Death is never an easy topic to grapple with, either in real life or in literature.
It is usually avoided entirely, or talked about in quaint euphemisms, but when a brave soul does decide to tackle this most taboo of subjects head on, the sentiments often tend towards the mawkish, the downright sentimental or the oblique.
It is therefore rare to find a book that tackles the subject head on with the sort of frank bravado that John Green brings to The Fault in Our Stars, a novel which unashamedly tackles many of the aspects of death that we would all prefer to ignore.
For instance the idea that death means oblivion, the cessation of all sense of being, the eradication of our presence from the earth, and perhaps, depending on your spiritual outlook, from eternity itself.
Hardly a comforting thought but it is one handled fairly early on in this extraordinarily emotionally honest book which dares to articulate all those things people are thinking but never usually utter unless, of course, like the central characters in the book Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, they are staring death in the face on a daily basis.
They really have no choice but to deal with the stark reality of impending morbidity since it consumes their increasingly circumscribed lives, which are defined, whether they like it or not (and they often don’t) by the terminal diseases with which they are effectively at war.
It is hard then for them not to wonder if oblivion lies at the end of the road, a thought characteristically expressed with blunt honesty by the charismatic Augustus Waters, who, accompanying his friend Isaac to the same “depressing as hell” cancer support group attended by Hazel Grace (in the amusingly referred to literal Heart of Jesus in a church), is asked by Patrick, the group convenor if he fears being subsumed into nothingness.
Agreeing that he does, he creates an temporarily awkward moment into which steps Hazel Grace, a 16 year old girl who views pretty much everything in her life as a “side effect of dying”, an occupational hazard for the self-described Professional Sick Person (she’s had cancer since she was 13) who addresses Augustus’s fears this way:
“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught … if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that what everyone else does.” (p13)
Augustus, a handsome young man of impish spirit, substantial thought and frighteningly fast vocal delivery, with enough charm to sweep up everyone he meets into his orbit with barely a second thought, is won over by Hazel Grace’s honesty, and immediately sets out to woo her, despite her fear that she is a “hand grenade” whose death will be an explosion deleteriously affecting who gets close to her.
With her carefully cosseted but always honestly evaluated world happily invaded by the unstoppable charisma of Augustus Waters, she must decide if she is willing to let him in, enough that it matters, to an existence constrained by her cancer and carefully monitored by her attentive parents, who are as affected by her disease and fear of her eventual death as she is.
While she fights Augustus’s advances initially, fearful of falling in over with a boy who has just lost his first girlfriend to an early death and who is in remission from the cancer that claimed half of one of his legs, they both eventually relent and throw themselves into the relationship for as long as it may last.
What is truly charming about The Fault in Our Stars is John Green’s talented ability to balance the humoruous and the sad, the lighthearted and the intense, the searingly honest with the temptation to shove it all under the rug and forget about it in a way that never falters once throughout the book.
From almost the first words written on page one, you marvel at his mastery of the language, the way his sentences glisten with an entrancing cadence without ever once sacrificing authentic characterisation or pithy, gravely real insights for the sake of beautiful language alone.
These are characters who, though armed with witty retorts and preternaturally assured conversational quips, are dealing with the sort of harsh realities the rest of us do our best to pretend don’t exist at all and Green manages to convey the gravity of their situation while still bringing alive the joy and delight of young new love and the possibilities it brings with it, even for the terminally inclined.
“It seemed like forever ago, like we’d had this brief but still infinite forever. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” (Hazel, p 233)
You end up caring deeply about Augustus and Hazel, their mutual friend Isaac, and everyone else in their orbit, as Green crafts their nascent love into something real and meaningful, held together by a shared love of Peter Van Houten’s book An Imperial Affliction, mocking of the universally agreed right things to say and do when you’re facing death, and a willingness to be both intensely serious and hilariously silly.
You care so much in fact that, even though you know it can’t end happily, you desperately wish it would.
It is truly one of those books you end up living in, totally consumed by these two young people, the mountainous obstacles they face and the honesty, wit and understandably inconsistent bravado they bring to a battle that Hazel Grace particularly admits is one they’re unlikely to win.
This is a book for the ages, regardless of whether there is, in the end, anyone left to remember it existed at all.
The trailer for the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster and Ansel Elgort as Augustus, has just been released, and it is, as you’d expect, a real six boxes of Kleenex tissues tearjerker.
It looks to have captured the humour and sadness of the book just about perfectly, thanks in no small part to the screenplay by Scott Neustadter who did a remarkable job giving life and spirit to The Spectacular Now.
The Fault in Our Stars releases into theatres on 5 June 2014 in Australia and 6 June 2014 in USA.