Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reality, Fiction, and Fictional Reality

We interrupt your scheduled blog post to bring you an emergency book review rant. Let's face it, impassioned rage is really what the internet is all about people.

No, this is not one of "those" book reviews where they send me a free book and I try to be gracious. My wife got the best-selling, world famous The Fault in Our Stars by John Green this week. She plowed through it, gushed about it, laughed out loud, read me portions out of context, and finished it in a day. Then her sister called to ask what the name if it was again because she was going to purchase it at Barnes & Noble. In my world, buying a book new and for more than $2 is cause for alarm.

I decided to read it. Sure, I have an essay for class I need to finish, along with a book I have to read so I can write a paper next week that will be distributed and discussed by all of my professional ministry peers and colleagues. Not to mention preaching Sunday our local, giant (40,000 attendee) take over the entire town, set your clock by this every year event, Peach Festival happening Saturday. Plus, I plowed through that borderline terrible Dan Brown book already this week because it's due back to the library and not eligible for renewal. Let's bang this baby out!

First off, it's about teenagers with cancer. It's funny. Not ha-ha funny, but smart funny - the kind of smart funny that's so funny you do actually laugh out loud from time to time. It's also impeccably well written, like really well written, like even in my most writer-snobby, Josh from the West-Wing, high horse attitude, I still have to say it's really, really good writing. I stopped for a few moments to consider whether it was "A Prayer for Owen Meany" good, I really did.*

I'll be quoting from the book in a number of places in the future and you should most certainly read it, whoever you are. It's that good. Despite what I'm going to rant about in a few short sentences, it's one of the best novels I've ever read. It talks about death in proper perspective, it also dabbles in love well and it's just so darn fun to read. This might be the ultimate audiobook - the words are art in themselves even apart from their meaning.

It's good.

However, when I reached the end of chapter thirteen, I was floored. A beautiful, poignant, honest story about what's right and wrong in the world. I could see it as the perfect ending of a fantastic moving. I assumed, with every fiber in my being that the book was finished. There were 100 pages left - nearly a third of the book remained. Those hundred pages were good - most of my favorite quotes and topics come in those hundred pages. You won't regret reading them... probably.

The whole time I was finishing the book, as much as I loved it, I had this dark foreboding hanging over me. I kept seeing that perfect ending on page 218 and realizing, as good a writer as Green is, as great as these last hundred pages were turning out to be, there was just no way the actual ending would end as well as the presumed ending. It was just not going to happen.

To his credit, he didn't try. Some would call it a cop out - and I am one of those people. Better to go down in a blaze of glory than to be happy with third place. My wife will tell you the ending is real, which is what the book is about all along: reality and not fantasy or fiction.

I don't think that's true. It's fiction about reality, but it's told in such a fictionally real fashion you're tricked into thinking the book is actually about reality, when it's just another book that's sucked you in in ways so perfectly beautiful it can't quite be real.

The teenagers in the book have Dawson's Creek level vocabulary and wit. It's amazing that the one tenth of one percent of actual teenagers who possess such astute minds always find themselves wrapped up in our best works of art. Green does this so well, though (read: not like Dawson's Creek) that you overlook the impossibility of these characters and appreciate them for what they represent (this is where it gets too meta even for me); they are talking about and representing reality, but they're not real. They're still stand ins for real people because real people can't encapsulate reality in ways entertaining to millions of readers. It's about reality, but it's also fictional reality.

Because of this, and this is, by far, my favorite kind of writing, something I consider myself an expert on, readers want, they crave, a well crafted, best part of the book, perfectly unassailable ending to wrap things up in a nice neat little package. This is what John Irving does in his best novels - one sentence at the end - that makes the other 150,000+ words perfectly connect to one another. Even if the message is real, even if it embodies the pain, incongruity, and messiness of reality, that message of messiness is wrapped up in powerful, meaningful, satisfying ways. Again, this is why John Irving is out greatest living writer - even if his subject matter usually keeps his work out of public schools.

John Green has the power to give us such an ending. He'd already done it once in the book. He had even done a trial run of those last two pages a couple chapters earlier when he'd had someone else attempt the same exact thing (see - I'm totally not giving away anything here plotwise - READ THIS BOOK!). He just didn't even try to finish it right and that is SOOOOoooooooo amazingly frustrating.

Thanks for listening. You may know return to your regular blog programming.

*For the record, John Green can do in one paragraph what John Irving does over 600 pages - they're not playing the same game, really - it's marathon vs sprint. Then again, John Irving did it over 600 PAGES, MULTIPLE TIMES, so game, set, match.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be a douchebag, but this sentence doesn't make much sense: "Because of this, and this is, by far, my favorite kind of writing, something I consider myself an expert on, readers want, they crave, a well crafted, best part of the book, perfectly unassailable ending to wrap things up in a nice neat little package." It's not clear what you're saying. I thought I should bring it to your attention because you claim to be an expert on writing - or endings - I couldn't tell. But if you're trying to demonstrate irony in the sentence, then you did a good job.

Other than that, it's really clear that you're excited about this book!