The Fault in Our Stars
possesses neither the verbose charm of David Foster Wallace's works nor the bleakly surreal existential comic stylings of a Louis CK television episode. It does not evince intellectual prowess on the level of a Pynchon or a Joyce; nor does it compare to Nabokov's aesthetics. So why then is The Fault in Our Stars
heralded as the incarnation of these very qualities? That this book should fail to meet such standards is little surprise given John Green's bibliography; nonetheless, even a novel as simultaneously unfunny, existentially blasé, unintellectual, and emotionally shallow as The Fault in Our Stars
deserves to be judged on its own merits.
The average reviewer's inability to discern quality writing is likely the primary reason for The Fault in Our Stars
' warm critical reaction, so let's not blame Green excessively. Every year, many authors churn out low-quality fiction, but critics can pick only one Best Novel of 2012. Perhaps it is then an unpleasant coincidence, a misalignment of the stars, that so many critics chose this one.
As for why this is so, I see no reason more compelling than the conflation of manipulation
. Consider by way of example the film score. Perhaps you've seen those special features wherein they play a film scene with two different pieces of music. The difference in mood is immediately apparent, and the quality that makes this so is in full force in various well-known film scores—say, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List
. There are good musical reasons for the abjectly depressing feeling that washes over you (like the use of minor subdominant chords, for example) but the end result is that the score makes you feel sad. Bingo—John Williams has just told you how to feel.
Now there's nothing inherently wrong with a sad score, just as there's nothing wrong with sadness
as an emotion. There is certainly a place for authorial intent in the critical process, and emotion will always be relevant so long as humans continue to exist. But sometimes people assemble different elements in a way that provokes an entirely different reaction. This is exactly what happens whenever I watch Schindler's List
—the nature of the film, a (heavily dramatized) Holocaust story, and the sad quality of the music take what could have been a serious film and send it careening toward kitschy melodrama. Much of this is Spielberg's doing, not John Williams' (the shower scene and the children hiding in a latrine stand out in particular), but Williams is an accomplice. As if the thought of a film depicting the Shoah weren't heartbreaking enough, let's put some Sad Music in the mix to make sure everyone's crying by the end. (I think the film should have been released without a score. Serious films don't often need music to make their point for them, no?)
Now I'm a musician, so maybe I pick up on these sad musical cues more quickly than do others. But that doesn't detract from my point: the way the movie is put together (in my example, the combination of picture and music) prompts a deliberately predefined emotional reaction that might not have been prompted had the pieces been consumed disjointly. Emotional manipulation. It ought to go without saying that this kind of manipulation is a bad thing, but since this is the Internet, I'll have to say it anyway.
Although The Fault in Our Stars
is not (yet
) a movie, this of course does not exempt it from manipulation. Many books are manipulative. (Hi, Nicholas Sparks.) Others' are not so noticeable. In fact I contend that The Fault in Our Stars
is one of the best examples of veiled manipulation in recent memory. There is no music scoring The Fault in Our Stars
, so where exactly is the problem?
The author is God (with apologies to Hitchcock
). The people you see in a film are not real; the people whose stories you read in a fiction are not capable of actually thinking for themselves. As such the author bears complete responsibility for his creation, as he wills unthings
into existence. So John Green's works of fiction are not the stories of Hazel Grace or Colin Singleton or the kid from Looking for Alaska
whose name I have forgottenauthor's note: Pudge is the name I was looking for
—they are John Green's stories. In fact they are John Green's manipulative stories.
Attractive male and female leads, tear-jerker life story, formulaic romantic angst and love-piffle, establishment of 'intellectual' buzzphrases between high-hat teenagers. Green's characters are a dangerous brand of manipulative. They seem to act like intelligent, rational, 'mature' adults, except they are not adults. They do not show love in the myriad unsexy ways
adults do; instead we are told by the characters (and ultimately by Green himself) that they love each other, as if merely saying the word makes it so. They do not not engage in heartfelt, life-affirming or-changing intellectual discourse; instead Green writes for us their cool, disaffected rants, as if true intelligence were as simple as an introductory course in propositional logic. The novel begins in a church (in the "literal" heart of Christ, as Green is fond of telling the reader), and yet curiously God does not make any significant thematic appearance in the novel. In fact, substantial spirituality plays little to no part in this book. These creations have been meaninglessly set adrift in a world coloured by bullshit New-Age self-help aphorisms.
So if Hazel and Gus are not adults, what are they? Surely not teenagers; no teenager speaks the way these two do. (I read Swift at 6 and Shakespeare at 12 and even my lexicon isn't littered with the painfully 'trendy' hip dialogue these two spout.) Accordingly I posit that The Fault in Our Stars
is a postmodern work. Baudrillard worried that we were losing our ability to differentiate the real from the model; his fears have fully manifested themselves here, wherein many a casual reader will mistake G and H for Actual Human Beings when their mannerisms are so far from it. (I invite those who do not believe me to browse the comment section below.) On the one hand, we must congratulate John Green for having created such effective third-order simulacra. Yet on the other, the characterization is hardly apt; indeed, one might argue that they are not even simulacra, for they exist only in an impossible universe defined by hopelessly oversimplified anthropic equations like "nerd = sexy" and "metafiction = deep".The Fault in Our Stars
represents a new kind of manipulation. It is perhaps not easy to spot like it is in the works of Nicholas Sparks. It does not sound like the wail of a violin. It does not look like a tear falling from one's eye. It is instead a fetishization of pseudo-intelligence, a reading of David Foster Wallace's This is Water
gone terribly wrong. Green's manipulation occurs at the precise moment he breathes life into his awkward teenage cipher-characters and imbues in them what we are supposed to take to be deep intellectualism. The problem is now evident: the real is not to be found in The Fault in Our Stars
, and that is the greatest deception of all.