I won’t pretend I wasn’t the tiniest bit pretentious about reading The Hunger Games.
Before we get to the book itself, let’s just dwell a minute on the choice, which I think is delightfully honest. It’s an odd thing that when someone asks us to name our favourite book we make an immediate attempt to appear as intellectual and well-read as possible. Something obscure and fairly heavy going is usually a good choice, but here we have Jess, whom I happen to know to be rather well-read in all manner of texts, choosing a big, commercial sensation novel. As she has it, it’s popular for a reason, and it’s interesting that what is easy to see after the event as a sweeping craze of publicity, when told through the eyes of one of the discoverers who made it happen, quickly becomes a quite compelling story of whispered internet-age excitement. Were I in touch enough with popular culture at the time, I certainly would have read this emerging novel with eager anticipation, but as someone much more used to dusty Penguin classics, I only heard about it after it was popular (a filthy word) and so preferred to sit in my armchair by the fire sneering at it with my Beagle. What I’m saying is, this is Jess’ favourite book because she’s cool, and I was awful about it because I’m not.
My awfulness was completely unwarranted. The Hunger Games is a novel written for the teen market, certainly, but it does exactly what teen fiction is meant to do and throws open some big themes and thoughts for the reader to investigate as they wish. As Jess and I took a turn around the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, we used the book as a springboard for discussion of capitalist crises, media ugliness, feminist subversion, trauma theory and tropes of American Gothic fiction. I think that’s really rather excellent, don’t you?
Against the backdrop of of a turbo-generator in the Electricity Gallery Jess told me how the book had caught her attention and set her thinking about the more morbid aspects of contemporary society, specifically the idea of concentrated power in the hands of a small percentage of people. Jess is also an avid fan of a good gore-flick and cites Tarantino films as an object of great enthusiasm. Ten minutes previously we’d been in the Experiment Room being big kids (Jess laughing at me as I grew increasingly frustrated at being unable to put together a trapezium from smaller shapes, then me laughing in amazement as Jess effortlessly demonstrated the solution to the Tower of Hanoi puzzle I’d been scratching my head at), and now here we were discussing society’s depressing decay. I hate to go over old ground, but I seem to have found yet another person who can light up a room just by her sheer, natural, positive energy, who secretly revels in reading and watching some pretty dark stuff.
As we moved around to the 1830 Warehouse, discussion got a little more literary. One of the great things about The Hunger Games is that Collins knows her market isn’t one for going in depth with literary theory, but isn’t afraid to throw some serious stuff in nonetheless. The scariest part of the arena is a large, desolate, open space where no one (except Thresh, who spends most of his time lurking there, adding to the terror) dares roam. Katniss is appalled more than once at how everyone outside the Games sees it as personal to them, in a sort of “Where were you when..?” style. These are key points in American Gothic fiction and trauma theory respectively, and both feature very prominently. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book for me was that Katniss spends most of her time rescuing a sniveling, helpless boy – Peeta – whom she struggles to fall in love with even if she tries. She’s a really powerful female character, and that’s incredibly heartening to see in a successful teen novel.
I can see why this is Jess’ favourite book. Her point is that it’s overrated and underrated all at once, or perhaps underestimated is a better word. Yes it’s caught the attention of the media and the general public, but under an analytical mind like hers there’s some really interesting and important stuff to be gotten out of it, along with a good, fast-paced and entertaining plot line (which may or may not owe a lot to Battle Royale, but that’s beyond my remit to go into). Any criticism I tried to level at it was met with such genuine politeness and a kind listening before being gently pushed away with the kind of passionate logic that Jess really is an expert at.
A great day out with a wonderfully engaging person talking about a book that, by the end of it all, I couldn’t help but like in spite of my pretentious snap judgments, this one was a treat from start to finish.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, Jess wanted a picture that didn’t show her face, so I’ve chosen this one in which she was temporarily obscured by a passing cloud