**spoiler alert** this is a YAish post-apocalyptic dystopian novel about a society in which humans have evolved to give birth only to twins. of the tw**spoiler alert** this is a YAish post-apocalyptic dystopian novel about a society in which humans have evolved to give birth only to twins. of the twins, one is always able-bodied and the other is always disabled (the words “disabled” and “able-bodied” are never used in the novel). the able-bodied twins stay and grow up with their families and are called alphas. the disabled twins are cast out as early as possible, branded like cattle, and called omegas. omegas cannot reproduce. they live in destitute villages and are increasingly persecuted.
i scanned goodreads quickly before reading this and i saw a review that lambasted this book for being ableist, so that was something i paid attention to while i read it. and at first i wasn’t sure. the main characters are all omegas, even though the protagonist is “disabled” only in the sense of being a seer (not much of a disability, though it would have been nice if haig had discussed at least a bit why seers should be perceived as disabled).
but then at the end it turns out that her love interest and co-protagonist, in spite of missing an arm, was never an omega. so we have two protagonists who are entirely able-bodied (is an alpha with a missing arm able-bodied? and if so, what does it mean to be disabled? there’s some very cool essentialism/non-essentialism debate here that could have used a wee bit of exploration), and two other main characters only one of whom is mildly impaired (he lacks an arm too, but that is rarely remarked upon, so much so that one forgets – this is not so for the love interest, whose lack of his arm is constantly brought up). finally, two other major characters (the confessor and zach) are also able-bodied. not much disability is presented to us after all, in spite of the novel’s setting in a profoundly disabled world (the disability of the world is its dysfunctionality and horror).
the story is well constructed and the writing is beautiful, so these are excellent qualities. but what sapped me, what ultimately unmade me (cuz a careless book can undo me, especially in these tremendously fragile times) was that a book that could and should be focused on bodies is almost entirely disregarding of bodies. injuries, hunger, thirst, fatigue, comfort, discomfort, touch – all the materiality, the fragility, and the neediness of the human body are treated with great lightness, and often ignored, to the point that it’s so, so hard to suspend disbelief. when kip is first liberated from the tank he runs for quite some time without shoes on very harsh terrain, yet no mention is made of the fact that unless you are used to not wearing shoes, not having shoes will simply stop you. you can’t go without shoes unless the sole of your feet is as tough as leather.
kip and cass go days without drinking. they get hurt over and over (during their escape from the island they are slashed repeatedly by the rocks and the mussels), but their injuries are quickly forgotten.
since the fragility of the human body is the key theme of the novel (each twin will die or be hurt if the other twin dies or is hurt, so death and injury are always a possibility), glossing over so much vulnerability is not just careless, it’s callous. literature exists so that we learn how to be human. a book about bodies that ignores bodies deals a little bruise to our humanity and leaves us a little emptier.
finally, why not develop the tremendous narrative and conceptual potential of a society in which half the population is disabled? the power of the able-bodieds is stipulated but not explained, and very little is made of the disempowerment of the non-able-bodieds. in fact, *different* bodies appear only in passing. it is never the case, except for kip’s armlessness and post-tank weakness and for cass’s seerness, that a body’s disability plays a role in the narrative.
so ultimately this left me empty. because what i crave most in books is depth, and compassion, and understanding. the story, meh, the story is just a story. ...more
all of humanity, including extremely smart and discerning readers, loves this book and worships the man who wrote it, and i SERIOUSLY do not want to pall of humanity, including extremely smart and discerning readers, loves this book and worships the man who wrote it, and i SERIOUSLY do not want to piss acid piss on their cheery, heartfelt, we-all-love-each-other parade, so i'm going to put this review between spoiler tags, which also means that i'm going to take advantage of my hiddenness to spoil the book entirely. be warned: i'm spoiling and i'm pissed.
(view spoiler)[you may vibrate with emotion, love and faux understanding at the story of two teenagers who are about to die, and then die, of cancer, but me, i don't. not at all. and when these two teenagers fall in love -- a love that the book defines (inaccurately, i believe) as very much not puppy love -- and one of them loses the other before she, too, goes to the rainbow bridge, then i really want to barf. because can you get any more manipulative? any more exploitative? any more gooey?
there is no depth in this book. there is puppy love, which is kind of depthless by definition (i'm talking about puppy love, not adolescent love) and there is sappy death. people lose people to cancer and countless other tragedies all the time, and it seems to me this should be talked about without cuteness because if there is one thing it isn't that thing is cute. using it for cuteness makes me want to cry and barf with despair for humanity. i do realize that john green makes some (textually marked) attempts to take the cute out of it, but com'on, how is this book not cute? it's the definition of cute. it's cute in the characters' repartee, in the general wit of the narration, in the love that blossoms between these two doomed but beautiful creatures, in their passion for literature and poetry, in their futile yet dogged pursuit of meaning, in their sadness, in their trying to be cheerful for each other and their friends, etc. etc. etc.
all of these things can be and have been dealt with well by writers, but john green slathers them with cute, and there he loses me. big time.
i want to come back to puppy love. there is the love that a child or a teenager feels for another child, another teenager, or another person of whatever age, and then there is puppy love. puppy love is the oversimplification of this love, which is indeed very complex and fraught and rich. puppy love is sitting on the couch watching tv and touching hands. puppy love is trying to figure out sex and then doing it. puppy love is cute notes. puppy love is the trivialization of love. if you take the love two people (or three or four) have for each other and make it cute, you have puppy love. and that is wrong. ask any kid in love whether he or she feels cute. ask them.
and then death. you can make death cute, too! there are a couple of scenes in which john green throws in the most undignified aspects of death -- the sickness, the despair, the apparent loss of one's humanity -- but for the most part, he makes death cute. it's nice that these kids are able to joke so wryly about the fact that they are soon going to (as they put it) lose their personhood, but it doesn't quite work. death is serious business, and this seriousness doesn't come through for me. the cuteness gets in the way, i guess. maybe death is, in a sense, trivial too, and making it cute emphasizes rather than erases this triviality. it is really not that you die: we all die. it's how you die, and how you lived. in this book, how you lived is how much you loved your boyfriend/girlfriend, and that is intolerably reductive, manipulative, simplifying, exploitative, and cute.
i liked this book till about the half-way point. i thought, john green is jonathan safran foer's little brother. but jonathan safran foer, though not immune to cute himself, is a deep dude, a guy who does grief pretty damn well. so no, i no longer think that john green is jonathan safran foer's little brother. i think he is the kid who goes to the same school as jonathan and, having read jonathan's books, figures out what to take out of them that will make his books a smashing success. if you want to read about teenagers in love, you'll do a lot better reading Joey Comeau's One Bloody Thing After Another, which avoids cute like the plague. (hide spoiler)]...more