How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
The end volume can make or break a series. So often, the final book, whether in a trilogy or a longer series, can leave readers dissatisfied, either in a hollow, “I wanted more than rice cakes for dinner” sort of way or in an indignant, “I am going to expunge from my shelves any record of my investment in this author” sort of way. The Amber Spyglass. Breaking Dawn. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Each of these has sparked divided response (some more divided than others—I recognize that I’m one of the few people who felt extreme annoyance with Deathly Hallows) among its fan base. Mockingjay, the last book in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, is no different—and to address some of these issues, I’m going to touch on some spoilers, which I’ve avoided up to this point in my reviews of the series.
With some series, I’m able to refrain from forming any definite expectations about how the series should end: my reading experience may go better if I leave the author free to surprise me. With the Hunger Games trilogy, though, I had a smallish grocery list of things I hoped Mockingjay would accomplish: (1) A more realistic depiction of the devastating emotional consequences of the Hunger Games for Katniss and perhaps Peeta. Up to this point, because everything in the books moves at a lightning pace, Katniss doesn’t seem to have really had time to process the horror of the Games. We’re told that she has screaming nightmares, but she seems far more blasé about some of the things she witnessed—and did—than seems plausible. (On the other hand, perhaps it is plausible for someone raised watching the Hunger Games on television every year.) Some of the victors from previous years have turned to alcohol or madness in an attempt to get away from the memory of the arena. If the experience is one some people never heal from, I wanted to see it take more of a toll on Katniss. (2) Some true moral dilemmas. Most of Katniss’s choices have been determined from outside—either by the Gamemakers, the Capitol, or by Suzanne Collins herself rescuing her protagonist from having to kill anybody without a good excuse. (3) Some sort of victory through losing. Just because that’s what I hope for in every book I read.
I mostly got my wish with (1). Mockingjay is more emotionally brutal than previous books in the series, not just for Katniss but for the reader as well. Of course, Katniss’s home, District 12, has been bombed off the map, and only a few survivors made it to the supposedly non-existent District 13, but the true devastation is what happens to Peeta. Even though we know from the end of Catching Fire that Peeta is being held captive—and no doubt tortured—by the Capitol, things begin to look pretty grim for him when Collins introduces a District 12 folk song called “The Hanging Tree,” which turns out to be sung from the viewpoint of a man hanged for some crime, asking his lover to join him at the tree, presumably in death. Downer of a song? Macabre? Yep. The specter of double-suicide has haunted Katniss and Peeta since the end of The Hunger Games, when they were willing to take the risk of both eating poisonous berries, rather than one killing the other to be crowned victor. While I didn’t think Collins would off her first-person protagonist, I could easily see her dooming Peeta to a noble, sacrificial death—which, by the way, is the only plausible path by which Katniss could end up with Gale.
What does happen to Peeta is both more wrenching and more satisfying. His torture at the hands of the Capitol has been largely psychological. In fact, they’ve used psychedelic chemicals—in conjunction with video footage from the Games—to recondition his brain to have a fear-based reaction to Katniss. The one thing that Katniss and the reader could count on—Peeta’s stability and good humor—vanishes. It’s a daring step on Collins’s part, too, since Peeta is by far the most likable character in the books. I read the book at a furious pace to find out if Peeta is restored, while at the same time dreading his almost certain demise—it really seemed as if his most likely fate was to come back to his old self just long enough to sacrifice his life for Katniss’s.
As it turns out, Peeta fares much better than Gale. What’s one way to resolve a love triangle? Have one of the suitors kill off the protagonist’s sister, of course. Okay, so Gale doesn’t intentionally kill Katniss’s sister, but he is responsible for her death through inventing the weapons technology that killed her, even if he wasn’t wielding it. Assigning Gale the role of sister-killer probably wasn’t necessary, since we already had enough evidence of Gale’s ends-justify-the-means thinking to discount him, but it does put the final nail in the Team Gale coffin pretty decidedly. Peeta’s descent into partial madness, on the other hand, helps to even the field between him and Katniss: if he were left unchanged, he would ultimately be too good for Katniss.
What was most satisfying about Mockingjay was that its apparent total devastation of both Katniss and Peeta didn’t turn out to be final. Utilitarian wisdom would paint both of them as irreparably damaged, probably better off dead. Yet, without cheapening the cost of their wounds, the novel gives us flashes of healing. Peeta’s rehabilitation begins gradually, largely through playing a game in which he recounts a memory, and people around him confirm whether it’s something that actually happened or a chemically-induced invention of his brain. The game, christened “Real or Not Real?”, turns out to be one Katniss is in need of, too. After all the horror she’s witnessed, it’s easy to believe that humanity is totally and irreversibly corrupt, and that no goodness exists on the earth. When this belief threatens to overcome her, Katniss says in the epilogue,
“That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.
But there are much worse games to play.”
One of the crucial reader debates surrounding Mockingjay has been whether Katniss undergoes any true character development in the course of the series. My husband and many other readers think not. Some are frustrated with how Katniss seems to remain a pawn of others throughout, never making any true decisions of her own, not even the decision of whom to love. Moreover, some would argue, she never really rises above the selfishness of a survival mentality. While I would agree that Katniss largely responds to the circumstances around her, I don’t see a problem with that: there’s no way in this life to completely escape complicity with the games of others. The best Katniss can do is to choose what kind of game to play, and who to play it with. Most of her development and growth occurs after the main events of the novel have concluded—again, a risky narrative strategy, as we usually like to see characters change during moments of crisis or extreme suffering.
I’m going to make the radical assertion, though, that people do not grow as a result of suffering. People grow through interpreting and making meaning of suffering. For some people, and for some kinds of suffering, this can actually occur while the suffering is taking place. For others, and especially, I would argue, for suffering that is mental and involves some distortion of the nature of the world, it’s only after the pain has started to recede that it’s possible to make sense of what has happened. Change, for Katniss, happens at the level of trying to survive after her physical survival is no longer endangered, in the mundane—“tedious,” as she says—choice to remind herself that not everything in the world is bleak. Stories of gradual healing are difficult to write well, though, and I think it’s wise of Collins to suggest it rather than to belabor the point. However, I think Mockingjay presents the relationship between suffering and character more realistically than many a young adult—or even adult—novel. For that reason, in spite of its flaws, the series is well worth reading.
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