The Hunger Games

Tl;dr:* if you are feeling like reading The Hunger Games, just read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed instead.**

I’m about three-and-a-half chapters in to The Hunger Games now, and the main thing that strikes me – apart from the fact that the lead character appears to be a psychopath, which I find a bit peculiar in terms of how and where my sympathies are being solicited/directed – is how fundamentally the universe doesn’t make any sense. I think this is because the author is so profoundly embedded in contemporary urban consumer capitalism that even when she’s writing a book whose major selling point is its depiction of a dystopic future subsistence economy/totalitarian regime… she basically makes it all about shopping.

I found this annoying enough to want to go in fairly slow motion through the opening chapters of the book, trying to figure out exactly where and how the worldbuilding is broken. So that’s what this post is for. I’m going to go through the first few chapters more or less in order, but occasionally refer forwards or backwards when I needed to combine textual details/information to make sense of something (or when I couldn’t help combining textual details/information even though it stopped the text from making any sense whatsoever).

This is a very, very long post, so I’ve put it under a fold:

Without further ado, here’s the opening of the book:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother… I… see them[:] My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body.

So they all sleep in the same room – because they’re poor, I guess – but they have two separate beds. Because… they’re not that poor? Because there are strong cultural taboos about parents and children being in the same bed, but not against them being in the same room, like in… no other society I’ve ever heard of. Like when you go to a hotel, maybe.

Anyway, Prim usually sleeps in with Katniss, but when she needs comfort, and only then, she goes in with her mother. Because this is easier and more comforting than snuggling in to the person she’s already sleeping with, for some reason.

So eight sentences in, the only thing I have discovered about this universe is that the layout of Katniss’s family home is (a) economically/historically nonsensical and (b) designed to create a constant incestuous competition for who-gets-to-sleep-with-the-beautiful-little-blonde-girl-child.

I tried to drown [our cat] in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas… I had to let him stay. It turned out OK. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser.

Surely the cat got rid of the vermin if he’s a born mouser…? Oh, no, wait, I see. (This turns out to be one of those books where the author doesn’t like repeating nouns and uses irritating circumlocutions instead: I should have realized that when Prim named the cat Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. Later, when Collins is bored of using the word ‘vomit’ we’re going to get the particularly stylish and natural-sounding phrase ‘the slippery vile stuff from his stomach’, too. [p.58])

I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots… I pull on trousers, a shirt…

Boots before trousers. Good plan, Katniss. I can see you are very competent and intelligent. Perhaps the trousers are very wide? This seems like a bad choice for trousers when you are going hunting, but what do I know.

On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little goat’s cheese wrapped in basil leaves. Prim’s gift to me on reaping day.

She got it from the organic delicatessen round the corner, I expect. Because if she had a goat, and produced goat’s cheese on a regular basis, this wouldn’t be much of a gift, would it? Because they would be eating it all the time, right?

Anyway, off she goes with her goat’s cheese and her enormous trousers (p.5):

Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence… it’s supposed to be electrified twenty-four hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that live in the woods… that used to threaten our streets. But since we’re lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the evening, it’s usually safe to touch.

So who’s in charge of this fence? It encloses all of District 12, as if the Capitol put it up to keep people in, but it’s electrified (everywhere, or only in this section by the woods?) to protect the streets from the predators, so did the District electrify it? Did the Capitol put it up and then the District decided to electrify it? Can you electrify a fence that’s not designed to be electric? If it’s rarely live, how come they don’t have predators on the streets any more?

Oh, look, Collins has thought that bit through, at least (pp.5-6):

Electrified or not, the fence has been successful at keeping the flesh-eaters out of District 12

But… then why electrify it? Especially with an unreliable electricity supply? Hmm. ‘She’s thought that bit through’ might have been a bit of an overstatement.

[In the woods beyond the fence] there’s also food if you know how to find it. My father knew and he taught me some ways before he [died].

But obviously most of the people living in the subsistence economy and dying of starvation (‘Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12′, p.33) have not bothered to figure out how to obtain FREE FOOD, because… they’re stupid? They’re brainwashed by the Capitol’s propaganda? There are such effective measures against going into the woods that most people would prefer to die of starvation than face the consequences of their actions?

Even though trespassing in the woods is illegal and poaching carries the severest of penalties, more people would risk it if they had weapons.

Okay, they won’t go into the woods because they don’t have weapons and they’re scared of predators. But why don’t they have weapons, Katniss? Seeing as you have decided to spend the day explaining the rationale behind everything you see to yourself?

My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father… My father could have made good money selling them, but if the officials found out he would have been publicly executed for inciting a rebellion. Most of the Peacekeepers turn a blind eye to the few of us who hunt because they’re as hungry for fresh meat as anybody is. In fact, they’re among our best customers. But the idea that someone might be arming the Seam would never have been allowed.

This looks like an attempt to fix a plot hole (weapons are banned, but some people have weapons), which just ends up creating more plot holes and hurting my head. Are the ‘Peacekeepers’ and the ‘officials’ the same people? Because the ‘Peacekeepers’ clearly have found out that some of the people of the Seam have weapons, because they buy meat from them. But if the officals found out, they would publicly execute the people with weapons. Or maybe Peacekeepers and officials are the same, and the point Collins is trying to make is that you can use weapons, but not sell them? But why would this be? Or is it that her father is the only person who can make weapons, so if he doesn’t sell them, no-one can have any? Why is her father the only person who knows how to make weapons and what foods are edible? Where did he learn it and why does he keep all this knowledge to himself when his neighbours are starving?

Also, just to note, the Peacekeepers live in the District and are subjected to the same living conditions as the others. That seems like a weird way to run a violently repressive society: usually the overseers get better food.

In the autumn, a few brave souls sneak into the woods to harvest apples. But always in sight of the Meadow. Always close enough to run back to the safety of District 12 if trouble arises.

So people do go into the woods, after all. It seems that the ‘trouble’ that might arise is probably predators in the woods, since staying in sight of the Meadow sounds like an excellent way to get caught by the officials for trespassing in the woods, which, we remember, is illegal. But nobody is worried about this. Any more. Though they were a couple of paragraphs ago.

On another note, it’s a bit of a shame that no-one has thought to save the seeds from their apples and grow their own apple trees, but oh well, you can’t think of everything anything.

Anyway, finally we have escaped from p.6, which is a particular doozy of a page, and Katniss goes on to muse about her tactics for survival in a repressive regime (p.7):

Do my work quietly in school. Make only polite small talk in the public market. Discuss little more than trades in the Hob, which is the black market where I make most of my money.

There’s compulsory schooling for sixteen-year-olds in this subsistence economy? When does Katniss get time to go to school, given that she is hunting every day? Is truancy not punished? If not, why does she go at all?

Also, Suzanne Collins thinks that ‘the black market’ is a place. I wonder what makes it a ‘black’ market? If it’s illegal, how come it manages to continue trading? Or is it another of those things that is VERY ILLEGAL except that the law has never been enforced in the five years that Katniss has been trading there?

She meets up with her friend Gale, who gives her some bread (p.8)

It’s real bakery bread, not the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations… I hold the puncture in the crust to my nose, inhaling the fragrance… Fine bread like this is for special occasions.

So they get grain rations, and they mill the grain into flour, and they make it into flatbread at home, but… they don’t have any raising agents? Because the baker is hoarding the sourdough starter and refusing to distribute the yeast? Or it’s too labour-intensive to make crusty bread? Milling flour, okay, but not kneading dough, that would be CRAZY TALK.

Then we get a description of Katniss and Gale, seguing into a discussion of the class structure of the District (p.9):

Straight black hair, olive skin… grey eyes… Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My mother’s parents were part of the small merchant class that caters to officials, Peacekeepers and the occasional Seam customer. They ran an apothecary shop in the nicer part of District 12. Since almost no-one can afford doctors, apothecaries are our healers.

Let’s take this in order.

(1) There is a racialized component to the class system in the District: in a rhetorical move straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1805), the upper classes are blonder and whiter than the working classes, and this secures our sympathy for them even against our own class interests (‘Prim, whom no one can help loving’, p.28).

(2) Peacekeepers are different from officials. So let’s try and figure out the class system here: we have a District containing a small merchant class; a large mining class (the ‘Seam’); officials; and Peacekeepers. Apothecaries are ‘our’ healers, and ‘we’ throughout the book refers to the Seam, but the apothecary shop only occasionally caters to the Seam, and mostly caters to officials and Peacekeepers. (I have no idea how to parse that.) Anyway, officials and Peacekeepers are the apothecary’s main customers, so they can’t be the ‘few’ who can afford doctors, so in addition to the mining class, the merchant class, and the officials, there must also be a tiny aristocracy who can afford doctors. (Who are they? Maybe they’re… the doctors.)

(3) The Seam has no alternative means of healing, because apothecaries ‘are our healers’. Apothecaries must have a lot of specialized knowledge, but they count as merchants and only operate out of a shop. Because if you need it, it must be for sale: God knows small subsistence-level agrarian economies never share knowledge or resources, they just go shopping.

Additionally (pp.9-10):

My father got to know my mother because on his hunts he would sometimes collect medicinal herbs and sell them to her shop to be brewed into remedies.

Ah. Once again the solution to all plot holes is Katniss’s father’s secret knowledge. I hate to tell you this, Katniss, but your father was a class traitor. Now he’s not just hoarding his ability to make weapons, but medicinal herbs, which obviously you would sell to the merchant class rather than keep within the Seam. Many, indeed, are the mediaeval herbaries which advise you to (1) gather the medicinal herbs at full moon with a silver knife, then (2) sell them to a tiny professional class who will price them out of your range, and (3) die of fever. If only there were some way to share goods and resources outwith a consumer-based monetary system! But alas, SUCH A THING HAS NEVER EXISTED AND NEVER COULD EXIST.

Later, we get a series of flashbacks to the period after Katniss’ father’s death, in which we learn that after five months the remaining family members reached the point where ‘for three days, we’d had nothing but boiled water with some old dried mint leaves I’d found at the back of a cupboard’ (p.35). It’s not until she sees a dandelion in bloom that she suddenly remembers that she has known all along where, and how, to get free food: dandelions, katniss roots, rabbits, eggs, ‘greens’ (which Prim gathers without even having to go into the woods), fish. So even the family which appears to be hoarding the SECRET KNOWLEDGE of how to survive on the FREE FOOD which is abundant all around everyone in the District doesn’t think of doing so for five months. Because… in a small agrarian community of starvation-level poverty, where people are frequently found starving to death in the streets, obviously you would not avail yourself of FREE FOOD, or tell other people how to get the FREE FOOD because that is such arcane and secret knowledge.

Anyway, back to the present day, and Katniss’s attempts to provide for her family (p.11):

With both of us hunting daily, there are still nights when game has to be swapped for lard or shoelaces or wool, still nights when we go to bed with our stomachs growling.

(1) Katniss is hunting daily. When is she going to school?

(2) It is a shame that Katniss does not know that shoelaces can be made of leather, eg from the HIDES of GAME, and that lard is pig fat and could perhaps be obtained from the GAME she has caught, if this includes wild pigs. Then she would not need to go to bed hungry because she had swapped a carcass which would provide several months’ food, leather (for shoelaces and many other things), and lard, for… some shoelaces and lard. THINK IT THROUGH, KATNISS.

(Has Suzanne Collins never read the Little House books, btw? This is where I am getting all my ‘survival in a harsh landscape’ knowledge from.)

Katniss and Gale go fishing, then trading (p.13):

The black market’s still fairly busy. We easily trade six of the fish for good bread, the other two for salt.

So in addition to the public bakery, there’s a black-market bakery? Individual families don’t have raising agents, or the time to knead bread/let it rise, or a good enough oven to make ‘good bread’, or something, and there is a public bakery which sells ‘good bread’, but it’s still worth someone’s while to set up another, black-market bakery? HOW DOES THIS WORK???

Anyway, Katniss and Gale go and sell strawberries to the mayor and encounter his daughter, Madge (pp.13-14):

The mayor’s daughter… is in my year at school… Since neither of us really has a group of friends, we seem to end up together a lot at school. Eating lunch, sitting next to each other at assemblies, partnering for sports activities.

So Katniss is somehow going to school regularly as well as hunting daily. School is not class-based, since the Seam go in with the mayor’s children, but it is age-based: children are taught in year cohorts. There are assemblies, lunch periods (where students do not go home), and compulsory sports. School attendance is compulsory up to at least the age of 16, and possibly beyond. It’s… really quite like a contemporary USian urban school, isn’t it?

Later we hear about the school curriculum (p.50):

Besides basic reading and maths, most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem [their country]. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol.

This seems to be an attempt to show that school is (to coin a phrase) an ideological state apparatus. Except that (1) the usual way you sneak ideology into teaching is through basic reading (‘Peter likes to run! Jane likes to tidy up!’) and maths (‘If Peter runs at 60mph, and Jane totters along at 1mph in her lovely shoes, how long will it take Peter to catch Jane?’), and (2) if the school is designed to keep the Seam children in their place, (a) why are they going there rather than working in the mines, which seems a better way to learn about coal, and (b) why are the children of the merchant/official classes going through the same curriculum?

Also, we now have to add ‘teachers’ in to the professional demographic of the District, which is growing rapidly.

And now, it is time to head into town for the Reaping ceremony (pp.19-20):

At one o’clock, we head for the square. Attendance is mandatory unless you are on death’s door. This evening, officials will come around and check to see if this is the case. If not, you’ll be imprisoned.

Thank God it’s impossible to fake illness. Also, we now have to add ‘prison guards’ in to the District’s professions. And blimey, ‘officials’ get paid a lot of money for really menial jobs, don’t they?

The square’s surrounded by shops, and on public market days… it has a holiday feel to it… The square’s quite large, but not enough to hold District 12′s population of about eight thousand.

Shopping is surprisingly central to the economy of this poor mining district. A baker’s, an apothecary, and enough other shops to surround a square that doesn’t quite hold 8000 people. Do they only open on public market days, or are there also market stalls in the square on public market days? This ‘small merchant class’ is starting to look quite big.

Latecomers are directed to the adjacent streets, where they can watch the event on screens as it’s televised live by the state.

Televised BY MAGIC, obviously, as the District is lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the evenings, and we already know it isn’t on at the moment because Katniss just checked the fence.

we… focus our attention on the temporary stage that is set up before the Justice Building.

There are 8000 people in this District and they have their own Justice Building. I suppose that’s where all the public executions take place, except for how they don’t because everyone is too scared to break the law except Katniss and she is selling meat to all the officials. So the Justice Building must just be full of officials twirling round on their office chairs and making paper-clip chains and collecting their pay cheques.

Okay! Now we finally get a description of the CENTRAL MECHANISM by which this society works: the Hunger Games! My hopes, as you can imagine, are VERY HIGH (p.22):

The twenty-four tributes [a boy and a girl from each District] will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland.

So… it’s a different arena every year? How does that work in terms of the Capitol’s control of territory? Or is it the same arena every year, but they manipulate the weather? That seems like a big ask for a country that is reliant on COAL for fuel. COAL FROM A NEAR-EXHAUSTED SEAM, mined by about THREE THOUSAND STARVING PEOPLE [8000 people is probably 5000 adults, of which I would imagine they need 2000 to be merchants, teachers, doctors, officials, Peacekeepers, prison guards, etc]. Or maybe they don’t actually need the coal, because they have infinite energy resources, and they just make the District 12 people mine coal in order to humiliate them?

To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others.

Leaving aside the fact that ‘torturous’ is not a word, and ‘tortuous’ means ‘twisty’, I’m not really sure how a state can require its peasantry to treat something as a festivity. It can ideologically manipulate them into thinking of something which is against their own interests as a festivity – eg First Communions or weddings – or it can require the peasantry to watch something, as with the vidscreens in 1984 that you can’t turn off, but no central state has ever really been able to compel its population to take a particular attitude to something.

Later, by the way, when Katniss has left the District, she wonders what her mother and sister have been doing:

Did they watch the recap of the day’s events on the battered old TV that sits on the table against the wall?, p.65

So one of the signs of poverty in this subsistence economy where TV-watching is compulsory (or I thought it was, but maybe not?) is having a ‘battered old TV’. Which may or may not work, depending on whether this is one of the evenings on which they are lucky enough to get two or three hours of electricity. I just think that if TV-watching is your CENTRAL FORM OF SOCIAL CONTROL, and you are a totalitarian regime, you would probably do better to go the 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 route and instal standard screens in everyone’s house, and ALSO make sure that, you know, they WORK.

But okay, never mind, the Capitol has chosen not to go that route, but just to rely on the idea that starving workers will spend money on TV sets and continue to watch regularly even when the service is entirely unreliable. So we need to add in ‘TV shop’ to the public market, and ‘small electrical repairs’ to the available trades. I’m also now a bit confused about why, since the houses must all be supplied with electricity, no-one seems to have any other electrical devices.

Okay, I’m going to have to stop taking it quite so slowly here, or we will all go crazy. But here’s just a few more key passages, in terms of trying to figure out the social/economic organization of this universe.

First, another flashback to the period after Katniss’s father’s death (p.32):

The district had given us a small amount of money as compensation for his death, enough to cover one month of grieving, after which time my mother would be expected to get a job.

A job? So this is a wage-based economy, it turns out. But what kind of job can Katniss’s mother do? Working in a shop? They all seem to be family-owned. Mining? Small electrical repairs? Stenographer in the Justice Building?

In any case, it doesn’t signify: she doesn’t get a job, because she’s too depressed (p.33):

If it had become known that my mother could no longer care for us, the district would have taken us away from her and placed us in the community home.

… because friends, relatives, and neighbours would not have stepped in, obviously, possibly as revenge for Katniss’s father hoarding all the food and medicine and/or selling it to the merchant class, but most likely because there are no extended families or informal support networks in this small semi-rural subsistence economy. And because the District is large enough, with a population of five thousand adults, to have its own community home for the orphans, just as it has its own Justice Building. Presumably when there aren’t any orphans, the people who run it just sit sadly in the community home, occasionally paying a child off the street to come in and ask for more gruel so they can refuse them.

Finally, just before Katniss figures out how to get the FREE FOOD, while she’s still trying to get food by shopping (p.34):

I had been in town, trying to trade some threadbare old baby clothes of Prim’s in the public market, but there were no takers. Although I had been to the Hob on several occasions with my father, I was too frightened to venture into that rough, gritty place alone.

I really don’t understand the difference between the public market and the Hob (except that one is more pleasant to be in, because it’s outdoors), given that you trade the same goods in the same way in both of them.

Also, Katniss, I have to say, I think it would have been a better idea to trade in some of your mother’s beautiful and expensive dresses, rather than the threadbare baby clothes. (p.17: ‘my mother wears a fine dress from her apothecary days… My mother has laid out one of her own lovely dresses for me… with matching shoes’; p.41 ‘I know velvet because my mother has a dress with a collar made of the stuff’). This, plus the thing where you put your boots on before your trousers and then trade in ‘a carcass full of lard, shoelaces, meat and other goodies’ for ‘some lard and shoelaces’, is not really making me think you will do well in the forthcoming tests of your intelligence and resourcefulness.

In short, I can’t make any sense of the social or economic conditions in which Katniss is living. From the publicity around the books and the film, and the fact that the country they live in is called Panem, which must be an allusion to the Latin phrase panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’),*** it seems like Collins wants us to understand that she’s writing about a totalitarian state where the central urban power (the Capitol) exerts control over the people of District 12 through controlling the food supply and through spectacular entertainment (the Hunger Games). But a society that worked like that wouldn’t look like this one. In particular, we’re given no social/economic explanation for why the people of the District don’t avail themselves of the free food that’s growing all around them and/or share their knowledge about how to get free food, or for why the Hunger Games are watched by everyone (or, indeed, even how, given that, again, THERE IS NO RELIABLE ELECTRICITY SUPPLY.)

On a different sort of level, one of the major pleasures of dystopian/utopian fiction for me is its immersiveness; the pleasure of finding oneself in a different world, and in particular the pleasure of the fit between the outer and the inner landscapes. 1984 is a bit of a clunky example, but nonetheless a telling one: think of the way that the poverty of Winston Smith’s imagination, the narrowness of what he’s capable of dreaming or feeling, is echoed by the deliberate impoverishment of language in Newspeak and the cold, hard, joyless physical world that surrounds him. The Hunger Games doesn’t have any of that: descriptions are minimal, and although Katniss spends a lot of time going ‘Ooh, this chocolate is delicious, this couch is made of velvet, I’ve never eaten so much rich food before’, there’s no heft to the world, either physically or emotionally. And here’s where I just think I’m going to give up on The Hunger Games and treat myself to a reread of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Let’s just end this saga with a direct comparison between the two. Here’s Katniss on her first night on the luxurious train taking her to the Capitol, and Shevek on her first night on the luxurious spaceship taking him to Urras.

Katniss:

We are each given our own chambers that have a bedroom, a dressing area and a private bathroom with hot and cold running water. We don’t have hot water at home, unless we boil it. There are drawers filled with fine clothes… I peel off my mother’s blue dress and take a hot shower. I’ve never had a shower before. It’s like being in summer rain, only warmer. I dress in a dark green shirt and trousers.

Shevek:

The blank walls were full of surprises, all ready to reveal themselves at a touch on the panel: washstand, shitstool, mirror, desk, chair, closet, shelves. There were several completely mysterious electrical devices connected with the washstand, and the water valve did not cut off when you released the faucet, but kept pouring out until shut off – a sign, Shevek thought, either of great faith in human nature, or of great quantities of hot water. Assuming the latter, he washed all over, and finding no towel, dried himself with one of the mysterious devices, which emitted a pleasant tickling blast of warm air. Not finding his own clothes, he put back on those he had found himself wearing when he woke up: loose tied trousers and a shapeless tunic, both bright yellow with small blue spots. He looked at himself in the mirror. He thought the effect unfortunate.

Unlike Katniss, Shevek doesn’t automatically know how to operate things he has never seen before, or what to call them; unlike Shevek, Katniss does not speculate about the differences between the Capitol’s and the District’s way of doing things, or try and reach conclusions about what she should do from the way things work, but seems to take for granted that the Capitol’s things are self-evidently good and normal, and the District is simply deprived of them.

Katniss on clothes and cleaning:

[in the morning] I put the green outfit back on since it’s not really dirty, just slightly crumpled from spending the night on the floor.

Shevek on clothes and cleaning:

He was putting on his old clothes, and as he pulled the shirt over his head he saw the doctor stuff the blue and yellow ‘sleeping clothes’ into the ‘trash’ bin. Shevek paused, the collar still over his nose. He emerged fully, knelt, and opened the bin. It was empty.

‘The clothes are burned?’ [the doctor has previously used the 'trash bin' for some paper, and explained that the paper is incinerated]

‘Oh, those are cheap pyjamas, service issue – wear ‘em and throw ‘em away. It costs less than cleaning.’

‘It costs less,’ Shevek repeated meditatively. He said the words the way a paleontologist looks at a fossil, the fossil that dates a whole stratum.

In the Le Guin passage, through the concrete details of behaviour and spaceship design we – and Shevek – begin to understand the ways in which different socio-economic systems give rise to different expectations, different value systems, different behaviours. In the Collins passage, we see that a girl raised in an agrarian subsistence economy who can barely afford to eat, let alone buy clothes, is marked out as particularly thrifty because she wears the same clothes the day after she put them on for a couple of hours to sit and eat dinner in.

Katniss on beds:

I just strip off my shirt and trousers and climb into bed in my underwear. The sheets are made of soft, silky fabric. A thick, fluffy quilt gives immediate warmth…

Shevek on beds:

When first aboard the ship, in those long hours of fever and despair, he had been distracted, sometimes pleased and sometimes irritated, by a grossly simple sensation: the softness of the bed. Though only a bunk, its mattress gave under his weight with caressing suppleness. It yielded to him, yielded to him so insistently that he was, still, always conscious of it while falling asleep. Both the pleasure and the irritation it produced in him were decidedly erotic. There was also the hot-air-nozzle-towel device: the same kind of effect. A tickling. And the design of the furniture in the officers’ lounge, the smooth plastic curves into which stubborn wood and steel had been forced, the smoothness and delicacy of surfaces and textures: were these not also faintly, pervasively erotic?

Now, I may be particularly aggrieved here because before I read The Hunger Games someone on the internet told me that it was incredibly well written, full of sensuous detail and immersive pleasures. And I immediately thought of the above passage from Le Guin (which is one of the great, life-changing, close-to-the-heart moments in my internal library) and set my expectations accordingly. And they turned out to mean that it contained sentences like ‘The sheets are made of soft, silky fabric’ and ‘A thick, fluffy quilt gives immediate warmth’.

Because, you see, The Hunger Games is selling itself as a book about the way social, political, and economic organization affects the way we see the world, the experiences we have and the stories we can tell… and so far the first four chapters have told me:

* that pretty blonde girl-children are universally lovable and must be protected at all costs;
* that poor people are literally too stupid to live (apart from the special ones with secret skills – oddly, these secret skills are in fact common survival skills for poor people; they’re only ‘secret’ from rich/privileged urban dwellers); and
* that hot showers and fluffy quilts are nice.

So I can’t help feeling somehow short-changed.

*my favourite internet acronym, partly because of the semicolon: ‘too long, didn’t read’

**This is a ridiculous thing to say, I know, because Le Guin is one of The Greats, so it’s sort of like saying ‘if you feel like reading Enid Blyton’s school stories, just read Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week instead’, but still.

***for grammar geeks, the reason it has to be an allusion to this specific phrase is that panem is in the accusative case in this phrase, because the phrase is only part of a longer sentence in which ‘bread and circuses’ are the object of a verb. If you were just naming a country ‘Bread’, you would use the nominative case, panis.

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32 Responses to The Hunger Games

  1. Cathy Butler says:

    This is great. I will be linking – I hope you don’t mind!

  2. Thank you. I have also been reading the first book really slowly; because it is annoying me for many of the reasons you mention here, because I am wondering if the lead up to the actual ‘games’ is to establish sympathy with Katniss [fail], and because I can’t believe how tedious it is when lots of other people seem to think the book is exciting. I wonder what else they have read if anything? I can see the marketing angle for teen girls with detailed descriptions of feelings/clothes/who is my friend and ally? but oh dear, can’t we immediately recommend a shorter better book?
    And on a dystopian theme I have recently been hooked and impressed by The Bridge, Jane Higgins, Text Publishing, 2011 who has won at least 2 awards so far.

    • nowandrome says:

      Oh, thanks – I’ll have a look at The Bridge. And yes! I too can’t figure out what people are finding exciting about it, although once Katniss reaches the Capitol it somehow rollicks along a bit better, even though the actual Hunger Games section basically consists of repeated descriptions of her sterilizing water and packing a backpack. Odd.

      Can’t see the ‘detailed descriptions of feelings/who is my friend’ angle, either, I’m afraid, but that’s probably because I read a lot of romance, so my bar for ‘detailed descriptions of feelings’ is set pretty high.

  3. Yes, sadly true on all counts. But that hasn’t stopped this book from flying out of my library. It hasn’t stopped 16 year old boys from having their FIRST positive experience enjoying a novel (these are boys who will never connect with the other books you use in comparison). This book is turning a generation of children into readers in a way that Harry Potter never could, maybe because it doesn’t take itself this seriously. Suzanne Collins knows her audience and has created a readable adventure story, with a moral, that is engaging and hooking in teens all around the world.
    Thank you for sharing your view, as a librarian I have thoroughly enjoyed your commentary and agree. Surely I will never think of the book again without mentally trying to put my pants on after my boots! I have enjoyed your humor and your keen eye for detail.

    • nowandrome says:

      This book is turning a generation of children into readers in a way that Harry Potter never could

      I think that’s a bit early to call – it’s only been out for three years! I am also a bit less excited than you about 16 year old boys enjoying novels. Why should they have to? There are lots of other things to enjoy, many of which require more sophisticated analytical/critical skills than The Hunger Games, and have more to give their readers/audiences/viewers. (On this, also, what do you think the moral of the Hunger Games is? To me, the narrative seems to be saying that moral reflection and political resistance are wrong, foolish, or simply impossible/off the agenda, but anything you do without thinking – including killing people – is okay, so long as you do it to protect a TINY BEAUTIFUL GIRL-CHILD. Which… I actually can’t think of a worse moral.)

      Having said all of which, though, I do take your point – I am really happy when people find books and TV shows and music and cultural artefacts in general which they can use to explore themselves and the world, and which lead on to them being able to find other things. So I certainly don’t mean my criticisms of the world-building here to mean that everyone who is reading and loving The Hunger Games is stupid or wrong or brainwashed or psychopathic or anything else: they are obviously doing a kind of work with the text that I simply can’t do (since I can’t even make it make sense, let alone render it exciting, enjoyable, and/or moral). But if I’m also doing a kind of work that they can’t do, then what I hope for this post is that it might make that kind of work available – as another resource for readers, alongside the work they’re already doing.

  4. Loz says:

    So why is Katniss a psychopath?

    • nowandrome says:

      I figured this out last night while I was insomniac – it’s actually those opening sentences. Katniss does EVERYTHING for the love of PRIM, the one, tiny, pure, innocent, beautiful, girl-child. And yet when Prim is scared at night, she climbs over Katniss’s sleeping body and out of the bed that they share to go to her mother for comfort. I find that image so sinister that I haven’t actually got over it, especially combined with the fact that Katniss manages to get through the whole Hunger Games without actually telling us how she feels about killing humans, so the whole book now feels to me like this:

      Katniss: PRIM, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!! I DO IT ALL FOR YOU!! ALL THE KILLING!!! ALL THE SINGING TO OTHER TINY DEAD GIRLS!!!!! YOU ARE SO PERFECT!!! NOT LIKE MY BITCH MOTHER AND ALL THESE OTHER BITCHES LIKE CLOVE, WHO IS EVIL AND DESERVES TO DIE!!!! YOU ARE THE ONLY GOOD THING IN THE WORLD!!!!!! I LOVE YOU, PRIM!!!!! I’M DOING IT ALL FOR YOOOOOOOOUUUU!!!!!!

      Prim: Okay, Katniss, I’ll get in the bed with you ::waits rigidly for Katniss to fall asleep, runs to her mother, hides from the scary lady::

      (‘Psychopath’ may be the wrong clinical term, but she is so Hollywood-serial-killer).

      • Loz says:

        Oh that’s okay then, she’s not a psychopath, she’s something that doesn’t really exist and another example of how Suzanne Collins doesn’t really think about things any deeper than when she’s flicking through TV channels in the evening (does your copy of HG have the interview she does at the back?).

        I don’t think she takes much delight in killing but don’t want to get spoilery. Are you still intending to read the entire book?

  5. Lake says:

    I love it when you do this. Incisive reading AND an alt text recommendation.

  6. inez b says:

    Your piece gives me that “I want everyone to read this” feeling. X

  7. Great post. I myself read through all three, and though they’re undoubtedly page turners, I found myself increasingly in disbelief about the world of Panem which has apparently unlimited resources to direct into the Hunger Games. By the third book, my suspension of disbelief was dangling from a sky-hook. Collins can hurl anything she likes at her characters – we’re out of the realms of dystopia and well into the realms of fantasy, because the only way most of her effects could possibly work would be by magic.

    • nowandrome says:

      the only way most of her effects could possibly work would be by magic.

      And I don’t even like fantasy where magic works by magic! ::g:: But yeah, the discrepancy between the unlimited resources of the Capitol and the highly limited resources of the Districts is stunning, even in the first book. I’m also really struck at the absence of any higher education/research establishments: there’s no infrastructure capable of producing either the kind of food or the kind of technology we see in the Capitol. I keep wanting to write fanfic set in District 14, the secret R&D District…

      • And THAT’s where all the resources go…those pesky R&D scientists are draining their country of all its wealth, continuously inventing new toys which of course the Capitol then HAS to test – by Jove I think you’ve got it!

  8. I think one of us is right; Collins just hasn’t thought through all the detail and when I have finished the first book [just in case I discover something interesting] I definitely won’t need to read the others.

  9. Garboil says:

    Heh. I quite enjoyed this, although I would gently suggest that there are very few books, even quite good ones, whose worldbuilding would stand up to this degree of hostile scrutiny.

    To take your example of the Hainish cycle, the biology makes no sense (How do all these planets magically evolve plants and animals humans can digest? If humans evolved on Hain where the hell did chimpanzees come from?), it tends toward one planet = one culture syndrome (two, if you were lucky enough to land on Werel or Gethen, three if you’re in the Urras/Annares system) and the timescales get pretty dodgy, especially on planets like O because Le Guin likes stable agrarian societies more than she likes studying history. Something pretty fundamental would have to change about human nature to produce an agrarian society in which everything remains stable across a whole planet for 10,000 years- here on Earth as soon as you have enough food stability to support non-food gathering professions, someone gets the idea to spend their spare time subjugating everyone else- and don’t even get me started on the lack of language shifts. Tolkien would never stand for it, but then, he has no idea where the elves of Lothlorien get the grain to make all that lembas, so he’s in no position to preach to anyone.

    Now, biology is pretty tangential to the Hainish cycle and economics is pretty tangential to Lord of the Rings, so arguably Le Guin and Tolkien deserve to be cut a break here, whereas class stratification and the operation of totalitarian states are considerably more central to the Hunger Games trilogy. But they’re not books about totalitarianism in the same sense that 1984 is a book about totalitarianism or The Dispossessed is a book about communism. They’re really about the question of individual agency in the face of oppressive societies and social upheaval, and while much better books have obviously been written about this topic I’d argue they’re actually not a completely stupid treatment of it, especially among YA dystopia novels. It helps that while Collins understands very little of how totalitarian societies work, she turns out to understand revolutions pretty well- Book Three has structural issues but the worldbuilding improves considerably. (Although the economics and population structure remain nonsensical, and you didn’t even touch on the baffling geography.)

    Katniss’s persistent apoliticism actually serves this theme fairly well, in my view, in a sort of Niemöller “First they came for the other tributes, then they came for your angelic baby sister” sort of way. There are some serious problems with her narration, a lot of them centering around Collins’ having-her-cake-and-eating-it too approach to girly dresses and romance, but her being a class traitor isn’t really one of them. It may make her less likeable, but that’s a separate issue, and Collins piles enough problems on to her that one tends to root for her anyway.

    You’re wrong about the beds, incidentally. Two beds/one room is a pretty common setup for families with space limitations here on Earth, no strange taboos about bed-sharing required. You’re probably wrong about the poaching as well; it seems pretty clear from British history that there were people willing to risk it and people who didn’t dare even when their kids were dying of malnutrition, coexisting in the same populations. Plus hunting is a complex, time-consuming activity, and the people who have the skill may not be eager to teach it to neighbors who might decide to report them to the authorities for their crime. Collins seems to have missed that aspect of totalitarian society in her eagerness to partition the world between good miners and wicked urbanites, but one assumes Mr. Everdeen would have been conscious of it.

    That said, the rest of your economic/demographic criticism stands, the racial breakdown of the cast is pretty unfortunate (you haven’t even gotten to the bad bits yet, as far as that’s concerned), and there”s no excuse for the boots/pants cockup or that godawful shower scene on the train. Collins improves as a stylist as she goes on, but she has a lot of catching up to do.

    • nowandrome says:

      Thanks for this – I do love when one account of a reading elicits another, and this was really interesting.

      Certainly no-one has managed to write a completely coherent world, especially not in fantasy/SF (actually worldbuilding in realist novels is often pretty shonky as well – David Nicholls’ One Day is a case in point). The particular flaws happen to matter here/to me in part because, yes, I was expecting a book about ‘individual agency in society’, and I don’t think you can write about that if you don’t know how societies work. So to some extent the nitpicking is hostile, but not entirely: because of my own pre-existing predispositions, expectations, knowledges and comparisons, I am genuinely unable to tell what I am supposed to be overlooking as an irrelevant detail and what I am supposed to be adding to my picture of the world. (Also, I absolutely fucking hate books about politics which have persistently apolitical protagonists. I don’t read romances about aromantic people, either, or pony books about people who can’t ride and have no interest in learning. Though of course now I’ve said that I’m thinking ‘hmm, I bet you could do both of those things in a really interesting way’….)

      Two beds/one room is a pretty common setup for families with space limitations here on Earth, no strange taboos about bed-sharing required.

      Fair enough – I think I was reading District 12 as a quasi-mediaeval world, and I would really not expect the children to be in a separate bed from the parent in that context. I still find the thing where Prim climbs over Katniss’s sleeping body to get to her mother for comfort really chilling, though, and I probably wouldn’t have worried about the beds if they didn’t have that kind of emotional significance straight off the bat.

      And you are right about the poaching – some people risk it, some people don’t – but Collins isn’t. She says very explicitly (I quote it) that people only don’t poach because they don’t have weapons, and they don’t have weapons because Katniss’s dad doesn’t teach them how to make them. There are tons of ways she could have made her set-up plausible (or at least more plausible), but she doesn’t: I suspect she doesn’t have anything like the knowledge or the skill that, clearly, many of her readers, including you, are bringing to their reading of her world. Which, you know, that’s how reading works – Vergil didn’t know he was prophesying the birth of Christ in Eclogue 4, but his late-antique/mediaeval readers did, and they were as right as anyone else…

  10. Pingback: Hehehehe. Deconstruction FTW! « Random Ramblings of Rude Reality

  11. ewein2412 says:

    Gah. I have been writing about the Ravensbruck concentration camp for the past two years and I find the “hunger” of Collins’ imaginary world, and its imaginary totalitarian government, utterly and completely embarrassing in the naivete of her depictions. People ATE shoelaces during the siege of Leningrad. Ethiopian schoolchildren expect neither to eat nor to use non-existent toilets during their school day RIGHT NOW. Even *I* lived for 3 years in a house with no hot water as a child. To consider clothes worn for one day and a lack of hot showers as deprivation is the product of a mind that has never known, or even seriously considered, deprivation.

    • nowandrome says:

      a mind that has never known, or even seriously considered, deprivation.

      Oh, God, yes. I have a friend who killed rabbits as a child to keep her family from starving (in Melbourne, in the 1960s), and even that limited contact with the reality of deprivation is part of what makes me so annoyed with The Hunger Games. I can’t even imagine the cognitive dissonance of moving your brain from Ravensbruck to Collins’ universe.

      It does bounce along at a great old lick, though, and sometimes that’s what you want – I mean, I’m not so high-minded I think all popular fiction should be able to bear comparison with yknow the HOLOCAUST, or that enjoying The Hunger Games means that you have no compassion/political commitment in relation to real-life deprivation and inequality. Actually The Hunger Games reminds me of the movies J & I seek out to keep us awake till bedtime after a London-Melbourne flight, which we choose on the basis that they will have frequent enough “explosions” [ie special-effects set-pieces] to keep us awake, but not so much plot that it’ll matter if we sleep through bits of them. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was possibly the most successful example – we did in fact sleep through quite a lot of the set-pieces in Tintin in 3D. Unfortunately I couldn’t watch the movie of THG, though, because it was all wobbly hand-held camera and that gives me motion sickness, so we had to WALK OUT.

      • Love your selection criteria for air plane movies – has to be full of impact of any sort to get one through a flight where the brain soon turns to mush after 2 hours. Antipodeans know all about this phenomenon.

        OK the title of the extraordinarily detailed commentary on this sadly disappointing series:
        The Hunger Games and philosophy: a critique of pure treason / edited by George A. Dunn and Nicolas Michaud.
        Publication info. Hoboken, N.J. : Wiley, c2012.

        and the contents:
        “The final word on entertainment”: mimetic and monstrous art in the Hunger games / Brian McDonald — “Somewhere between hair ribbons and rainbows”: how even the shortest song can change the world / Anne Torkelson — “I will be your mockingjay”: the power and paradox of metaphor in the Hunger games trilogy / Jill Olthouse — “The odds have not been very dependable of late”: morality and luck in the Hunger games trilogy / George A. Dunn — The joy of watching others suffer: Schadenfreude and the Hunger games / Andrew Shaffer — “So here I am in his debt again”: Katniss, gifts, and invisible strings / Jennifer Culver — Competition and kindness: the Darwinian world of the Hunger games / Abigail Mann — “No mutt is good”-really? Creating interspecies chimeras / Jason T. Eberl — Why Katniss chooses Peeta: looking at love through a stoic lens / Abigail E. Myers — “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”: Katniss and the politics of gender / Jessica Miller — Sometimes the world is hungry for people who care: Katniss and the feminist care ethic / Lindsey Issow Averill — Why does Katniss fail at everything she fakes? Being versus seeming to be in the Hunger games trilogy / Dereck Coatney — Who is Peeta Mellark? The problem of identity in Panem / Nicolas Michaud — “Safe to do what?”: morality and the war of all against all in the arena / Joseph J. Foy — Starting fires can get you burned: the just-war tradition and the rebellion against the capitol / Louis Melançon — The tribute’s dilemma: the Hunger games and game theory / Andrew Zimmerman Jones — Discipline and the docile body: regulating hungers in the capitol / Christina Van Dyke — “All of this is wrong”: why one of Rome’s greatest thinkers would despise the capitol / Adam Barkman — Class is in session: power and privilege in Panem / Chad William Timm.

        The young woman who inadvertently reserved this did not take it out but it was already reserved by someone else – who hopefully is going to read it.

      • ewein2412 says:

        >>>I’m not so high-minded I think all popular fiction should be able to bear comparison with yknow the HOLOCAUST, or that enjoying The Hunger Games means that you have no compassion/political commitment in relation to real-life deprivation and inequality

        yes, and after I posted my first comment I felt it sounded a little holier-than-thou, hence my second! But honestly, it’s the naivete that gets me. I almost want LESS detail about the hardship, because it’s not so much lightly sketched as unconvincing.

        I’m disappointed to hear that physical reaction to the movie! I was in two minds about seeing it, because the reviews are so good and it seems like it SHOULD be a good film, but if it was vertigo-inducing I might have to give it a miss.

  12. ewein2412 says:

    OK, but now I also want to say that I raced through the first book because it was a great adventurey romp. I was annoyed by the BOUNTY of the world beyond the fence going unharvested, but I ignored it because I was enjoying the story.

    I was, however, annoyed enough that I haven’t read the sequels.

  13. Angela S says:

    And in case you want to go even deeper I discovered this book today at public library -”The hunger games and philosophy”
    Will post contents separately, iPad doesn’t cut and paste very well.

  14. vivs45 says:

    Oh – I am LOVING this, even though I haven’t read the books (couldn’t quite get past the synopsis; it gave me a ‘I haven’t enough hours left in my life for this’ feeling). I’ll be following nowandrome from now on.
    PS I have to confess to a certain sense of insecurity about the worlds that I’ve created. Not at all sure they’d stand up to such rigorous examination. Will try to do better in future …

    • nowandrome says:

      Thanks, Viv! And no-one has ever succeeded in writing a completely coherent fictional universe, not even the most self-consciously ‘realist’ novelists, I don’t think. If the story, and the characterization, and (for me most importantly), the fit between character, narrative, and world, is strong enough, little inconsistencies won’t be noticeable – at least not the way I read. I didn’t set out to do a rigorous examination of the worldbuilding, it was just the case that I couldn’t get to the ‘story’ because the world didn’t make any sense to me, so I had no sense of what the parameters were – what’s possible or not possible in this universe for these characters. (I actually want to do a whole post on this, if I ever feel settled enough…)

  15. Farah says:

    Loved this. I avoided the books like the plague because I’d just read a ton of kids’ sf and these were clearly what I termed “minotaur books” (books in which for no good reason adults sacrifice kids, usually written to avoid considering how our entire civilisation rests on the exploitation of Someone Else’s Kids.

    Re the hunting; you don’t need weapons anyway. a piece of wire and a stick is all that is needed to snare rabbits.

  16. Angela S says:

    Yeah, I think Collins was just simplistically setting up Katniss as a skilled relatively rare hunter so she could do well at the games; oh dear now we are all affected in some way by the real games with all their dramas … Makes THG seem so trivial.

  17. crankybitch says:

    i loved this, thanks! i haven’t read the book/s or even contemplated doing so. someone linked to this post from facebook, and in my state of total procrastination i launched myself into it. It really put words to my feelings about several books that I had to abandon after 100 pages (which i HATE doing), namely Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and Mantel’s Wolf Hall. One was utterly unconvincing in its ‘fictional universe’ and the other so embarassingly contrived and … surprise, producing sentences along the lines of the thick, fluffy quilt. I know that for historical novels to work there has to be some connect with the present, otherwise people wouldn’t have a clue (i think that was Lukacs’ point), but the measure of success must surely be (as with ideology) to slip such connections in, unnoticed.

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