Friday, May 11, 2012

Villain of the Month: Cancer in The Fault in Our Stars

The Dictator’s Handbook (a non-fiction work in which two economists study trends in “successful”dictatorships throughout history), was released only four months before John Green’s latest masterpiece. TDH begins and ends with the quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in us”, which oddly also happens to also be the inspiration for the title of John Green’s absolutely brilliant most recent novel, The Fault in our Stars.

While The Dictator’s Handbook studies the way a few deeply flawed villainous men can ruin a society (the great problem is in their flaws, not the situation), Green’s novel depicts the situational villain I’ll be taking on this month.

Cancer is definitely a villain, as anyone who has seen the devastation it leaves in its wake, and it is inside a person, but the characters don’t do anything to deserve this villain, and no person is at fault. Nobody. Nobody to blame. No one to psychoanalyze. No one to sue. Nothing. 
 And so, while most great classic villains have layers, depth, etc. to explore -- How did they get that way? What are their quirks? etc. making them fascinating to read about and to write -- disease, as a villain, does not. And that provides Green with certain opportunities.
In Green’s work, all of the central characters are teenagers with cancer. He adeptly milks the opening scene to introduce us to our characters via the carnage of the villain’s dark power. Great for showing us who’s boss right up front (mental note: introducing all new characters via a similar characterizing point can work wonders for an intro.)
He sharply juxtaposes this horror with the most ordinary of settings, a rec room at an ordinary midwestern church. The teenagers’ initial characterization tags spill out in a support group: ball-less-ness, a missing leg, lungs that require assistance to breathe, a boy preparing to have his last eye removed; looking around, our protagonist even runs numbers on the odds of dying. There is more than enough real danger present to up the stakes. But here is the beauty of Green’s balance. They’re broken, but they’re also in a place of support.
And this scene is hilarious.
And that, too, is the power of disease as a villain. Since it’s a villain that never leaves its victims, the characters may embody the best of gallows humor. Mankind has a tendency to laugh at awkward times.
With so much heaviness in which we will be unrelentingly trapped throughout the novel, we can’t help but crave a laugh to lighten. Green’s jokes are spot-on throughout, almost brutally so, but it’s not only his facility with language that makes us laugh out loud in that first scene, it’s also that we’re primed to need relief.
Under Green’s masterful hand, the villain becomes the indifferently malicious reminder to all of us that our bodies will fail us. That our most intimate asset, that which has sustained us since birth will eventually just stop working.
But by experiencing the hazy humorous terror through Hazel’s half-adult/ half-child’s insightful eye, it allows the reader license to laugh at his own inevitable mortality and to see each moment as a gift.
By making even the worst of the characters, a remote author, "good" on some level, Green removes the "fault" from man. And that allows for a kind of hopefulness in humanity. Maybe, we could, in fact, live in a place where the villains are not our own kind. Unlike in The Dictator's Handbook (also an excellent work and one I highly recommend for those looking to write an external villain,) Green’s optimism for humankind shines throughout.

Green takes us on a journey through a nightmare and gives us humor and hope and bravery as deeply as he gives us terror and sadness, and we thank him for it. NYT Bestseller thank him for it.

To see a real (no longer living) dictator looking at things go to: 

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