student got his or her pencil sharpened quickly and without hassle. Glen got to do what he loved to do. And I didn't have to sharpen any pencils myself or put up with the incessant grinding associated with repeated failures.

Glen had a method. He told it to me once, explaining it with the same level of passion experts in other, more respected fields possess. He did this over coffee during an afternoon recess. He wouldn't tell me anything without the coffee.

You stick the pencil all the way in and hold it firm, Glen said. Firm, he repeated. Grip it close to the entry hole, leaving only enough space to account for the pencil being drawn in by the spinning blades. Never let it spin. He took a drink. Letting it spin was a rookie mistake. Did I understand?

I said I did.

A pencil that spun got an uneven cut. You'd end up with one good side, the lead nice and sharp, and at first glance you'd think you did it. But turn that pencil just a little and you'd see the lead on the other side still covered with wood. So hold it firm, let the blades do their job. Glen drank more coffee.

There was something else I needed to know. Something important. Something attitudinal, not technical.

You had to show the sharpener who was boss.

Not only did you hold that pencil firm and not let the blades turn it on you, you pushed in as you sharpened. You fed the blades the pencil. Not too hard, that could break the point off, but steady, forceful. It was the left hand, Glen insisted, that did the work. True, the right hand was the one that was moving, rotating the handle around and around. But like any great magician, Glen said, the real business was done where those in the audience rarely thought to look. There was technique in the handle turn, easy and consistent, not too fast, not too slow, but it was what you did with that left hand that made all the difference.

And then Glen leaned close to me. He checked behind him. And he told me the difference between a good pencil sharpener and a great one, one who got it right every time.

The secret, he whispered, the thing he never told anyone else, was knowing when to stop. Most kids stopped any old time. For them, it was like chewing food or brushing their teeth. They did it for awhile and when they felt like they'd done it for long enough they quit. But if you sharpened a pencil too long you could break the lead all over again. And if you stopped too early, it was almost impossible to pick up where you left off.

So how did Glen know when to stop?

He listened. A sharp pencil made a different sound than an dull or nearly sharp one. And when you heard the change you stopped immediately. You pulled the pencil free, and it was perfect. Glen always heard the change.

I asked him to describe it to me, those sounds, the difference between done and not done, perfect and something quite not. But Glen only smiled and told me you either heard it or you didn't. And then he thanked me for the coffee and went outside.