Read it, read it now, and love it. It's the perfect antidote to my obsession with Infinite Jest, it's fun, it's fast, it's dark and it's plotty. And you won't be able to put it down (I certainly couldn't. Nor the sequel. OMG is that the sun coming up?). Just be warned: it's easily the most violent novel written since Clockwork Orange.
WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT:
Picture America as a giant Cost-Co, with the center, the Capitol, overseeingly 12 districts that each concentrate on different goods: electronics, coal, agricultural goods, etc. 75 years before, the districts rebelled against the tyranny of the capitol, which was committed to leaving District citizens in lives of poverty and hardship. But they failed. Now, each District is required to give two teenagers in tribute to fight a battle to the death. Naturally, this is the must-see television event of the year.
Ok, so far so Battle Royale, right? In truth the opening scenes of selecting the candidates for the Hunger Games by lottery reminded me of, well, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson. (And also Ursula K. Leguin's "The Ones from Omelas", to a lesser extent.)
But the main strength of the novel lies in Collins's treatment of her setting. She treats it with seriousness and with gravity, not with irony. Her satire of the military-entertainment complex is subtle and barbed, not an excuse to fill the novel with cheap jokes about reality tv. (In fact, by giving the residents of the Capitol Roman names, one is put more in mind of Gladiators than of reality television. I suspect Collins is making a point about the timelessness of human cruelty, the ultimate cruelty being the ability to a) look the other way from it and b) watch it happening and remain indifferent.)
Our erstwhile protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to be the District 12 tribute in place of her EXTREMELY, dare I say ANNOYINGLY beloved sister, Prim. (Prim is the Beth March character, loved because she's "nice and kind," and therefore I assume she's definitely toast by the end of the series). She leaves poverty-stricken District 12 for the Capitol, an Eloi-land populated by indolent fashionistas who sit around gorging themselves. But in a way, just as all the districts are imprisoned into glorified labor camps, the Capitol is imprisoned by its own vices. In this division of labor, they are the entertainment labor.
Like most quality dystopian fiction, the book leaves us considering the subtle implications of our own public policy, in this case about the nature of exploitation and labor division. In some ways, Panem is the desired conclusion of free market policy; the goal of global free markets is that different nations specialize in producing whatever they are competitively superior at producing (i.e. one nation provides labor, one nature provides technology, one provides textiles, one provides agriculture, etc.) Of course, the instant you throw a totalitarian government into the mix you get communo-fascism. Basically, Panem is China.
And speaking of watching and doing nothing, we are the voyeurs who cannot look away. What happens to Katniss, the entire structure of the Games themselves, is absolutely brutal. I've never seen such violence. God only knows how they're going to make a sub-R movie of this considering all the blood, dismemberment and general horror (and nudity! Did I mention all the random nudity? People just strip off randomly and let people stare at them).
So when Katniss is in danger, we really feel she's in danger.
I feel it necessary at this point to convey my extreme love for Katniss Everdeen. She is a total badass. I find it fascinating that Collins doesn't fall into the conceit of making her some kind of perfect moralist; Katniss is very, very flawed, and that's what makes her unpredictable. She has serious misgivings about what she's been asked to do, but when push comes to shove, she finds more clever and more brutal ways to murder her competitors than anyone else. For that is the true horror of the Games; it exists not just to control society, but to dehumanize its citizens. Victors of the Games don't move on to glory and happiness; they live lives of gin-soaked guilt like Haymitch.
- I don't know if I missed something important, but there's a sequence in the novel where Katniss seems to wake up in her tree, have a few thoughts, then go back to sleep. This happens about four times in a row, and I just kept wondering where the other hunters were. She wasn't injured, I don't think, so it was just strange. It was a strange, improbably interlude that stands out in a novel where everything feels entirely too plausible.
- Now, one of my favorite things about this novel was the fake romance that had to be drummed up between Peeta and Katniss. It was entertaining and uncomfortable at every level, and I loved how Katniss treated it as a matter of practicality (did I mention that I love Katniss?). But I'm not so keen on how the cliffhanger was a romantic twist rather than a more general plot twist. It made me worry that the sequel would focus too much on teen love angst (and for the record, I was right). That said, I did fall head-over-heels in love with Peeta in this.