Book review., Books, Dystopia, Edinburgh Trams, Feminism, Jenny Dawe, Katniss Everdeen, Ken MacLeod, Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, Liberty, Literary criticism, Marxism, Mockingjay, Peeta Mellark, Politics, Revolutionary Communist Party, Spiked Online, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
[SCENE: The Cuckoo’s Nest]
James: Ah, Zbigniew. Glad you could make it. [He passes Biggy a bottle of Tyskie].
Tychy: Why, thank you!
James: I must update you on the latest changes. Allow me to introduce our new gardening correspondent.
Jenny Dawe: Pleased to meet you.
James: Yes, Jenny has convinced me that our website needs to get into gardening big time. It’s a huge subject to take on, but we’re sure to acquire thousands of new readers.
Tychy: And I think we know whose garden she’s taken on.
James: Well, as you did give me a duplicate key to your apartment…
Jenny: And you do have a lovely big garden. My green fingers were twitching! I’ve already started to erect the cucumber frame…
Tychy: Yes! Unfortunately, when hammering in the stakes for your cucumber frame, you hit a water pipe. Our tenement now has no water…
Jenny: It’s just a temporary…
Tychy: Next, when digging what looks like some sort of irrigation channel, your spade sliced through a gas pipe.
Jenny: You have to look at the big picture.
Tychy: The big picture is already thousands of pounds of damage and the most confounded inconvenience!
Jenny: I’m not staying here to be insulted. I shall return when you are prepared to be more civil. Goodbye!
Tychy: Good riddance!
James: Perhaps a wee extra teaspoon of diplomacy, Biggy. Hang on… where’s my wallet?
Tychy: You’ve lost it?
James [uneasily]: I had it a moment ago.
Tychy: No doubt it will turn up. Speaking of local democracy, what do we make of the new Labour/SNP coalition?
James: I was unable to get through a dozen of their “fifty pledges.” I don’t know what sort of incredible human being they imagine would actually sit down and read the entire document. All of the pledges sounded admirable, though.
James: Hardly. We would never come to so unambiguous a judgement.
Tychy: You are impossible! If a book went out of print in the 1840s, then we’ll happily publish twenty thousand words about it. But when it comes to Hunger Games, which now has a print run of 36.5 million in America, we still haven’t got around to reviewing it…
James: I didn’t say that it was a bad book…
Tychy: I can always have my fiction published by a new editor, you know. Everybody working in Tesco is an arts graduate these days. If I volunteered to rearrange the shelves in my local store to make room for another self-service machine, I’m sure that they’d give me a new editor for free.
James: Okay, it’s not a bad book! In fact, it’s exhilarating!
Tychy: That’s better.
James: It’s the sort of novel that you down like a pint, skim-reading it in one go and then feeling somewhat disorientated afterwards.
Tychy: Ah, so you’re not completely inhuman.
James: But it’s amusing that they’ve marketed Hunger Games as the latest young adult fiction sensation a la Harry Potter. They’ve already filmed the first novel in the series, but the whole project increasingly resembles a trap. The distributors of the first film had to excise a scene which featured “splashes of blood” in order to gain a 12A certificate. But if you edited all of the blood out of the third book, Mockingjay, then the subsequent film would be about three minutes long. For example, Prim dies when a human shield of children are napalmed. How on Earth can you film that?
Tychy: Maybe some jazz music in the background would lighten the mood?
James: Collins’ writing relies wholly upon suspense and deft plotting. Unfortunately, the characters remain ropey. Katniss’ devotion to her family is entirely theoretical – she otherwise scarcely exchanges a word with them. They are rather like a politician’s family. Katniss is forced to choose between two young men who are, from any reasonable perspective, completely indistinguishable. Many of the characters in the third book are nothing more than names.
Tychy: Any war story will require stay-at-homes and an army of expendable characters. But how could you not love Peeta and Katniss?
James: Fans of the series often insist that Peeta is much nicer than Katniss, that the boy’s “goodness” provides the antidote to the girl’s fierceness. Yet this is true of every marriage that I have ever encountered.
Tychy: But isn’t Katniss inspirational? I would almost consent to castration if I could be like Katniss afterwards.
James: In what respect is she inspirational?
Tychy: Her character offers a pointed rebuke to everybody from our world. She has lived with the daily threat of death for so long that her mind has grown entirely streamlined and devoid of frivolity. She is implausibly brave and stoical, and yet completely realistic at the same time. The idea that she may be a victim has never occurred to her. She’s my dream woman. Except that I’d wear out all of my saucepans trying to beat her into obedience.
James: I think that you have fallen for the rebels’ propaganda. It was initially fashionable to claim that Katniss represented the ultimate in female empowerment. And then reviewers found themselves suddenly wondering whether her character has any capacity for freedom at all. When you profess to be dazzled by Katniss, you have to explain which one. You’ve noticed the obscure game concerning pairs throughout this series? This may merely expose Katniss’s inadequacy before a world which is simply not black and white. What’s an archer to do when there’s more than one target? Cupid has to choose between two hearts when firing his arrow for Katniss. When the Capitol falls, Katniss has to choose between shooting two contrary presidents. She has two ineffective fathers – her blood relative who worked at the bottom of a coal seam and Haymitch who lives at the bottom of a liquor bottle…
Tychy: But in what sense are there two Katnisses?
James: There is the real-Katniss and the stranger-Katniss. The real-Katniss is a lonely and disorientated hysteric – an exemplar of controlled femininity – who is always indifferent to her appearance and suspicious of love. The stranger-Katniss is dippy for Peeta, she rejoices in her beautiful costumes, and she throws her deepest emotions to the birds when she is filmed singing to the mockingjays. The real-Katniss is rather like Charlotte Bronte’s madwoman in the attic, who always remains completely disconnected from Jane Eyre.
Tychy: But Katniss occasionally takes the initiative. Which of your Katnisses, for example, appeals to the survivors of the Nut to surrender?
James: The real-Katniss. She does not eclipse her nemesis, or converge with her, at this point, but she merely attempts to try her own hand at promoting the image of the stranger-Katniss. She will have no more influence than the rest of the PR team. After the real-Katniss is shot whilst appealing for a surrender, others will resume the “tacky romantic drama” of the stranger-Katniss. In Mockingjay the revolution will be televised on reality TV. A rebellion led by TV producers rather than revolutionary statesmen.
The Capitol seizes the stranger-Katniss’ painful separation from Peeta to provide the perfect metaphor for an unnecessary civil war. Yet when Peeta is himself returned as a brainwashed stranger, the state has determined a breakup. This warns Katniss that the Capitol can determine any human mind, that an independent identity and destiny are impossible. Peeta has been programmed to believe that Katniss is the predetermined automaton rather than himself. Katniss will bewail that, “he no longer believes I’m human”…
Tychy: But Katniss is human! Collins is exploring the freedom of the human condition within a vast interactive game which has been created by those in power. Indeed, Katniss’ adventure has the second-hand quality of a computer game which has been adapted from an earlier movie. President Snow is a like a decrepit Bond villain, his “Peacekeepers” are forlorn Stormtroopers. Katniss has to hold together the vision of a cool, defiant Robin Hood. The drama of this trilogy is the reconciliation of image and reality, art and life. The tragedy of the trilogy may be that such a thing is impossible. Celebrities can never live up to their original image. Katniss disappoints everybody and goes a bit mad, the same fate of every celebrity. She will probably end her life in complete obscurity. But she frees herself from your stranger-Katniss, who simply fades out of fashion.
James: This is hardly female empowerment. She triumphantly frees herself from an image of empowerment by disproving it?
Tychy: There’s not such a distance between the two. Both Katnisses can shoot a squirrel in the eye. And to counter your snobbery, I was going to suggest that your recurring twosomes may be merely a Classical reference. Rome was founded by Romulus, the survivor of twins. You no doubt approve of Collins’ Victorian habit of endlessly alluding to Antiquity. If only a fraction of those 36.5 million readers check out Artemis, Theseus and Spartacus on Wikipedia, then Hunger Games will prove a worthwhile enterprise. I do hope that you’re not going to start droning on about Battle Royale?
James: Mixing gladiatorial combat with dystopian reality TV is the sort of idea that would seem hackneyed from the very beginning. It is merely that Koushun Takami was lucky enough to write his book first. But if there are any libraries in Panem, they contain only the Classics. When Gale describes Katniss as “the best dressed rebel in history,” we may suddenly realise that we have no idea how much modern history he actually knows. Katniss mentions that they had received a “weekly lecture on the history of Panem” at school, but she dismisses this as propaganda. Some remaining particle of history now literally dictates the present, with a “box of envelopes” containing instructions for “centuries of Hunger Games.” Even the box, however, may have been tampered with.
Tychy: A lot of space as well as time has disappeared. China and Africa must still exist, but there is no mention of them. Or it may be that bereft of the surrounding barbarians, America had no means of defining its civilisation, and so it has lost its faith in itself.
Tychy: A serious philosophical novel. I was anticipating a work of science-fiction – something predicated upon a great deal of convoluted explanation – but Macleod’s vision of the future turned out to be comfortably contemporary. Unlike Hunger Games, it had not wandered very far from the present. The characters still read fossilised versions of the Guardian and the Daily Mail.
James: But is this politics or merely caricature? These citizens of the future are so sheep-witted that they have allowed the state to expand to quite unlikely proportions. This novel’s equivalent of Katniss, Hope Morrison, is apparently the only person in the world, aside from suicide bombers, to remain conscious of her freedom. Would our grandchildren ever really get into such a mess? When the hero, Hugh, wonders, “What sort of future had barbarians in it?” the irony howls at the top of its inaudible voice.
Tychy: But this novel is hardly dystopian. Indeed, perhaps the most unrealistic feature of this story is its optimism. We may be flabbergasted to discover that Hugh is working class. Against all odds, the proletariat has survived. Moreover, they have outlived the Green movement, whose interminable protest against CO2 emissions has been rendered obsolete by huge genetically-modified carbon-slurping trees. This future at least seems more attractive than the one currently on the cards. Scottish industry will be rejuvenated by wind technology. Africa offers a portfolio of “Lion economies.” When Hope calls up Maya’s entire career on her glasses, we may struggle to be disturbed, rather than simply envious, at this latest manifestation of Facebook.
James: The British housing shortage must be apparently eternal, because they still haven’t solved it. But Hugh is associated with the optimism of technology, whilst Hope embodies the pessimism of politics?
Tychy: No, Hope represents the optimism of humanity. The clue’s in her name.
James: The Morrison family certainly has to redeem the world. It’s no coincidence that Hugh is a carpenter and his wife is pregnant. Their boy may hold the genes to save humanity. It’s comparable to Katniss’ blasphemous pregnancy in Catching Fire – in which her virgin conception will go on to inspire a rebellion – but the blasphemy does not register with the people of Panem because they have forgotten Christianity along with the rest of their history.
Tychy: But whilst Mary was impregnated by God, who cuckolded her poor husband – and Katniss’ beloved was brainwashed by the Capitol – Hope is chillingly betrothed to the state with her “monitor ring.”
James: Our freedom is restricted everywhere. By unemployment and substandard education. This is hardly a “serious philosophical novel.” It’s a flawed political vision. And when we say “politics”… [sighs] I suppose that we mean Spiked Online.
Tychy: Spiked? That’s a website?
James: Indeed. But we must be careful here. Macleod is an old lefty, with more of an affinity to the Morning Star than to the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Tychy: He’s a Communist!
James: Oh, you Poles only have to hear the word to become quite infuriatingly childish. Only because your paternalistic classes were supposedly Communist.
Tychy: There’s an old saying I learned at school:
The time will come when from the trees,
Hang not leaves, but Communists.
So universally true that it even rhymes in English.
James: Only if you don’t have an English accent. But the RCP were right-wing Marxists. For the last decade, they have run a website called Spiked.
Tychy: How can you be a right-wing Marxist?
James: They perceived the state to be the ultimate manifestation of the bourgeoisie – a force which meddles in the lives of working people and destroys their autonomy, reducing adults to children. Intrusion starts from the very same premise. Hope frequently frets about sounding like a “teenager,” but since the state has decided that she is incapable of making her own decisions, even her gawky teenaged uncooperativeness may constitute progress. When hearing of Geena’s torture, Dr Estraguel quips that “Let no one say the state is not concerned about the individual.” The state’s influence is invariably dehumanising. Geena is introduced with a joke about her name being unimportant, and it transpires that the police have randomly singled her out for personal intimidation. Hope is, so to speak, something for Geena to cling to. But Geena’s solution will only require the state to begrudgingly acknowledge a genetic determinism and incorporate this into its existing regulations, which hardly smacks of freedom.
Tychy: But this is a general insistence upon freedom. What does it have to do with Spiked?
James: Intrusion fictionalises almost every concern, every campaign, and every wrinkle of detail from the history of Spiked. The novel seems to tick all of the boxes on Spiked one by one, with every conceivable gripe leading back to the inexorable state. And so second-hand books are banned because the reader may inhale fourth-hand cigarette smoke from their pages. Images of cigarettes have been digitally removed from old films. Social workers are still dementedly hunting for “satanic child abuse.” The state can still detain you without charge, but for “sixty-four days” rather than ninety two. The Spiked reader may see their life passing before their eyes. When Hope recounts how “men… had come to take away the Aga,” MacLeod is surely starting to take the piss…
Tychy: But I detected a sort of left-wing politics underpinning this novel, which did not merely wish to vanquish the state. Dr. Estraguel appears like a detective to explain the novel down to its very last detail. He reveals that the state’s ultimate mission is to prevent people “from realising that they’re already almost there… State-capitalism can flip over – or rather, can be flipped over, overturned – into socialism in the blink of an eye, the moment people become conscious of the possibility.”
James: Yes, so the revolution will merely involve the state changing hands? The class struggle is here removed from everyday life – from capitalists and workers battling it out every day – to a mere confidence trick, in which faraway capitalists get away with defrauding the rest of us because they have nationalised themselves, capturing the state that is supposed to regulate them. But in reality, capitalists produce freedom and opportunity by creating new technologies, whilst they simultaneously annihilate liberty by imprisoning everybody in their employment. Working people need to take over the means of production, not just the state. When Hugh fantasises about blowing up the internet – err, I’m afraid that I didn’t understand that part…
Tychy: Neither did I.
James: Well, it’s just an expression of impotence. Because it’s easier to destroy the world than to remake it.
Tychy: You still have a soft spot for the state. And you also believe in art for art’s sake. You have always ground your teeth at didactic novels, but Intrusion remains a success despite quite clearly telling us what to think.
James: Its successes are aesthetic, not political. For a start, the novel’s unexpected intrusion into faery worlds calls to mind Sarban’s angular and witty novella “Calmahain.” There’s an agreeable suspense to Macleod’s story, because its world is half unfamiliar and clarifying its details allows him to repeatedly play with our expectations. When Maya mentions Hope’s “MP,” we may be surprised, having assumed that these people had quietly terminated their democracy. We may assume that Jack Crow is an old lefty, but it turns out that people are nostalgic towards him because he’s an old Blairite, smiling “artificially” and “glad-handing” an Islington crowd.
Tychy: I rated the aesthetics less than the politics. The characterisation is unadventurous. Whilst Mumsnet may have fulfilled its destiny with the title of ParentsNet, MacLeod’s female characters often have the blank personalities of users on Mumsnet. They also exchange the sort of bald dialogue found in specimens from French in Four Months.
James: I can hear them ringing last orders. I may write more on Hunger Games for the website.
Tychy: Anything else in the pipeline? I’m presently authoring another “Agency Workers” story…
James: There’s forthcoming writing about James Lasdun.
Tychy: Well let us drink again to the future of literature.