Saturday, January 18, 2014

John Green - The Fault In Our Stars

I finished The Fault in Our Stars by John Green over a week ago now, and I have intentionally postponed posting about it while I continued to process the story.

I would certainly think somewhere between 15 and 19 everyone needs to read this book.  Not only is it beautiful storytelling of the highest order, but it addresses our invincibility myth so powerfully in that these characters have no illusion of being powerful or invulnerable.

Now on to the subject of reading the book in your late thirties, with three children approaching their teen years, is that I still recomend reading it, but am compelled to note that the painfulness of the book amplifies so much greater.  I was left in a deep sense of sadness and emotional connection to not only the two protagonist, but also their parents, and even the antagonist with his own journey leading him to where he was at too.

I knew I was impressed, and I knew I was touched by the profundity of the story, but it took me several days to figure out why.  The story certainly moved on the muscle structure of great characters, but most stories that have risen to the level of fame and appreciation that this one has received have great characters that move the story with power and grace. I must tell you when I finally realized what Green had done, when I determined the connective tissue which brought the novel together every bit of my emotional connection to the story was explained by my logical understanding of the piece.

Carl Jung, as Wikipedia explains it, "rejected the tabula rasa theory of human psychological development, believing instead that evolutionary pressures have individual predestinations manifested in archetypes." Jung's archetypes were not only the connective tissue of the story, the story was as much a parable to express Jung's theory of archetypes as the "Allegory of the Cave" was written to explain Plato's "Theory of Forms."

If you have not yet read the book, stop reading now and get a copy. It is only $7.99 on Amazon Kindle, so get it and read it.  The remaining paragraphs will contain SPOILERS. Please stop reading now if you do not want characters dissected in a story you have not yet read.

 I knew immediately after reading the book that the conversation between Hazel and Augustus at Oranjee was the fulcrum point the novel was balanced on.  As the days passed and my pondering about the book continued, it was here that I first realized where Green was going as I mulled their conversation at Oranjee over in my head.  Up until this point in the story everything between Hazel and Augustus was based on their archetypal roles as anima and animus, or in more common terms the idealized male and female . However, in the conflict and resolution of the evenings conversation the couple attains Jung's syzygy.  This unification begins in the metaphysical discussion on the afterlife and coalesces on the park bench outside Oranjee as they discussed the disintegration and death of Caroline Mathers.

As I thought about how Green transformed the images from "anima/animus" to "syzygy" between Hazel and Augusts, I saw how Jung's archetypes were pervasive throughout the entire story.  I was blown away how the narration of the story had been so often by Hazel as self and about Hazel as shadow.  Hazel the narrator, Jung's "the self" archetype, is strong, self actualized, and at times even dismissive of her cancer. The cancer itself, present in both their bodies was a physical manifestation of a story about the pieces of ourselves Jung refers to as "the shadow." The weakness, chaos, and unknown mystery of the cancer within the bodies of these two protagonist, were so easily emotionally connected to because our own psyche is shadow, it too is weak, chaotic and mysterious to us.

Jung's other images are equally well woven into the story, the conflict between Hazel's mom as caregiver and secret student as Jung's "the Mother."  Hazel's father's working and providing  as Jung's "the father." Isaac's surgery leading to blindness and his learning to experience the world through different senses as Jung's "the persona."  Each of these well crafted archetypes made the story so easy to connect with.

One of my favorite illustrations of Jung's archetypes was his usage of Otto Frank, real life father of Anne Frank, to serve as Jung's "the wise old man." One of the most touching points in the story is in the Anne Frank house tour,
 "I must say," Otto Frank said on the video in his accented English. I was very much surprised by the deep thoughts Anne had"..."and my conclusion is," he said "since I have been in very good terms with Anne, that most parents don't really know their children." 
The quote, the timing within the story, and the tragedy which at this point has only been foreshadowed makes for, especially in retrospect, a perfect characterization of Jung's wise old man.

 Earlier in the post I wrote about my emotional connection and sympathy to VanHouten as antagonist of the story. As I finished reading I was conflicted about how I could feel so much empathy for a character who was clearly the antagonist of the story.  Clearly, one is not supposed to have such tenderness for the bad guy.  Except, VanHouten isn't a bad guy.  Carl Jung writes about another archetype, "the trickster."  VanHouten moves through the story changing forms between heroic author, general asshat, pathetic drunk, and broken father.  The trickster was by Jung's explanation the darkest most extreme pieces of "the shadow" archetype.  Jung writes, "...trickster is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness." As Paul Radin writes in the same volume, "Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. . . . He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.”  (source) 

The emotional connection to VanHouten, and proving this is a parable of Jung's archetypes comes in the following paragraph by Jung himself.
The peculiar thing about these dissociations is that the split-off personality is not just a random one, but stands in a complementary or compensatory relationship to the ego-personality. It is a personification of traits of character which are sometimes worse and sometimes better than those the ego-personality possesses. A collective personification like the trickster is the product of an aggregate of individuals and is welcomed by each individual as something known to him, which would not be the case if it were just an individual outgrowth"  (source)
John Green has titled the book, "The Fault in Our Stars." VanHouten in his first emailed response to Augusts takes issue with a William Shakespeare quote,
 "and never was Shakespeare more wrong than we had Cassius note "The fault dear Brutus in not in our stars / but in ourselves" Easy enough to say when you're a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found in our stars."
 This "fault in our stars" is what Jung writes about in all his work on myth and archetypes.  Jung traces our archetypes passed on from earlier generations, and even earlier evolutions that continue to affect us as a species, as societies, as communities, and as individuals.

This story matters because we are part of a tapestry that weaves back millions of years, and will continue on into time forward.  As Green himself stated in the author's note before the story, "...made up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."


Niki said...

You went with the more psychological aspect of the book than I did. Great review! I loved this book and may have to write my own review of it. You've inspired me. :)

Unknown said...

To me, the Fault in Our Stars was about feeling valuable in a universe that for the most part doesn't care about you at all. THere was the dichotomy of Hazel who was perfectly content living her life quietly, meaning a lot to a few people and then there was Augustus who wanted to mean a lot to a lot of people. Augustus wanted to be famous for doing something heroic and amazing and struggled in the last stages of his life to realize that meaning as much as he did to Hazel was far more important than meaning a lot to a millions of people he didn't know.

I also think the book speaks volumes about how we deal with suffering. On the one hand Hazel was kind of cynical about her disease, she'd been living with it for so long that it no longer bothered her that she was sick so she pushed out the thoughts of her sickness. Her mother on the other hand was monstrously protective and anal-retentive about Hazel's sickness, trying to get Hazel to do everything exactly the way she was supposed to. Hazel's father was the crier, unable to be strong about his emotions, he often let them overflow. And then there was augustus who tried as hard as he could to be completely aloof about his disease (i.e. the unlit cigarette among other things), he tried to pretend like it didn't bother him when in fact it was tearing apart his dreams of being a world-famous hero.

Just some things to think about. I also believe the character development of Peter Van Houten is tragic yet brilliantly done. Going from this magical super hero to giant jerkwad to raging alcoholic to hopelessly lost ex-father all while staying true to himself.

The book is brilliantly written, definitely one of my favorites. If you haven't already I recommend you read Looking For Alaska next, I like it better than TFioS, I think it's absolutely brilliant, also Paper Towns was beautifully done.