Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins, 2010
Finished May 21, 2012
Some books, no matter how suspenseful, I read slowly to make them last. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for instance. I knew its end marked the finite limits of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s world. I suppose there’s Pottermore, but it’s not the same as having another story to anticipate. Other books I literally can’t stop reading, or else the preoccupation with how the plot will unravel that follows me in my non-reading moments is nearly incapacitating. Better to just keep reading. Just keep reading, just keep reading…
All three Hunger Games narratives were can’t-stop-now books. I practically inhaled them. I think I read them too quickly, because at the end of it all my mind was just a swirling pool of dull, deflated and confused thoughts. I finished Mockingjay at bookclub; everyone else had gone home, but I refused to get up until the tension was relieved. Finally, I closed the book and looked at Jeff.
“What a depressing novel.”
He smiled and laughed and kind of agreed, we chatted about it briefly, and I went home to sift through my feelings about the third installment. What surfaced primarily was one unfortunate impression: disappointment.
I spent a few days being angry with Collins. That she could get away with such an inconsistent series. Frustrated at the lack of satisfying climactic action. Dulled by the absence of hope or comic relief. With a few days to mull it over, however, I’ve sorted some things out, and my review won’t be as scathing as it would have been. If you don’t want the ending spoiled, you’d be smart to stop reading now.
Where to begin.
I think I understand what Collins is trying to do, and that is to step outside of the fantasy-hero-monomyth box for a bit. Katniss is a reluctant hero, but instead of expanding in her role and finding strength and autonomy, she does the exact opposite. I thought the trilogy’s narrative was leading to a conclusion in which Katniss would grow as a hero, finally gaining agency in her defiance and refusing to be a pawn. But this never really happens.
Collins chose to take a different approach and show a more realistic assessment of what might happen to such a heroine. Katniss is traumatized. The cost of fighting in two consecutive Hunger Games, then seeing nearly all of her friends and family dying, tortured, brainwashed or otherwise mentally unstable is too high.
Here’s where I came to have more of an appreciation for Collins’ whole trilogy…where at first I saw inconsistency, I now see that her stories are actually remarkably uniform. She makes a point of emphasizing the same-ness of what happens to Katniss. In the first two books, a common theme is her fight against being “just another piece” in the Capitol’s games. She is made up by a team of stylists to present a fake image to Panem. She is required to play along with Peeta’s romance. She is forced to fight against and kill others in order to make it out of the arena alive. The list goes on.
In the final book, Katniss is rescued by the rebels and given the chance to fight for the other side. Finally, she can act of her own accord rather than as a gamepiece. However, as she so astutely realizes in the end, “nothing has changed”. She is forced into a role already designed for her, as an image of hope, not a decisive leader. Her stylists return, this time to make her up for strategically-filmed rebellion propos, as well-designed as any propaganda. She is forced to toe the line in her agreement with President Coin, or risk hurting those she cares about (much like her “agreement” to convince President Snow of her love for Peeta). Even her eventual life with Peeta is more inevitable resignation than choice.
The more I notice this pattern across the three narratives, the more I appreciate it. District 13 may be fighting against the Capitol, but its methods are eerily similar to the totalitarian government already in place. Katniss struggles with this, and can never quite agree with “using the same rule book” as the Capitol does in war, but she is mostly subdued and forced to abide by it.
Which she does, largely, until that one satisfyingly decisive action near the end of the story. Instead of shooting her single arrow at a now-impotent Snow, she takes out the true obstacle to preventing the cycle from continuing. As I said already, I think I read this book too fast, as I had to re-read that chapter to be sure Collins WAS making this connection. Reassuringly, it’s there.
I remain disappointed with how anticlimactic it all is. Sure, every chapter ends with some sort of cliffhanger (so much so that I got tired of them). But really, every time something exciting is on the verge of breaking, what happens to our first-person narrator? She gets shot, knocked unconscious, blacks out, or is somehow incapacitated, and learns of the action second-hand. It’s really hard to keep a first-person narrative engaging when the narrator is absent from the most decisive events. It also gives the feeling of conflicts being resolved too easily, as instead of experiencing the action we get a quick one or two-page recap from some other character.
Throughout the book I had that sense, that plot points and characters just weren’t fully fleshed out. Peeta’s rescue – they’re gone; they’re back; how did they do it? Gale – I like him. At least I think so. I never felt as well acquainted with his character as I should have been by the end of three books. Katniss’ exoneration in the assassination of Snow – again, just brushed aside in a half-page summary by Plutarch. The end of the war – what kind of government do they establish? What happens now that the Capitol’s defeated? And why did she give such important characters such unsatisfying exits? Gale. Finnick. Even Prim.
What I did find satisfying was the inclusion of what I always felt Rowling erroneously omitted from Deathly Hallows – how the characters move on. Warning: side rant about Deathly Hallows coming. Rowling ends off on the euphoria of victory, immediately (literally, moments) after Voldemort is defeated. Then jumps to that awful “19 years later” chapter (sorry, gag, I didn’t like it). I was unsatisfied with the lack of emotional resolution and grieving of the fallen – every other Potter book ending in a death allows the characters to mourn, mull things over, and go home for the summer. In Deathly Hallows, I felt like I was also denied that grief period and the bittersweetness of the victory. Collins wisely includes this, and shows that no matter how awful, how damaging the war is, you can eventually gather yourself and go on.
I’ve reconciled myself to the story by understanding that Collins didn’t set out to write a typical hero myth; she had other things on her agenda. She shows the blunt pain of war that doesn’t end when the battle does, the frighteningly questionable line between evil and good, and she makes the point that, in the end, the rebel leadership perpetuated the very things they fought against. I think maybe she was trying to be innovative, differentiating her story from the archetypal heroic tale. Dwelling on realistic pain and suffering, and disregarding hope and satisfying victory, because sometimes there is none. Sometimes stuff seems pointless. You try to accomplish one thing, only to have it later blow up in your face (sorry, that was unintentionally heartless of me – but no way I’m deleting it now). In doing this, I think she succeeds.
That doesn’t mean I liked it.
I was anticipating one kind of story, and she surprised me with quite a different narrative. And so my initial reaction to this book was about a 2 out of 5 (what? Ouch, right?). It’s creeping up to a 3. Who knows, the longer I think about it I just may esteem it even higher. Retrospect does funny things to our impressions.
**I expected more to be made of the mockingjay symbol and Katniss’ role as the rebel’s “mockingjay”. The bird’s prime characteristic is its ability to accurately repeat songs it overhears, spreading the tune across an entire forest in seconds. I guess I was imagining some creative underground network of disseminating resistance information, with Katniss at the helm – but that was no more than fanciful prediction on my part. Oh well.
**One of my new students is this sprightly, dark-skinned girl who I always pictured as Rue while I was reading. I was a little freaked out when I discovered that her name is in fact “Ruu”. Especially in an agricultural town full of apple farmers.