Good People: A Review

It’s not really a book (cut out the really, it’s just not a book), but I thought that this would make an interesting review. I was in London last weekend, and on Saturday night I went to the Noel Coward Theatre to see ‘Good People’ by David Lindsey-Abaire. I had very mixed feelings about the play. I’ll try to keep this one spoiler-free, but it may still contain a few plot details.

The cast of the play was excellent, all in all. Imelda Staunton held the piece entirely together as Margie, a poor, unemployed American who is a single mother with a disabled daughter. Without surrendering to comedy, she managed to be very funny whilst still showcasing Margie’s desperation. She dictated the tension of every moment, building it up to a climax in every scene. The rest of the cast, particularly Angel Coulby as Kate and Lorraine Ashbourne as Jean, should also be commended.

The play is about a single mother, Margie, who has just been fired from her job as a cashier and has to support an adult disabled daughter. An old boyfriend, Mike, turns up in town as a doctor. Margie and Mike are both from Southie, a rough background, which Mike has escaped but Margie hasn’t. Margie forces him to invite her to his drinks party and he calls later to say it’s cancelled. Margie turns up to call his bluff but it actually had been cancelled because their daughter Allie is sick. Kate (Mike’s wife) invites Margie in, much to Mike’s discomfort, and Margie decides to ruin Mike’s relationship with his wife, as well as possibly find a way to provide for Joyce (her daughter).

The play certainly had a good concept, but Margie’s bitter resentment of Mike’s wealth could have made for a greater climax than it did. The main question of the play (‘why did Mike make it out of Southie when Margie didn’t?’) was left largely unanswered. Lindsay-Abaire seems to dismiss Mike’s hard work out of hand; yet dumb luck is not nearly so satisfying for the audience. Nothing was ever quite resolved in the play – the main scene of conflict, between Margie, Kate and Mike, ended with every character unchanged. It is revealed that Mike attacked and nearly killed another kid because he was black when they were growing up. Kate is shocked (she herself is black and doesn’t like the idea of a racist husband) but nothing comes of that. Nothing changed throughout the course of the play. Of course fixed points can be powerful – look at Tom and Daisy in ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Ranevskaya in ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but in those plays there is a plot, and the conscious decision of the characters to reject change in itself is compelling. The inevitability of Margie’s fate is an interesting concept, but nothing happens in the play to even make her come to terms with it. We never find out the reason for the inevitability of her fate. Whilst to a certain extent it may reflect real life, it is slightly anticlimatic. To quote Russell T Davies:

…”I think it [change] is inherent in a story, any story. That’s why they’re stories. Things start on Page 1 and are different by the final page, or else why is the tale being told? The Goldilocks who runs away from the three bears is a very different girl from the one who started out into the forest. The change might not last, she might well go back to stealing other people’s food and trashing their furniture, but that’s why the story ends when it does.”

The Margie that takes her final bow is the same Margie that greeted us at curtain-up. None of the characters change. Having said that, the play was full of poignant desperation and resignation, with funny dialogue (highlighted by the brilliant actors) and realistic characters. For me, the best moment in the play was towards the end of the conflict scene (spoiler alert: avert your eyes here) when Kate turns on Margie, correctly calling her bluff about Joyce’s parentage. No mother would ever let their child suffer ‘to be nice’ to the father. Kate, who has been kind and considerate to Margie throughout the scene, now turns on her with a look of pure maternal loathing, imagining Joyce to be Allie. The tension between Coulby and Staunton was well portrayed.

Some moments were good, the acting was great, but overall I was a little disappointed in the actual substance of ‘Good People’ by David Lindsay-Abaire.  Feel free to comment and to express your own opinion!


The Fault in our Stars: A Review

Before you go any further, I’m putting the warning out that this review contains a great many spoilers – it details the whole plot of the novel – so please don’t go any further if you want to read it without knowledge of the plot beforehand.

Writing about cancer does not automatically make a book deep or profound. A good book needs plot, more than one character (not just the same character repeated ten times) and a good narrative voice. John Green’s ‘The Fault in our Stars’ has none of those things’. It is full of pretentious, simplistic nonsense. Green admits it himself in a video (verbal tics removed for ease): “After the dedication come the… you know how pretentious novels always start with pretentious quotations from pretentious novels? This book is no exception…” The novel opens with the protagonist, Hazel Grace Lancaster, discussing her condition – that is, cancer. She was diagnosed with cancer at the age of thirteen, and after a particularly bad spell is continuing on with life with the knowledge that she has terminal cancer and that her death is not only inevitable but impending. Hazel has not gone to school for the past three years. For someone who – by her own admission – rarely leaves the house, spends quite a lot of time in bed, reads the same book over and over, eats infrequently and spends a lot of her abundant free time talking about death. We can also ascertain from the events of the first chapter that she spends an inordinate amount of time watching back-to-back reality television such as ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and bake-off programmes. Yet as far as the average adolescent goes, Hazel is relatively intelligent; by the standards of someone in her circumstances, she is extraordinary. She references poetry and literary works throughout the novel and seems to have a knowledge of mythology (presumably she understands who Sisyphus was if she is as obsessed with ‘An Imperial Affliction’ as Green makes her out to be) yet she is devoid of an appetite for learning; she seems to have been born with this knowledge of literature and mythology.
Hazel goes to a cancer support group quite early in the novel on the suggestion of her mother. It is in the first cancer support group session that two important things happen. Firstly, she proves herself a pedant. She is irritated by the misuse of the word ‘literally’ by Peter, who conducts the session. Yet just as I was about to cherish a pedantic protagonist (they are rarer than one might imagine), I realised the sad truth. Hazel is not a pedant. Hazel is a pitiful attempt by John Green at teenage pedantry, and ultimately a failure. Hazel falls short of the pedant mark in a number of areas. Firstly, she continually misuses the word ‘like’ (incidentally, this should be made a criminal offence – I am convinced that it is the root of at least one-third of the world’s evil, the remaining two-thirds being the apostrophe). Secondly, she uses non-words such as ‘kinda’, ‘sorta’ and ‘wanna’ which make any true pedant cringe. Thirdly, she does not use a full stop after an abbreviation (for example, in Hazel’s writing, a D.V.D. would be a DVD) – this offence would not be noticed by the average person, but no self-respecting pedant would be able to face their fellows again after committing it.
The second important thing that happens to Hazel Grace Lancaster is that she meets Augustus Waters, the only being (the word ‘human’ does not quite apply here) more unbearable than Hazel herself. He is also a pedant (or not – the majority of Hazel’s vices apply here, the only exceptions being the ones used in the narrative) and astoundingly pretentious. In their first proper encounter, Hazel reproaches him for smoking, but he does not smoke – he simply puts the cigarette between his lips but does not light it. It is a metaphor – take the killing thing but do not give it the power to kill you – according to Augustus. I’m not quite sure that I understand Augustus’s meaning here, and I do not think that the fault is on my part. Again, I don’t understand this on two fronts. Firstly, in what way is this supposed to be a metaphor? A metaphor has to be a comparison to something, and in a novel where Green spoon-feeds the reader every single piece of information this so-called metaphor is remarkably well hidden. Secondly, even if it is a metaphor, this is a highly pretentious thing to do. Why on earth did he do this? What did his parents think? What did his friends think? John Green’s writing rarely makes sense, and this is a key example (another being ‘cancer is a side-effect of dying.’ Does Hazel have no concept of the term side-effect? Dying is clearly a side-effect of cancer… I’m not quite sure where Green was going with that one). To move on from that, we have a clearly plagiarised exchange between Isaac (Hazel’s friend who will later go blind because of a cancer-related operation) and Monica, his girlfriend. Always, apparently, is their thing. It’s funny that, actually, because ‘always’ was Snape’s thing. Dumbledore asked:
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.
The word ‘always’ arguably sums up the entire plot of the series, and has gained a cult following in the Harry Potter world. As John Green is a young adult writer who seems fairly connected with his readers via the online world, it seems fairly implausible that he would not know of this. Isaac and Monica, however, are not nearly as memorable as Snape and Lily. This is poor work, Green.
For a self-professed shy person with very little social contact, Hazel gets on with Augustus Waters remarkably well – as well as remarkably quickly. She easily falls prey to his compliment; that she looks like Natalie Portman in ‘V for Vendetta’. Thank you Green, for not only showcasing your lack of descriptive ability but also for playing what is commonly known as the plus-or-minus game. (Incidentally, the film actress for Hazel, Shailene Woodley, does bear a strange resemblance to Natalie Portman in ‘V for Vendetta’.) Rather than detail Hazel’s physical appearance in any way, he describes her simply by comparing her to an actress. This is what is commonly known as a cop-out. It is not very difficult to describe Natalie Portman in this film – it takes twice as much effort to coerce a character in to trotting out this dialogue whilst making it seem natural and tying it into the story. It also makes the book more difficult to read for those readers who have (like Hazel) not seen ‘V for Vendetta’, or indeed Natalie Portman. In addition to this, he is playing the aforementioned plus-or-minus game, the refuge of all bad authors. I wouldn’t care if Hazel did look like a shorter version of Jennifer Lawrence, a fatter Emma Watson or, in this case, Natalie Portman with an oxygen tank. That’s not something any reader wants to do in his or her head. All I ask is for simple description, not having to mathematically work out how Natalie Portman would look with an oxygen tank every time I read Hazel’s name.
Hazel goes to Augustus’s house, under Augustus’s weak pretext that they watch ‘V for Vendetta’ – Hazel, the shrinking violet that she is, goes to the house of a boy whom she has never met, despite the urgency of ‘America’s Next Top Model’. They discuss their cancers – Hazel’s is of the lung and thyroid, Augustus’s osteosarcoma which has led to the amputation of one of his legs. It is perhaps in this episode that the reader first becomes fully aware of the uncanny speech patterns of these two teenagers. Every conversation that they hold is deep and profound, and not only with one and other but with many of their surrounding friends and family. There is very little room for jokes, let alone room for worrying about the many mundane yet ultimately real things that bring a book down to earth. To draw further from better-written young adult fiction – Harry Potter spends the vast majority of his time stressing out about whether he’s going to get his homework done on time, not whether or not oblivion awaits everyone. Katniss Everdeen (although she is not the finest character ever created, the first and second books of the Hunger Games trilogy are well worth a read) is not only worried about staying alive, but also about getting her sister a goat for her birthday and that scraggly cat, Buttercup, that she has to look after. Tris Prior of Divergent fame doesn’t even think about life’s big questions, yet she’s a very relatable character. To think about oblivion, death, and love and so on once in a while (read seldom here) can give a character depth and add layers of meaning. To talk about them to mere acquaintances all the time without anyone noticing anything in particular out of place – suddenly Hazel’s world doesn’t seem entirely real. Hazel and Augustus arguably never rang true in the first place, but by the end of this episode we can understand their purpose in the novel. They are not there to be characters in their own right, as are Harry, Katniss and Tris. Rather, they are printed puppets, animated by the words that Green chooses to put into their mouths. Green tells them what to say and they say it. There is no room for character in Green’s work. They spout Green’s belief in an attempt at profound yet realistic dialogue, yet fail on both counts. Realism was never going to happen, and as for profound – let me give you an example from later on.
“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
Thank you, Augustus, or should I say John Green, for your wise words of wisdom which I shall dissect later on, proceeding chronologically. However, this is a classic example of how Augustus speaks all the time. Green does not achieve what he intended to – Augustus, instead of being depicted as a philosophical and intelligent person, ends up as a corny, clichéd prat.
In this meeting, Hazel and Augustus also discuss their favourite books. Hazel’s is called ‘An Imperial Affliction’, by Peter VanHouten, a (thankfully) non-existent book in the real world. Hazel tells us why it is her favourite book, in a section where Green essentially apologises for the poor plot of ‘The Fault in our Stars’. He – or rather, Hazel – says that ‘An Imperial Affliction’ is a book about a girl with cancer, but it’s not a cancer book, because – by Green’s own admission, none other – cancer books suck. According to Hazel (and this much of ‘The Fault in our Stars’ is true), in cancer books the protagonist is reminded of the essential goodness of humanity, sets up a cancer charity and feels loved again. Hazel hates cancer books, as do the vast majority of the literary world. When written well, books about cancer can be heart-wrenching, tear-jerking, tragic and terrifying. When written badly, they become cancer books. An example of the latter is, of course, ‘The Fault in our Stars’. Hazel does not go as far as to set up a charity for cancer, but through Augustus she is reminded of the essential goodness of humanity and finds love, not only with Augustus but with her friend, Isaac. ‘The Fault in our Stars’ follows the same plot as every other cancer book that you have ever read or will ever read. The ending contains as much surprise as that of ‘Titanic’. Green, through apologising for his work in this manner, not only utterly degrades himself in the eyes of the reader but also destroys whatever remnants of the illusion that Hazel is a character and not the mouthpiece of the author.
The best thing about ‘An Imperial Affliction’ is its title, taken from Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a certain slant of light’. It goes rapidly downhill from there. I disliked it immediately from seeing Hazel refer to it as AIA (A.I.A. is the correct abbreviation – I lost all respect for Green at that stage of the novel), but the substance of this novel did not seem much better. It is about a girl named Anna who has cancer. Hazel identifies with Anna (this seems legitimate as neither has any personality traits – Green ought to learn that cancer cannot be classed as a personality trait) because she has cancer. Insightful stuff. Anna does not want to set up a cancer charity, because it’s too clichéd (a natural thing for a cancer sufferer to worry about) so instead sets up a charity for people with cancer who want to cure cholera. This does not make any sense to me. It seems rather unfair to limit the benefactors of a cholera charity to those with cancer. Yet Hazel finds this to be a beautiful book, and very literary in its techniques – it ends mid-sentence. Indeed. How literary. Hazel finds the ending extremely frustrating and wants to know what happens to all the characters. Personally, I can’t see the ending being particularly frustrating. The mid-sentence ending means that Anna dies. And as for the other characters – well, all stories have an end (thankfully, in the case of ‘The Fault in our Stars’). No one ever finds out what happens to all the characters in a book. The fact that a full stop does not punctuate the end of the novel does not really contribute to that. Apparently, however, ‘An Imperial Affliction’ is brilliant, so Hazel lends it to Augustus and Augustus lends her his favourite book, ‘The Price of Dawn’. For a teenager that is supposed to come across as intelligent and well-read, it does seem odd that his favourite book is the novelisation of a video game. (I didn’t know that such a thing existed before ‘The Fault in our Stars’.) Augustus Waters falls a step further down the credibility scale. Hazel dislikes it due to the death toll and needless massacre. Hazel knows that one ought not to mistake massacre and explosions for plot. Green ought to know not to mistake cancer for plot.
Augustus loves ‘An Imperial Affliction’ (surprise, surprise – they live in the universe of one opinion) and he and Hazel discuss it at great length. Hazel has tried writing to Peter VanHouten, the author, but he has never responded. Augustus, however, manages to locate VanHouten’s assistant only a week after he reads the book. (I sense implausibility.) He starts e-mailing VanHouten. Never fear, however – VanHouten is not (perish the thought!) a character. He is a mouthpiece for John Green’s vocabulary – or, more likely, his thesaurus. Had I wanted to read a thesaurus, I would have. VanHouten describes Hazel and Augustus as ontologically improbably creatures. These are not the words of any real person in conversation, however pretentious. These are the words of John Green, astounding the reader with his large vocabulary and inducing vomit with his boastful nature. He seems to have some sort of inferiority complex, consistently trying to better himself. As well as being somewhat less than a cardboard cut-out, VanHouten arguably serves no purpose in the novel itself (likewise with ‘An Imperial Affliction’), as you will see later on. Believing Augustus and Hazel incapable of international travel, he says that he can only answer Hazel’s questions in person. Augustus, who will naturally do anything for a girl whom he has only just met, including spend his Wish on her, gets them a trip to Amsterdam, as VanHouten has told them to stop by if ever they find themselves in Amsterdam.
Meanwhile (paper bags at the ready), Hazel acknowledges that she is in love with Augustus. This would be twice as interesting, were it not glaringly obvious, not even from reading the book but from reading the blurb. Classic plot of a cancer book: boy meets girl; someone has cancer (in this case both); one of them dies. It’s a long road ahead, and Green doesn’t take any turnings off. Green decides to make use of the one and only metaphor that he’s been saving up (the cigarette issue doesn’t count) – that Hazel is a grenade, and one day she will blow up, obliterating everyone in her path, and she wants to minimise the hurt she causes. This is a metaphor being used for metaphor’s sake – the effect is the same as Green writing ‘I can write a metaphor’. This does not come across as well-written but slightly obstinate, as though Green is trying to force us to acknowledge that his writing has some quality (which it doesn’t). Maybe this novel is Green’s shout into the void, before he disappears into inevitable oblivion. Just a thought.
My main problem with this section of the book is Green’s incessant spoon-feeding of information to the reader. For someone who insists that he is all about making teenagers seem intelligent and capable of dealing with issues, literature, emotions and so on he is awfully patronising. No reader needs every single emotion of the character spelled out to him. Green has a message, and that needs to be scalded into the brains of every reader. There is no room for implied thoughts and feelings, no room for alternative interpretations. The best books are about give and take, where you can guess at what the author is trying to get at. There is no such aura of mystery around ‘The Fault in our Stars’. Not only are we surrounded by characters who are only capable of feeling one emotion at a time (possibly this is due to Green’s weakness as an author for description), we are told that emotion in bare language. To show us that Hazel is happy, a good author describes a few changes in Hazel’s demeanour and leaves it to the reader to work out that she is happy. Green insists on making sure that we know that Hazel is happy by telling us again and again, reinforcing the point. Subtlety is not his strength.
Just in case we thought that this was a regular love story, the ever-present Green decides to remind us that Hazel has cancer and is going to die, in case we were in any doubt. He rushes her into the I.C.U. because fluid has filled her lungs. Tension is hardly high, seeing as we are not emotionally invested in Hazel at all, and besides that there are still one hundred and fifty odd pages left – the narrator is hardly going to die, although that would have been welcome relief from the torture of the book. Hazel tries a witty pun on a member of the hospital staff, who introduces herself as “Alison, your nurse”. Hazel responds with: “Hi, Alison my nurse.” This would have been mildly amusing had she said “Hi, Alison your nurse”, but Green is incapable of making a correct pun. However, in the words of Peter VanHouten, I digress. Of course, who never leaves the waiting room? Augustus. How sweet. (To this day, I am certain that he was Bunbury-ing.) This is an unavoidable cliché which makes the reader wince. At this stage, the book may as well be abandoned because everyone knows this story. This book, despite the hype, tells no new story. Hazel and Augustus are predictable and dull.
After this episode in the I.C.U., Hazel is more determined than ever to go to Amsterdam, partly due to a patronising letter that Augustus has received from Peter VanHouten. VanHouten, who mistakes long words for eloquence, has an awful lot to criticise Shakespeare about. However, in the midst of these criticisms lies my favourite bit of the book. Apparently, ‘never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves”.’. Shakespeare wrote that to inspire Brutus to action (‘Brutus will start a spirit soon as Caesar’), having Cassius say that one cannot blame destiny for circumstance when we make our own opportunities. Green here (unless I am very much mistaken and he simply does not understand Shakespeare) is making the point that Shakespeare is right, not wrong as VanHouten says. When later Hazel and Augustus go to Amsterdam and meet VanHouten, it is clear that VanHouten’s theory of crossed stars is fundamentally wrong. There were faults not only in the stars of Hazel and Augustus, but also those of VanHouten – yet the ones who do something about it (in this case Hazel and Augustus live their lives to the full, going to Amsterdam and so on) do not blame their stars for what has happened, and continue on with life, not letting the fault of a life with nothing achieved lie with themselves. VanHouten, in blaming destiny, has let his life slip away from him, and thus the fault lies not in his stars but in himself. Shakespeare (as usual) was right.
Green, however, lets the first ray of light in the cold darkness that is this book slip with a page-long digression about Sonnet Fifty-Five. He has nothing particularly insightful to say, nor anything that sheds any knowledge on plot or character. He uses this page simply to make the reader aware that he is well-acquainted with Shakespeare and MacLeish, and that his vocabulary is fancy enough to use the phrase ‘linguistic sarcophagus’. This is pointless – it will inevitably leave some readers confused, and those who understand it will also understand that those words mean absolutely nothing other than ‘I own a thesaurus, remember?’. Anyway, the upshot of this letter is that Hazel really wants to go to Amsterdam, and despite having been in critical condition only a couple of days previously thinks that she is well enough for international travel, so long as it does not kill her. Her doctor, Dr. Maria, is remarkably lenient for a medical professional who is trying to keep a terminally ill teenager alive for as long as possible (bearing in mind the condition of the teenager at the time). Dr. Simon, the other doctor, describes it as a recipe for disaster, but apparently Dr. Maria is okay with it, so that’s fine. Even though the Lancasters think that there needs to be medical agreement for her to go, Maria manages to talk all of the other doctors around to agreeing that a teenager who has just been in intensive care should be allowed on an eight-hour flight to Amsterdam without access to the only medical professionals who understand her case (because of the Phalanxifor issue). This is logic, but not as we know it. This is John Green logic.
Skip forward a few pages (thank goodness) and Hazel, Augustus and Mrs. Lancaster are off to Amsterdam. The airhostess stops Augustus from taking out cigarettes on the flight, even though it is merely a metaphor – or not, as the case may be. They also discuss the amount of dead people as opposed to living people – Hazel the intelligent teenager thought that the amount of people alive now might outnumber the dead, which flummoxed me slightly (surely it’s obvious that that could not be?). There are, according to Augustus, fourteen dead people for every living person. Hazel (again showcasing her astounding intelligence) wonders if we could remember everyone. Of course we couldn’t. Augustus agrees with me, giving the reason that a lot of people would remember Shakespeare and that no one would remember Mr. W.H.. That’s probably not strictly true; I can’t imagine Mr. W.H. going unremembered in this global mourning. I would be much more worried about three things. Firstly (with Augustus’s logic) all of the forgotten dead, from early humans of Mount Sandel to the Unknown Soldier. Secondly, the organisation taken to do this, especially in war-torn areas, and whether this would lead to religious conflict. Thirdly, the possibly global depression (or at least sadness) that would arise from this morbid international thought. Augustus really has more important things to worry about than Mr. W.H..
If you are prone to nausea in any way, look away now, because here comes the most sickening, pretentious, nonsensical and ultimately worthless bit of the entire novel – Augustus’s declaration of love, as mentioned before. A brief (but not brief enough) reminder of it:
“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
The first sentence begins by stating that Augustus is in love with Hazel. Whilst unsubtle (show not tell, Green), this in itself is forgivable. However, the rest of this speech is truly appalling. Augustus is not in the business of denying himself the simple pleasure of saying true things – another way for Green to admit that he cannot imply emotions and thus is forced to having the characters tell them to the reader, word for word. It gets tiresome after a while – the first page, to be exact. Then he repeats that he is in love with her again, which seems to be rather a waste of breath. And then – what is all this business about love being a shout into the void? What void is this? What Green is trying to get at here (I think) is that love is just a pathetic attempt to hold on, to achieve a minimal greatness, when in reality we are insignificant and will be forgotten in an instant, but why is this true of love in comparison to anything else? Surely life, then, is a shout into the void? Oblivion is inevitable and we are all doomed. Of course this is true, but it’s also rather a defeatist attitude. May I remind you, Augustus Waters, that the fault is not in your stars, but in yourself? Put that in your metaphorical pipe and smoke it don’t give it the power to kill you. Also, we don’t know that this is the only earth we’ll ever have. Scientifically speaking, there is the possibility of a ‘Planet B’. And of course, the final few words declare – for the third time – that he is in love with Hazel. Perhaps he’s just rubbing in the fact that he can afford to waste oxygen as his lungs are fine.
But what have the statements regarding civilisation and planets and suns and so on got to do with his love for Hazel? The answer is nothing, nothing at all. Green is merely adding in comments about the human condition in order to make Augustus’s love seem more profound, but it fails. At the least, nausea arises in the reader of that speech. Vomiting is a definite possibility to the more squeamish of readers, and results not unlike those of Vogon poetry no doubt have been known. And what is Hazel’s answer to all of this? It is one word: “Augustus”. Green, that’s pathetic. Not only is that pathetic, it is blatantly unrealistic. Never in real life would that happen. I’m not saying that Hazel has to romantically discuss mortality and the spiritual nature of her condition or some such subject that Green is suitably opinionated about, but Hazel needs to get her act together. For an eloquent teenager, she speaks just like an actress in a badly-scripted film.
Skipping on ahead once more, Hazel, Augustus and Mrs. Lancaster arrive in Amsterdam and Hazel and Augustus go out for a romantic candlelit dinner. Nothing of note happens, nothing terribly exciting nor terribly awful, simply badly written – but we’re used to that at this stage. The only piece to note is Augustus’s mention of an empty hospital playground:
“I was up on the fifth floor and I had a view of the playground, which was always of course utterly desolate. I was all awash in the metaphorical resonance of the empty playground in the hospital courtyard.”
Rewind just a few words, please. The metaphorical resonance of the empty playground? I cannot see a metaphor in this. Maybe I’m wrong on this count, but in my opinion Green needs to seriously rethink what a metaphor is.
The next day, Hazel and Augustus visit VanHouten, who turns out to be an unbalanced, raging alcoholic. He has eighteen years’ worth of fan mail, and Augustus is the only fan whom he has ever replied to. How lucky for Green – or not. Speaking seriously, though, Hazel has a relatively mild reaction to a man who is so rude to her and her boyfriend. In fact, she finds ‘something pleasant about a man so despicable’, to use her own words. VanHouten plays the pair of them some Swedish hip-hop, wasting an entire page on talking about why Green likes Swedish hip-hop rather than the story. (By his own admission, Green likes Swedish hip-hop; it is a needless diversion from the thin story.)
Finally, Green gets to the point of their visit – to find out what became of Anna’s ‘mom’ and the Dutch tulip man and Sisyphus the hamster (who is, I presume, called Sisyphus due to the nature of a hamster’s meaningless life spinning on a wheel – however, it is also likely that Green needed a Greek name to make his book more ‘literary’.) VanHouten cannot tell Hazel, as the Dutch tulip man is a metaphor for God and the book is meant as an unambiguous metaphor. To be honest, I can’t see how Hazel didn’t grasp this. VanHouten describes it as obvious, after all, and it is her favourite book. If she has read it on numerous occasions, no doubt she has also read interpretations of it online, and considering that she has so much spare time she must spend some of it trying to interpret ‘An Imperial Affliction’ herself. She surely must either know this or have heard of this theory. It strikes me that Hazel is either unintelligent and not really a fan of ‘An Imperial Affliction’ (this doesn’t quite ring true) or unbelievable. I choose to believe the latter.
VanHouten tells Hazel that he doesn’t know what happens to his own characters any more than he knows what happens to Proust’s narrator, Phoebe Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn. This seems illogical, but we’ll go with it. His assistant resigns, after he says many hurtful things to Hazel and Augustus about cancer, which ought to seem shocking and insensitive (and are clearly intended to) but ultimately aren’t, mainly because Hazel has just spent the last two hundred pages saying the exact same things. Diversity of opinion amongst characters is a terrifying world which Green dare not explore. All must be empty projections of his own thoughts. The reaction of VanHouten’s assistant (resignation and tears) is over-dramatised, probably in order to make us feel something. It’s Green’s way of saying: ‘This is the reaction that you should be having. I’m putting it in print in order to make you feel this way. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s the best I can do.’
After this, the assistant (Lidewij) takes them to the Anne Frank museum – in order to cheer them up or something. Despite the stairs, Hazel feels that she owes it to Anne Frank to go to the museum, because she’s dead and Hazel’s alive. Hazel’s mind works in mysterious, illogical ways. Anyway, they go in and get a tour and Hazel and Augustus end up kissing in front of a video of Otto Frank (after Hazel goes through the cliché of remembering all the four Aron Franks who died). And then – everyone starts clapping, applauding two hormonal teenagers ruining an historical exhibit. This is a terrible and formulaic cliché, designed to boost the morale of the reader before going into the final countdown to the death of Augustus. They then go back and both lose their virginity, serving no purpose other than a ‘witty’ love letter that Hazel writes Augustus at the end of the chapter, full of Venn diagram ‘humour’.
And then, of course, we reach the beginning of the end, as Augustus reveals that after a P.E.T. scan (which Hazel of course calls a PET scan) it seems that the cancer has spread all over his body – his own hamartia, a word which is in the vernacular vocabulary of every seventeen-year-old boy. He also has yet another existential crisis about the ‘honour’ in dying of cancer, which is utterly ridiculous and should be the last thing on his mind – he should be prioritising living, not pontificating away his final hours – but the annoying part of this existential crisis is that it is exactly the same as every other existential crisis Augustus has had, because Green can’t do any more than that. Not only are we living in a world devoid of plot and realistic characters that has been created by an author less likeable than Peter VanHouten, the novel is repetitive. Augustus repeats Green’s opinions again and again. Nobody cares any more, we just want to get the next hundred or so pages over with.
They arrive home, and Hazel’s dad greets them tearfully. He tells Hazel that he has read ‘An Imperial Affliction’, but found it to be rather defeatist (Hazel calls this realistic), and tells her that his philosophy is simply thus: sometimes the universe wants to be noticed.
This is not remotely philosophical. Scientifically, of course, it makes no sense – a universe cannot think, nor want – but from a philosophical perspective it is codswallop. If the universe wants to be noticed, it has done a very good job of it. Everyone notices the universe – we live here, after all, and our sensory organs can see, hear, feel, smell and taste nothing but the universe. Philosophers do nothing but contemplate the universe; bad authors do nothing but try to contemplate the universe and fail miserably. This statement has nothing to do with the rest of the book – it is a little piece of Green’s wisdom to pass onto the reader. Thank you for that, Green, it shall prove to be invaluable.
Anyway, Augustus decides that he, Isaac and Hazel are to egg Monica’s car (Monica having dumped Isaac after he lost his sight), or rather Augustus is to help a blind teenager egg a car that he cannot see whilst Hazel takes pictures. This they do and feign legitimacy to Monica’s mother, who believes it. Augustus says: “Ma’am, your daughter’s car has just been deservedly egged by a blind man. Please close the door and go back inside or we’ll be forced to call the police.” Monica’s mother, despite her daughter’s car being egged by presumptuous and obnoxious teenagers, simply heads back indoors without a care. Augustus’s time is clearly drawing to a close now, however, as he is rushed back into the I.C.U.. Whilst he makes it through this time, it is made clear that he does not have long to live. This would be so much more exciting had we not gone through the exact same scenario from a different perspective with Hazel one hundred and fifty pages earlier. However, Green’s narrative has turned into a montage of moments over the next few weeks in the lives of Hazel and Augustus (the sort you get in a terrible film every half hour to fill screen time, but which have ultimately no substance), such as them going to the park and seeing children playing on a symbolic skeleton whilst they drink champagne, and the numerous times Hazel goes to visit Gus. Most of these are peppered with statements that are meant as witty or insightful; they rarely have insight and only sometimes make sense. Take when Augustus says: “Hazel Grace, when you’re as charming and physically attractive as myself, it’s easy enough to win over people that you meet. But getting strangers to love you… now, that’s the trick.” I don’t quite understand the logic of that statement. People such as Hazel that he has met and won over are strangers, or were when he won them over. What little sense there was in this novel is disappearing. Augustus also has another existential crisis; he had always believed that he was special, and dying without making his mark on the earth is a blow. We’ve heard it before.
Augustus then decides to buy a new packet of cigarettes (he lost his old one) at half past two in the morning and calls Hazel because his G-tube is malfunctioning and he doesn’t want to call an ambulance because he’s too proud for self-preservation. Hazel turns up and… she calls an ambulance. It’s basically a convenient way of placing Hazel at a petrol station at half past two in the morning. In the ambulance Hazel promises Augustus that she’ll buy him more cigarettes and recites a cancerous version of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams in a section devoid of quotation marks for no apparent reason. If Green is trying to irritate the pedantic reader, he is doing a very good job of it. The montage continues with Augustus pointing out his last scrap of dignity on the floor (please, Green, this is getting ridiculous) and the arrival of his sisters and their families at his deathbed. Yet (cliché alert) Augustus does not lose his dry wit and perseveres to the end.
In this next section, Augustus’s pretentiousness shows itself in all its splendour. He gets Hazel and Isaac to hold a pre-funeral for him just so he can listen to their eulogies for him. This is not deep, it is a bit weird. Isaac and Hazel both eulogise (both Isaac and Augustus use the term ‘self-aggrandising’ in this scene, which is slightly unrealistic) and Augustus edits their eulogies. Hazel gives an eulogy about infinities, and about how some infinities are greater than other infinities. (So far, this is true.) Then she thanks Augustus for their ‘little infinity’. That doesn’t make sense. Hazel and Augustus did not have an infinity. If something has a concrete beginning (the meeting at cancer support) and end (the death of Augustus) it is finite. Green ruined the eulogy by filling it full of meaningless nonsense. What was supposed to be profound is illogical, impossible and not even remotely worth reading about.
Eight days later, Augustus dies. Hazel begins to grieve (nothing of note that we haven’t seen in countless books and films prior to this one) and checks his messages on Facebook, which are piling in. Hazel pauses to reflect upon one comment (someone noted that he was playing basketball in heaven), having a philosophical moment about who makes celestial basketballs when she’s supposed to be grieving for her dead boyfriend. She posts on his wall a deep comment about Augustus’s fight against human consciousness (in her own words, Augustus Waters did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer) and notes that, as VanHouten apparently said, writing does not resurrect, but bury. Surely writing resurrected the subject of Shakespeare’s fifty-fifth sonnet, which VanHouten is so keen on? Writing certainly did not bury him. Once again, I cannot quite grasp Green’s meaning.
VanHouten manages to fly out all the way from Amsterdam to Augustus’s funeral. This seems like an odd move from someone who had not even wanted to move out of his chair to greet two teenagers, but this he does. (It does not matter if something is out of character if it is convenient for Green, clearly. He attempts to rationalise it later, but fails miserably.) Hazel also makes a heinous grammatical error in saying that she doesn’t ‘know hardly any of these people’. Either she doesn’t know any of these people or she knows hardly any of these people, but you can’t mix the two. Hybrid sentences as a rule don’t work.
VanHouten hitches a ride with Hazel and her parents to tell her what happens to Anna’s mother in the most pretentious manner possible: ‘om cellula e cellula’, that all cells are born from other cells, life begets life. Hazel’s response is ironic; she thinks that he is pathetic and says ‘fancy things to get attention like a really precocious eleven-year-old’ – in fact, she pities him. However, after a brief interlude between their two meetings, serving only to elongate a plot already overstretched for one so thin, Hazel makes peace with VanHouten and tries to get him back on the right track – it is implied that he has made peace with his past. How predictable and unrealistic that a teenager girl that he has met all of twice could do that to an hopeless alcoholic with anger problems. Hazel starts looking for the sequel to ‘An Imperial Affliction’ that Isaac tells her that Augustus was writing for her.
Hazel, in the meantime, sorts everything out with her parents, having a heart-to-heart about the fact that she is going to die but that they will never stop being parents or loving each other. To be honest, we have seen so little of Hazel’s parents throughout the novel that this seems a fairly pointless interlude, but apparently it is needed so that no ‘An Imperial Affliction’-esque loose ends are left for the reader to work out for himself. Green seems to be under the illusion that the reader’s brain may collapse if required to think for itself.
Hazel finally finds what Augustus was writing for her – he was writing to VanHouten in order to get him to write her a eulogy. Lidewij and her boyfriend get it for Hazel and e-mail it to her. And thus the book ends with three pages of a substance-less clichéd e-mail. ‘She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her.’ Personally, I don’t agree with using ‘so’ in that context, but even without it that line is terrible – and worse, it exemplifies the whole e-mail. Hazel finishes by saying ‘I do’. According to Green, this is supposed to echo on the Shakespearean nature of her situation. Hazel and Augustus are nothing alike to the Juliet and Romeo to whom they have been so often compared; this book’s title and presumptive nature is an insult to Shakespeare. It is badly written, often makes no sense, contains characters with no traits (cancer is not a trait), a predictable plot and was painful to read. I would not recommend it to anyone.