Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Hunger Games: Reflections

(What follows is not a review but a reflection. I will, in a later post, cover the book on its merits and defaults as fiction. I was moved to write the following after a first reading and present it here as a testament to the power of the book's ability to make the reader reflect on the present age.)

The Hunger Games is not so much a vision of a world that can go wrong, but a world that reflects our own and is already going wrong. In a brilliant move as a writer she stretches boundary definitions of genre and pulls off a contemporary dystopic novel.

The great secret of The Hunger Games is not that it’s a powerful send up of the Bush regime, or that its about the way that television images of violence and reality tv desensitize us to human brutality, or that it’s a commentary on the nature of a society that has allowed its youth to daily fight to the death (and which happens on the streets of its inner cities). The great secret of The Hunger Games is that most of America is going hungry.

We have unemployment at an all time high. We are living through the worst economic meltdown since the great depression. Those jobs that are available, except for a lucky few, are those that barely pay the bills. Few are the families that can actually survive on one salary. Housing is at an all time low. Record foreclosures etc.
Go to the a Walmart in a rural region of the country. Look at the people. Look at the desperation. You see those rednecks as they come in the doors of a walmart, you see their thin bodies in wife beaters, their wives' with faces that look like rotten fruit. They are old before their time. These are the people of The Hunger Games. That is what most of America is living through.

Before I get off on too much of a rant here I will move on and look at the novel. But I cant stress this enough. The most moving aspect of the novel is not the technology, the fight to survive, the brutality that daily exists in Katniss' world, but that this is where we are as a country: we are starving, but the images on television show us nothing more than opulent wealth and power. And no one seems to care or notice. We live in a country that is supposed to be a world economic leader, and yet, most of us can't feed ourselves on our wages.

The most amazing thing about the Hunger Games is the way it gets the reader to focus on the here and now, on what life is like now, and not on how bad of a future there could be. The book is a window on the contemporary world, rather than the world of the future.

Another intriguing fact that is eerily similar to our time is that the world of The Hunger Games takes place in the former United States among twelve separate districts. Each district corresponds to some region in the country. District 12 for example, Peeta's district, is Appalachia. Whether that covers all of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia etc. though is anyone's guess because what the political regime has done is to keep the districts ignorant of the exact locations and borders of the other districts.

Again, when you think about it, not that far from reality. How many Americans have travelled to the Southwest? Or to the Northwest? Or Wisconsin? , Or to Missouri or Kentucky, or to any of the other states that do not draw huge numbers of tourists every year because of pristine beaches, or other natural wonders? How much do I as a reader really know of what goes on in South Dakota?

1984 is meant to scare the shit out of us. Its meant to make us be concerned about the future and what could happen. But Orwell is a political theorist and the world Winston Smith lives through is not as recognizeable as our own. Owrell sees dangerous currents in the political world and warns us of them.

Suzanne Collins looks at our world now, takes that from her starting point, and startles us with how what we see around us today is really just a step away from a nighmare world of political oppression.

Its also a brilliant accomplishment when a writer manages to make a dystopic novel work in a rural setting. Most dystopic novels take place in what is imagined to be the future of all human civilizations: impossibly large, overcrowded, dark and subterranean cityscapes of brick and concrete.

The Appalachia of the Hunger Games is dirt poor, poorly educated, and beset by oppressive technology.

That's all for now. Further essays on these books will include the mythic echoes and allusions in the story and how they comment on the larger narrative. The critique of a reality tv culture as well as the grounding for the technology in the book.

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