Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reader Response: Divergent Pt. 1

While I wait for the delivery of the next book I know is assigned in my Teen Materials class, I picked up a wildly popular one that is merely likely to be assigned. Divergent by Veronica Roth is being featured all over the place in book stores and has a film version coming out soon. Acquaintances keep recommending it to me. The cover designs and title scheme for the series are attractive, so why not?

* spoilers everywhere *

Pre-Reading

I knew nothing about the plot or characters until I saw a film trailer for its adaptation when I was in the theater with a friend to watch Catching Fire. What I understood from that trailer is that a teen girl protagonist confuses a career aptitude test ('diverged' from acceptable categories or something). This is a big, scary deal in her society so she had to join an underground movement that's mostly about a tattooed boy she will flirt with as they (no doubt) fight the powers that are oppressively making teens take aptitude tests instead of letting them change majors four times in college like young adults in a freer world like our own.

More recently, another friend complained about being disappointed in it from a feminist standpoint, then assured me it was exciting reading anyway. 

The front of the book says, "One choice can transform you." How vague. Is there any book in the history of novels that couldn't use that? At least it's not spoiling me. As usual, I'm not reading the back of the book before starting. I usually either check that out at the end, or when I stop reading a book, or halfway through when I figure it should be safe.

Chapter One

What I learn from the first page is that the protagonist's "faction" is an exceptionally poor demographic for Mary Kay sales. Maybe she means religious sect and is using "faction" because "sect" is such an awkward term.

What I learn from the first few pages is that I'm a confused reader: if mirrors are so taboo-unless-necessary, why is one allowed when someone else is doing the hair cutting? I'm thinking that either Veronica Roth didn't think this through, or she did think it through and realized that some tight restrictions work better in the long run when there is structured relief of them. So, right away I feel like she is an especially clever or an especially non-clever author. No middle ground allowed!

I clearly had the wrong idea from the film trailer. The aptitude test is for faction assignment, not career as I'd assumed. The test itself can't be oppressive because, apparently, these teens can disregard whatever it says if they wish. The oppression comes when they pick one of the four factions besides the one their family is in and they're forced to live apart from their family in some sense. That might not be all bad, depending on visiting schedule, video conferencing, etc. I mean, maybe sixteen is a good time to be moving out of the house in their society anyway. Maybe this girl can go some nice place where she can look at herself in the mirror all day long.

Leaning heavily toward not respecting the author. She expects me to believe that society is split up according to five virtues and everyone in the relevant faction is very focused on that one virtue without having to care (much? at all?) about the others? This is the stuff of brief fairy tales or parables, not a book-length realistic-ish narrative!

Sears Tower? So we're in future Chicago. This means Veronica Roth needs to convince me not only that it's reasonable for a society to have come to such a weird point, but that it got there from a starting point of American society.

Selflessness isn't even a virtue in my view. Even if it were mixed with caring about others (which is other people's factional role), the caring-for-others part captures all that is virtuous about someone not being selfish. Striving for low self esteem is simply unhealthy.

The other factional behavior is shown as being narrow and annoying, but at least those are virtues which are good to have in themselves when mixed with others. I don't see how a society like this could function at all! Maybe the lesson will be that it's falling apart because it's better be moderately virtuous in a well rounded way that super virtuous in only one way. If so, then I want to know what real world culture Roth is criticizing.

Chapter Two

The test, aside from being an unbelievably controlled hallucination, is fairly straightforward in terms of which affinities it is testing. It would fit better in a fantasy scenario with "magic!" explaining it than in an Earth future book.

Chapter Three

Hrm, Tori was able to change the hallucination partway through. This suggests the drug was enabling some kind of wireless neural interface rather than containing the sensory input itself. Or magic. Anyway, I find the technology more believable than the notion that she broke the diagnostic process by failing to be utterly one-dimensional. Or it's more that I can't believe most would pass such a flimsy test.

The only charitable way I can understand this is that humans have been re-engineered to be incredibly docile (including the ones who express this docility by going along with any bravery-displaying dares). Even though this girl is boring and normal to readers, she is a danger to a world where everyone else is supposed to be one-dimensional. Somehow. Why would any powers that be care? It's not like the docile ones are likely to suddenly follow her example of being slightly ambivalent.

If it weren't for the likelihood I will be assigned this soon and that it's a very convenient week for me to read it, I probably wouldn't continue. This has come off as entirely too silly for three chapters straight.

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