Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fault In Our Stars

"the universe wants to be noticed"

"I had grand plans to be asleep tonight by two. But before I turned out the light I started reading The Fault in Our Stars. I just now finished. And I'm not sure if it's the bizarre combination of black coffee and red wine, or that I'm awake and the world's asleep, or that I've read 1000 pages of the most non-fiction ever the past two weeks, but this is the best book I've ever read. The recommendation letter written for John Nash read simply, 'this man is a genius.' That's the kind of review I give this book. I'll be shocked if it's not read a hundred years from now."

a few words of early morning praise
for the awesome & multi - talented John Green
from my awesome & multi - talented son Ben McCartney


A couple of months ago, on this blog (scroll down or click), I took a brief look at Green's main character, cancer survivor ("All salvation is temporary" 59) Hazel Grace Lancaster, who comes of age while also coming to terms with an array "Cancer Perks" and the "Side Effects of Dying," the Good Days and the Bad Days, the dignity and the indignities, the nostalgia and the cynicism, even the absurdity.

As someone who has worked with young cancer patients, John Green, without any hint of didacticism or prescribed order, portrays his characters cycling in and out of anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance: "There are no bad guys. . . . Even cancer isn't a bad guy really: Cancer just wants to be alive" (246).

As Green's starry title suggests,
his engagement with the topic of cancer is cosmic:

p 13: "There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does."

p 194: " . . . the definition of humanness is the opportunity to marvel at the majest of creation . . . "

p 202: "The tales of our exploits will survive as long as the human voice itself . . . And even after that, when the robots recall the human absurdities of sacrifice and compassion, they will remember us. They will robot - laugh at our courageous folly . . . But something in their iron robot hearts will yearn to have lived and died as we did: on the hero's errand."

p 223: “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it -- or my observation of it -- is temporary?"

p 294: "I was thinking about the universe wanting to be noticed, and how I had to notice it as best I could. I felt that I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn't get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn't gotten to be a person yet."

p 233: "Some infinities are bigger than other infinities" (see also 260).

p 266: "We live in a universe devoted to the creation, and eradication, of awareness. Augustus Waters did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. He died after lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim -- as you will be -- of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.”

p 276: "Omnis cellula e cellula "All cells come from cells. Every cell is born of a previous cell, which was born of a previous cell. Life comes from life. Life begets life begets life begets life begets life.”

p 308: "Who am I to say that these things might not be forever? Who is Peter Van Houten to assert as fact the conjecture that our labor is temporary? All I know of heaven and all I know of death is in this park: an elegant universe in ceaseless motion, teeming with ruined ruins and screaming children."

p 312: " . . . the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention."


Ben and I also had some fun tracking down the following literary allusions:

1. Shakespeare
First of all, for his title, Green provides a subtle inversion of Shakespeare's dictum --
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are the underlings.”

Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

suggesting not that we are free of responsibility, but that the stars themselves may not be without fault. After all, we're not in charge of everything.

2. Emily Dickinson
A central figure in the novel is Peter Van Houten, author of Hazel's favorite book An Imperial Affliction. Like Green himself, the fictional Van Houten choses his title from a pre - existing work, a poem by Emily Dickinson:

A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —
’Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 86
found in The Complete Poems

Reading Dickinson's poem, throws a couple of other passages into sharp relief:

Early in the novel, the spring air is "just on the cold side of perfect, the late-afternoon light heavenly in its hurtfulness" (18).

And later at the cemetery, the mourners stand "beneath the clear blue sky with its certain slant of light" (274).

3. T. S. Eliot
On the way to Amsterdam Hazel recites a few lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit. . . .

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

[Click to hear Eliot himself recite]

In the Anne Frank House, Augustus remembers the reference and promises Hazel that "The tales of our exploits will survive as long as the human voice itself" (153, 164, 202).

4. William Carlos Williams
One of the most touching allusions is Hazel's re-write of the straightforward and striking poem, "The Red Wheel Barrow" (246 - 47).

Here is Williams' original:

so much depends
a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

and here is Hazel's rendition:

so much depends
the transparent
G - tube

erupting from the gut
of the blue - lipped boy

so much depends
this observer
of the universe

4. Robert Frost
Frost's brief poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" makes a brief appearance when Hazel despairs for the future: "It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and good in the world, and I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn't get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote Nothing gold can stay" (278).

Here's the whole poem, short, sweet, sad:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Nature's first green: see the Wabash through the leaves?

There are plenty of other intertextual references, including allusions to The Great Gatsby (191) and V for Vendetta (17, 29 - 30). For more, check out The Fault in Our Stars Metatext site, which seems to have found them all.