Sunday, August 17, 2014

Divergent (A Very, Uh, Critical Review)

Note: As I rule, I only review two types of books and movies. Ones that I really like, or ones that annoy me to such an extent that unless I'm able to vent about it in some form, it will continue to annoy me. Divergent, both the book and the movie, falls into the second category. I write fantasy, and I generally enjoy YA fantasy, but sometimes, especially when a book/series becomes popular, these things must be discussed, if only to reap some amusement from them. 

Divergent takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the leaders have decided that humans will best survive if they are divided into five random factions. The reason for this separation is never explained, but my best guess is because other dystopian YA fantasies have factions (the Hunger Games use numbers) so that clearly whenever a nuclear war comes, humans must divide that way. And using geography was already stolen. (Damn that Suzanne Collins) The five groups are: Abnegation for the Amish selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the cool, pretty kids brave, and Erudite for the evil nerds smart people. Each year, all sixteen-year-olds take a test to determine which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.


When Tris takes the test, however, she somehow tests positively for three of the randomly divided factions. What?! How is that possible?! The examiner gravely warns her not to divulge this great secret. She is (drum roll) DIVERGENT! (Audience gasps. Murmurs. Someone from the audience yells "Say it isn't so, Tris!" His sobs continue long after the movie flickers back to life.)

Tris is fearful and scared -- and what 16 year old wouldn't be frightened by such dire results -- but she is determined to pick the one that best suits her. And by God, she will! Her parents' faction, Abegnation, means that she dresses in drab, shapeless clothing and is only allowed to look at a mirror for fifteen seconds or something because that would be vanity. (No one cares if you have stuff in your teeth! Stop being so damn selfish!) Her parents expect her to follow in their footsteps, because what kid wouldn't want that life, and yet, Tris is torn, because part of her wants to join Dauntless.

And the kids in Dauntless -- everyone in Dauntless is under thirty -- are just SO brave. They jump off moving trains and run through the town screaming like they've just come out of an Avicii concert and are looking for their next rave. They wear cool leathers and weapons and stuff, and they are like, totally free. No one else in the society gets to jump off trains and buildings and oh, did I mention how cool they are?

We hear Tris tell us that Dauntless are "the protectors" of society, though who they're protecting society against is never made clear, since as far as I can tell, there's only one city. But hey, every city or society, even ones without natural enemies, needs a place for young people to learn cool weapons and go through "tests" that pit one against the other.


Don't read any further if you don't want me to spoil some things for you. As in, if you're still going to watch it, in which case, this is already, like the, um, worst review ever!

Anyway, the city gets together for all these 16-year-olds who have to walk up in front of everyone, slice their hand open, and drop blood into a bowl that represents their choice of faction. Again, no explanation for the blood in bowls ritual is given, but I'm guessing it sounded cooler and more dramatic than someone walking to the front of the room and simply stating their choice into a microphone. Well, Tris holds her hand over the bowl for Abegnation, and then, at the last second, switches to Dauntless! Holy crap! Plot twist! No one expected that!

Confession, what I thought would happen was that Tris would choose Abegnation but sneak a mirror into her room and start staring at it for like, twenty seconds. And then Dauntless would kidnap her, because they have nothing else to do and she's clearly a threat due to her vanity, but while she was kidnapped, she would fall in love with one of the cool guys, who would end up beating the crap out of other Dauntless kids. And then they would say "Fight the Power," raise their hands together as Public Enemy blared over the speakers, and they'd end up high on ecstasy at some club together.

And I was,like, totally wrong! (Can you say unpredictable!)

So she chooses Dauntless, and then they have to go through all these warrior tests with blades and guns and hand-to-hand combat. Tris is weaker then the others because she's a skinny girl from Abegnation who gave her food away while she was growing up. (Or maybe she's just a skinny girl, not sure) Anyway, she manages to somehow finish in the top six which is really important. If she doesn't finish in the top six, (Or thirteen. Or ten. Can't remember.) she could become Factionless, which in this society, means you're basically homeless and you wander around the streets muttering under your breath. And no, you don't get a chance to join another faction, because that would, I don't know, make sense. I mean, if you fail the aptitude test to be honest or kind or selfless (and yes, those three factions are completely unrelated) then it's much better for society to cast you aside like a wilting piece of garbage. (This could have been poignant, actually, but the set up is so ridiculous that all it indicates is that this is world's dumbest post-apocalyptic society in history. I couldn't help but think, damn, no wonder they lost the war. Everyone's an idiot.)

Of course, not everyone is an idiot. Erudite are the smart ones, but because we want "selfless" people in government, all of the city politicians are from Abegnation. (Which, in a way, makes sense of almost everything else, in that nothing in this world makes any sense.) Ah, but those evil nerds in Erudite are up to some clever tricks, because they think THEY should be running the town, not those imbeciles from Abegnation who believe looking into a mirror is a source of vanity, or who associate dressing shabby with being "selfless."

By this point, I was cheering for Erudite. I live in Toronto. Of course I know what it's like to live under the political leadership of a moron. Too bad Rob Ford was just a crackhead and not, uh, unselfish. But Erudite, as clever as they are, can't seem to get past the wiles of a 16 year old girl. All the brains in that collected society can't figure it out, because... yeah, I'm not sure. Maybe they're not really smart. Maybe they're dumb nerds.

Yes, somehow the kids in Dauntless overcome the potion they've been given by Erudite (which makes them robotic soldiers, like Reggie Jackson in Naked Gun) and Tris is brought face to face with her new boyfriend from Dauntless. He is under control by the wicked Erudite, and so she surrenders to him. This allows him to break free of the spell. Then they board a train to another sector. The end.

A Teenage World

If the Hunger Games (which this book most closely apes) is a fantasy written for young adults, it is still written BY an adult. That is, the world and social commentary in it are mature and informative. Divergent is a book written for teenagers by a teenager with a teenager's worldview. (Roth was 21 when she wrote it) Listen, I do not begrudge young authours their success. Zadie Smith. Gordon Korman. Etc... But this book (and the movie) speak of a society that is so random, unless you completely turn off your brain (and by that I mean closing your eyes and going to sleep or taking some happy mushrooms) you're left with a Mensa-like puzzle as to how and why this society was created. Worse, it groups the adults into factions that are so random as to be not only meaningless, but remind me of the way my 11-year-old students would group them.

And there's a streak of anti-intellectualism running through the narrative that is probably offensive, but neither the book nor the movie act smart enough for that criticism to sting. Maybe the anti-intellectualism comes from the authour's inability to group the society in an intelligent fashion. Or maybe she genuinely believes that those 'clever politicians' are all evil, and if we just let the Amish run things everything would be okay. The story is so simple I began to hear Sesame Street tunes in my head, so it's difficult to say. But it does not reward intelligence in any fashion, and instead places far more emphasis on Tris's romance and her "bravery." And really, thank goodness for that! A girl should know her place.

(Quick Twilight quiz: What is a girl without a man? The answer: nothing and no one.)

The book has sold millions of copies. That isn't surprising. It's a fast-paced, easy read without any depth or sense but with enough shallow symbols (like the blood ritual at testing) to give it the appearance of deeper meaning.

However, more offensive than the anti-intellectualism is the continuing misogyny of these YA stories. (See: Twilight for more details) When Tris surrenders to her boyfriend, he is able to free himself of the potion's effects. Hear that, girls. What your man needs is for you to simply give up and surrender to him, and he will be better. If he's not better, you're probably not surrendering enough. Ladies, especially you religious ladies, are you listening, what your man needs is for you to "surrender" to him. He is your leader. He was born with better genitalia. He's damn well earned his role. What have YOU done? (Why is it my wife never listens to me when I tell her to surrender? Bet she didn't read enough YA stuff like this when she was young.)

Perhaps Ms. Roth will look back on this series when she's older and wonder what she was thinking or how she could ever write something so inherently ridiculous. Perhaps she'll write something smart and wise like Suzanne Collins her next time out. For now, however, we're left with a multi-million selling book that sends all kind of, if not destructive, certainly not helpful, messages to the intended audience. So if you're looking for a new YA fantasy, and you (or one of your kids) are one of the two or three people who have yet to read The Hunger Games, pick that one up instead.

ZERO stars. And may God have mercy on my soul.