Manipulative much? Without delving too far into spoilery details, The Fault in Our Stars is the sort of book you sense was written expressly to make its readers cry themselves dry. I liken it to a fictional Dear Zachary. After a while, you start to expect the worst, and somehow what you get is worse still. Except Dear Zachary didn’t feel as emotionally manipulative. People have called it just that, but I think it’s ridiculous to suggest such a thing, given the subject matter and the personal nature of the documentary. Whereas with The Fault in Our Stars, I don’t think it’s too off base a thing to say.
Cancer fucks things up on the regular, yes. It shows no regard for human emotion. Look no further than Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I reviewed earlier in the year. Placed alongside that, The Fault in Our Stars seems almost kind, sparing its readers that level of rawness. The important difference to keep in mind is that one is a (so-called) memoir and the other is a work of fiction. And I don’t know about you, but I see fiction as a form of escape from reality; what I don’t want is a harsh reminder of how unfair it really is. If I wanted that, I would look to the news or something else in that same vein.
Because, when an author tries to replicate real life, he or she runs the risk of it feeling faker than it would if he or she didn’t try quite so hard. Why? One reason is it draws attention to itself. Another is that truth is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction, meaning a story could be based entirely in truth and people would still have a hard time buying into it unless you stress that it actually happened. Look at the IMDb message boards for any number of movies based on true stories; those movies are never 100% accurate, but even the details they don’t alter or embellish are called into question by dozens upon dozens of people unaware of where they were taken from.
If the story’s entirely fictional, the disbelief only grows louder. No matter how heavily researched it is, people will pick it apart until it’s no longer recognizable, and so any perceived problems will be magnified many times over. For example, I don’t doubt that The Fault in Our Stars was written based upon careful observation, but I worry Green was too careful, too faithful, the end result coming across to me as manufactured.
Even as he goes out of his way to make self-aware commentary on the cancer “genre” itself in an attempt to distance himself from it, to keep us from drawing the comparisons by drawing them for us before we have the chance, I couldn’t help but lump the book in among every other cancer-related melodrama I’ve come across. I could feel my buttons being pushed very purposefully and I didn’t like it.
That all being said, I think part of why I took issue with certain decisions of Green’s is that I liked these characters too much. It’s not that I wanted a happy ending, per se. I just didn’t want each character to be, as Hazel would put it, a “grenade.” I knew, given the genre, that damage would be done to the characters, as well as the readers, but I wish he would’ve thought like Hazel and tried to “minimize the casualties.” That’s all.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.