This is Not a Cancer Book
There have been a lot of YA cancer books–I mean a lot: Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Lurlene McDaniel’s If I Should Die Before I Wake, Jenny Downham’s Before I Die, and Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die (that is just to name a few). These books depict teenagers who battle valiantly, sometimes fighting the odds but other times enduring immense suffering. When I first picked up The Fault in our Stars to write a sample review for my YA lit course, I thought I was in for more of the same, but John Green’s heroine Hazel Grace taps into what it must be like to be considered an Other, because her life forces people, against their will, to contemplate their own mortality.
Green’s novel, his sixth contribution to young adult fiction, is so much more than a cancer book. As Hazel tells us, “in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer…This commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy” (48-49). Yes, the text considers what it is like for Hazel and the love of her life Augustus Waters to undergo treatment and face the realities and uncertainties of their impending deaths, but it does more than that. This is a book about reading, about love, and about the meaning of life. The novel opens with Hazel’s mother forcing her to stop watching episodes of America’s Next Top Model so that she can attend her cancer support group. Rather than feeling supported by the other members of the group who talk about strength and their faith in God, Hazel’s long battle with cancer has made her rightly cynical. She is immediately drawn to the new attendee of the group Augustus Waters, who honestly and cleverly admits that he “fear[s] oblivion” (12). Hazel falls for Augustus’s acerbic wit, his love of symbolism, and his undeniable good looks. Augustus is no average teenage boy. He walks around with a cigarette in his mouth that he never lights because he likes to “put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to kill you” (20). To put it bluntly, Augustus likes–no, he lives and breathes–metaphors. He is every smart teenage girl’s dream–he reads Hazel’s favorite novel from cover to cover. What makes Green’s book so powerful is that he allows his characters undergoing cancer treatment to be teenagers who want to live and love. Green reprints Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (which argues that a human’s basic needs must be met before he or she can achieve self-actualization) so that Hazel can call it “utter horse shit” (212), and it is utter horse shit. Hazel is not just capable of abstract thought, her suffering has made her a critical thinker who contemplates the universe and our responsibility as humans. Green’s novel doesn’t make Hazel into an object of pity; instead, like all good novels, this reader wants to be a bit more like her–she can recite full portions of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by heart!
Ultimately, Green’s novel is a book about reading. Green collaborates with his brother Hank on a YouTube channel called the VLOGbrothers. They have dubbed fans of their channel nerd fighters (Hazel and Augustus’s fascination with philosophical questions related to the Universe–their desire to read and learn–is quintessential nerdfighter). On the VLOGbrothers channel John and Hank Green involve their audience of young adults in their project as collaborators with them who consider questions about the world, media, and human experience. Green has also hosted cover contests and other forums through which he asks readers to actively participate in the writing and publication of his texts. I’ve posted one example of a VLOGbrothers post below wherein John argues that math and literature have more in common than Western culture gives them credit for. In this video, John also argues that authorial intention as a method of literary analysis is complete bunk.
However, in The Fault in our Stars he deals with the reader/author exchange in a much more complex and ambiguous way. The novel ends with Green’s list of acknowledgements in which he thanks Esther, a nerdfighter who struggled with cancer and undoubtedly served as one inspiration for the novel, despite his double-insistence at the book’s opening that all fiction is fiction. This ambiguity provides a text through which the reader can contemplate just how much an author’s experiences matter to them above and beyond the black and white text on the page. Hazel and Augustus use Augustus’s last wish from the Make a Wish Foundation to visit Peter Van Houten, the author of Hazel’s favorite book An Imperial Affliction. This fictional novel is about a girl like Hazel who has struggled with cancer and contemplated the meaning of life as a result. Van Houten’s novel is cynical but honest; its protagonist Anna considers herself a mutation, a side-effect. Anna, like Augustus, fears oblivion. The novel ends mid-sentence, presumably as a result of Anna’s death. While Hazel understands this as a “very literary decision,” (49) she cannot help but be plagued by what happened to Anna’s mother, her friends, and her hamster. She writes Van Houten dozens of fan letters, but garners no response. Augustus finally manages to reach Van Houten through the author’s administrative assistant and Van Houten promises Hazel an answer to her questions only if she can make the trip to Amsterdam, but when Augustus and Hazel arrive at the recluse author’s house they find only a shell of a man, a fat drunk who insults them and refuses to deliver on his promise. Hazel and Augustus realize that what they’ve gained from the text is more important than Van Houten’s authorship of it, but this broken author keeps turning up, and it turns out that his personal experiences were partly what inspired Anna’s characteristics. Still Hazel makes more out of his novel and develops from it her own perspective on the meaning of the universe that far surpasses Van Houten’s own–a situation that suggests reading is about vicarious experience, but it is also about interpretation and passion; it is a kind of alchemy or third space greater than the sum of its parts.
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton Books, 2012. Print.