Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.
It wasn’t even that the book was so good or anything; it was just that the author, Peter Van Houten, seemed to understand me in weird and impossible ways. An Imperial Affliction was my book, in the way my body was my body and my thoughts were my thoughts.
– Hazel, in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
Well, Hazel’s got me thinking.
As I’m reading, I’m trying to be attentive to craft. It goes without saying Green is extremely skilled. His sentences have punch, giving nearly all his characters their say, memorably. If they don’t really have their say, like Hazel’s mother, their condition can be felt. In her case, the pains are seen by any except the most oblivious reader. His details focus on how the characters act in the world; there are few objects in Green’s telling that can be separated from an action or outlook. All of this sounds like anything any competent writer would do, but I encourage you to think of how many times you’ve run into details that did everything but advance story, or dialogue that said nothing worthwhile. There’s more, as none of this would matter if Green couldn’t give his characters voices that stand out but are still conventional enough. Hazel is a sarcastic, too-smart-for-her-own-good teen that walks into ironies. She falls in love in 10 seconds with a guy who has cheesy one liners and too much bravado. We know these types well. (I know them far too well as I’m around campus quite a bit.) The types are recognizable but distinct, and I’m becoming much more aware of how tough this is to pull off. In telling a more realistic story, one without Batman and ninjas, one has to make regular people anything but and still convincing. It is a ridiculous set of demands. It really helps that at some point, there’s a story to tell and get through.
So much for my impression of craft. I wonder if I’ll look back at that paragraph of mine a week from now and conclude I said nothing. Regarding Hazel’s extremely personal relation to An Imperial Affliction, I can’t think of the last book I read which had anything like that effect. Probably Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, which I refused to reread or examine closely after I went through it once. I sorta wanted to talk about it, but not really, and not because I saw myself in any of the characters. It was tough reading when Demosthenes, Nicias, Athenians, and allies – 40,000 strong, I think – were completely destroyed fighting over Syracuse. Not because they deserved to win, but because all the delusional thinking, all the efforts made, all the problems that were the slightest degree away from being strengths didn’t just remind how tough losing is. When you’re pouring everything into something, a win is the very least you’re asking for. I suspect, at the least, I’ve said something about Hazel’s character, maybe about what it means to have to make a book your own.