Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost anything is, really.)
Terminal illness books are sort of a specialty of mine. I typically stick to non-fiction since I’m more interested in the gory details than in writing quality or an emotional story, but a few weeks ago I saw a passionate review of this book by Janet Potter on The Millions. Many of the comments made about it during the recent Tournament of Books resonated with me as well: dark humor, devastating wit. I haven’t been reading a lot of YA fiction (at least not since I was a YA), but I loved Speak and I’m not opposed to broadening my horizons so I impulsively (back when I was reading impulsively) placed it on my library request list.
Hazel is your basic outrageously precocious teenager. At 16, she’s already got her GED so she’s taking classes at the local community college, she thinks about the infinite numbers between 0 and 1, she’s memorized Prufrock. She’s the sort of character that made me feel terrible when I was 16, because I didn’t rise to that level of sophistication. She’s the sort of character I wished I was. I wouldn’t mind being her now, in fact. Except for one thing: her tenuous life revolves around her oxygen tank and the occasional-miracle drug called Phalanxifor.
Her mother forces her into a support group:
This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying….
The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.
I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very Sacred Heart and whatever.
Green gets a lot of mileage out of the “heart of God” metaphor, as Hazel shares one of my pet peeves: the faulty use of the word “literal” as an intensifier. But the Support Group serves as a home base for the story: it’s where Hazel meets Augustus who becomes the star-crossed love (I’m a little concerned about the blended star metaphors, but not unduly) of her short life-so-far.
The backbone of the plot, besides dying teenagers, is a fictitious book titled An Imperial Affliction by a fictitious author named Peter Van Houten (“the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died,” says Hazel). Apparently, Green gets a lot of questions about AIA and its author, Peter Van Houten (“a pretty well-known journalist once asked me how Peter Van Houten felt about my depiction of him”), but it doesn’t exist, though the concept of it is based on Infinite Jest (as is most imagined-but-not-written fiction, I suppose) and, more directly, perhaps, The Blood of the Lamb (which I may have to add to my terminal-illness-books reading list).
I love this technique of hiding an imaginary book inside a real book. I especially love Hazel’s feelings about the book:
My favorite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.
I’ve felt that way about books (and music). They almost become a test of intimacy: Is this person someone I can imagine telling about this book? Will s/he “get” it, and if not, what becomes of this relationship? It’s the perfect book for an outrageously precocious teenager, particularly an outrageously precocious teenager with cancer, to love:
But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts the charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in AIA, Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.
An Imperial Affliction‘s ambiguous ending (it sounds like a great book; too bad it doesn’t exist) allows for much of the action of the plot, as Hazel and Augustus begin a quest to find out “what happens” after the book ends. Oh, how many discussions of TNY stories head down this path. It gives the book solid momentum, and delivers us to the turning point of the actual novel. No, I won’t reveal it. But it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Pretty much everything you expect to happen in this book, happens. That’s not a complaint; it’s comforting, in fact. It’s nice to read something a little predictable once in a while. And it’s very nicely done, with, indeed, dark humor and devastating wit, if a book about teenagers with cancer can be imagined that way.
A central theme in the book is the idea that relationships have the potential to hurt. That’s what relationships do, of course: it’s almost inevitable that someone in a relationship will be hurt at some point. Some day those little things that seemed so sweet in courtship will become major annoyances, or one will change and the other will not be able to keep up, or after a long and perfect harmony, someone will die, barring the improbable coincidence of simultaneous passing. It’s human nature to crave relationships anyway. We’re fools that way. But we’re the ones who are still here, after all, so the evolutionary advantages of emotionally attaching yourself to another person are indisputable.
For Hazel, of course, there’s a whole other level to the potential hurt of relationships.
“I’m like. Like. I’m like a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”…
“I’m a grenade,” I said again. “I just want to stay away from people and read books and think and be with you guys because there’s nothing I can do about hurting you; you’re too invested, so just please let me do that, okay? I’m not depressed. I don’t need to get out more. And I can’t be a regular teenager, because I’m a grenade.”
For me, the take-home of this book lies here, on the other side of that fear: “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world… but you do have some say in who hurts you.”
Yes, there’s a movie in the works. It’s the Love Story of this decade. For those with grey hair only: raise your hand if you still have your tattered copy of Love Story. Thought so. It was a terrible book. This one is much, much better.
As a side note, the acknowledgements include Vi Hart, the creative genius whose math videos like the recently posted Reel frequently obsess me. I’m not sure why that came as a surprise: everyone seems to know Vi Hart (I think I was the last person in the western hemisphere to discover her) and John Green and his brother Hank have a rollicking YouTube channel themselves at VlogBrothers.
It’s a good book, with a lot of great elements. It’s funny (unless you are, have, or know a teenager with cancer), it’s tragic (yes, I cried through the whole last third, which may be why I strongly preferred the first half), it’s smooth reading with a great rhythm and enjoyable style. It didn’t rise quite to the heights of what I was expecting, given the buzz, but I’m glad I read it. Then again, terminal illness books are my specialty.