Linguistic hunger

Considering I’ve seen The Hunger Games all over Twitter for the past few weeks, and the raving comments I’ve read about it, yesterday I got the full trilogy. I had reservations, but decided to treat them more as unmotivated prejudice, and not let them get in the way of me making up my own mind.

While this review is off-topic in this blog, The Hunger Games sounds to me like a television screenplay turned into novel, and I have the feeling that some of its linguistic and narrative shortcomings would be overcome as a television production. Unfortunately, though, it’s a novel, and I have to review it as such.

Here are my thoughts in a nutshell: although I can appreciate some of the qualities that have made The Hunger Games so popular, I can hardly get past its very evident flaws. These flaws start at the linguistic level, but they’re so widespread and ingrained into the text that I think they’re not so much due to my own idiosyncrasies but to a deeper problem with the way this book works, and the way it places itself into the literary market.

Although I did read The Hunger Games in a single day, I didn’t do it because I just couldn’t put it down, as many readers have noted (just check out the reviews on Amazon). I could have easily put it down on page ten without a second thought, but I decided to get over myself and judge the book by the whole book. The ease with which The Hunger Games can be gulped down definitely goes to its advantage (even if you’re mildly annoyed with it, you can go through chapters quite effortlessly), but it’s also part of the problem.

Like I said, I couldn’t not appreciate its positive sides, and particularly the portrayal of a female character whose main preoccupation is not her love life (or so it seems). Also, I appreciated the lack of vampires in the story.

But that’s it. If the story itself wasn’t so bad or so uninteresting to make me feel the need to put down the book, it was far less engaging and—yes—mythopoietic than its fans claim it is.

In school they teach you to write short periods, to keep things clear and simple. I think that’s great advice for kids who are learning how to express themselves in writing, but I believe a grownup author should disregard the rule. The Hunger Games is a long sequence of simple clauses, lacking any sort of complex hypotaxis. If a period runs for more than one clause, you can rest assured its building blocks are coordinated (particularly as adversatives). Subordinates exist, of course, but usually in the form of simple relatives and causals. (And don’t get me started on those few random hanging subordinates, which come off as a pitiful attempt at having an interesting style, but ultimately make it sound as if the book never went through copyediting.)

Now, I know this book is marketed for a young-adult audience, and I’m sure someone out there will think that an author’s language should conform to her audience. That is only partly true. I would have no problem with the language of The Hunger Games if this were a children’s book, or if the target audience were young adults whose mother tongue isn’t English, and this were a learning tool. But young adults who are native speakers of English should be trusted to digest more complex syntax (not to mention lexicon) than what this book uses.

I’m sure someone will think that if a book is too complex, kids won’t read it, but that’s the kind of bullshit lazy, condescending adults think. Any random page written by J.K. Rowling (whose initial audience was, remember this, potentially younger than young adults) has way more linguistic (and literary) value than the whole of The Hunger Games. There’s also a question of ethics of education here: a book targeted to young adults should at least make the effort to break the pattern of linguistic steamrolling that other parts of the culture have undertaken. If you don’t use complex hypotaxis because your audience doesn’t normally use complex hypotaxis, you’re exploiting and encouraging the impoverishment of the language and of the linguistic abilities of your readership. And that’s not something I can condone.

But the book’s written in the first person, so the language is not so much conforming to the audience, but to the narrator’s experience. Right? Right. Except not right, because we don’t really know what the narrator’s linguistic experience is. We know what her experience as a hunter and gatherer is (because she tells us profusely and repeatedly, since apparently her audience is not just linguistically impaired, but also very forgetful), but we really have no idea of how good her school is (I’m guessing not too good, considering she lives in the poorest district of all). In this perspective, conforming to the narrator’s experience would have entailed creating a whole linguistic universe (vocabulary, syntax, usage) that would have taken a lot more effort than stringing together a sequence of simple clauses. Suzanne Collins isn’t doing that. The universe she’s creating is extralinguistic. Every bit of information she gives is aimed at putting everything within the frame of experience of a reader who lives in the twenty-first century (which is odd all in itself, it’s hardly sustainable as a narrative pact that a narrator would speak to an audience that’s long gone, unless the story involves some form of time travel). By doing this, by using tricks that would be more suitable for a third-person, omniscient narrator, she betrays herself in the words of her narrator—and that’s just clumsy.

I’m not saying the story is inherently bad, as it has enough interesting bits, and does enough contamination of themes to keep the reader going. But that’s not enough to make it the masterpiece that some make it out to be.

My fixation with the linguistic aspects of the book isn’t just coincidental, or to be dismissed as simple idiosyncrasy. It all boils down to the philosophy of literature. If you’re using verbal language to tell a story, I think you have the duty to make full use of the tools of the language. The feeling I had reading The Hunger Games, however, was that the author didn’t really care about the language, and was already thinking about how good a movie this story would make (and apparently it has—we’ll see if I’ll feel like sitting through it). If your medium is literature, that’s just irresponsible and dishonest. I can’t stress that enough.

The choice of a first-person voice who narrates in the present tense falls squarely into the realm of lazy writing. Lazy writing for lazy readers. It saves you a lot of effort, because your reader’s experience will be limited to the direct experience of your narrator. Anything else—even those elements that could potentially give more depth to your story, but which would also mean you’d have to work your ass off to imagine—can easily be forgotten or disregarded. To overcome the laziness of a first-person, present-tense narrative, the author would have had to make it worth the reader’s while by putting her language through a poetic process that she’s clearly unwilling to undertake—or simply incapable of.

The narrative is nailed to the present so much that the narrator, during the several weeks in which the story unfolds—seems to have only a few recurring, sclerotized memories of the past. Mind that we’re talking about a narrator who, while still young, is facing possible death at any given moment. Despite all the clichés the author scatters throughout the book, surprisingly she never goes for the life-flashing-before-one’s-eyes one.

So much for analepsis. But thanks to the present-tense narrative, also prolepsis goes out the window—except for the clever cliffhangers. And I use “clever” and “cliffhangers” in a very broad sense. Two or three times, Katniss experiences some sort of cognitive discomfort (such as when she recognizes the Avox servant as a girl she once failed to save in the woods), which she promptly states very clearly. I have two problems with that: one is that I’d rather feel her discomfort than having it spoon-fed to me, as I’d expect at least a bland attempt at hypotyposis—again, one of the shortcomings of choosing to lower the linguistic register, which reflects in the kinds of meanings language conveys: the less abstract, the easier it will be for your audience to understand you, and there’s not a single spot of The Hunger Games whose meaning doesn’t hit the reader right in the eye, with little room for subtlety or metaphor.

The other problem I have with it is that this discomfort normally doesn’t even take a paragraph break to be solved, and the reader isn’t left hanging from that cliff for longer than a few lines. No hidden clues, no easter eggs, no promise of future satisfaction. The only things that could make me want to go on with the trilogy are killed as soon as they are born. Since the name of J.K. Rowling is always brought up when speaking of Suzanne Collins, this is one more reason why the comparison is misguided. The Harry Potter heptalogy uses prolepsis to create a network of references that aren’t resolved sometimes for hundreds of pages, often not even in the same volume.

The Hunger Games falls very short of the form of social criticism it’s made out to be. It may feature an unconventional, non-vampire-smitten heroine, but this representation of a a society that revolves around a form of extreme reality show is more of a grotesque backdrop than a model of evil, which the author never seems to fully realize. Once again, this representation seems to be built more for our contemporary readers to have something to hold on to (again, so much for mythopoiesis) and conform to as easily as Katniss is able to start walking on high heels. The only potentially disruptive element is left at District 12, in the character of Gale, which of course the first-person narrative is unable to fully explore beyond Katniss’s limited grasp of it and her rhetorical questions to herself, which seem to be aimed at a dumbed-down audience—the same that would be bothered by complex syntax.

Now, I know that before making up my mind about how disruptive this character really is, and how strong a criticism The Hunger Game can be, I should read the rest of the trilogy. But I won’t, because the first book hasn’t given me enough reasons to. Even if I could turn off my linguistic sensibility (and I don’t see why I should), the first book hasn’t done enough for my narrative sensibility either. All the questions and expectations it has created have already been solved, and the characters haven’t gained enough depth (barely any at all, as they seem to have been touched by narrative transformation only in their physical appearance) for me to care about them. The hunter’s still a hunter, the baker’s still a baker. Paradoxically, considering how unconventional the heroine is supposed to be, the only real open question that’s carried over to the next book is based on the ramifications of the possible romantic involvement between the two protagonists, with the added bonus of a love triangle looming in the future, back at District 12.

Once again, what’s made out to be disruptive and innovative is, in reality, falling back to the common denominator. A heroine that both boys and girls can fall for or identify with. A social commentary that’s nothing more than a lamb disguised as a wolf, more likely to serve the status quo than fuel the Occupy mythology. If it has fueled the Occupy mythology, I really advise the Occupants to revise their priorities. Not because the whole one percent vs. ninety-nine percent issue isn’t relevant, but because the axiologic foundation of The Hunger Games isn’t strong enough, its narrator (and, most likely, its author) has huge blind spots that prevent her from going beyond a cool analogy, and ultimately the neediness revealed by the common-denominator approach betrays a hunger for approval that defeats all attempts at any kind of social commentary that’s truly against the mainstream.