The Fault in Our Stars, Or, The (Non-) Meaning of Oblivion

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

Recently I’ve been hearing about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The title intrigued me and the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation even more so. And so it was that, armed with a Barnes and Noble gift card from my parents for my recent birthday, I found myself purchasing a copy (along with Patricia Wrede’s Across the Great Barrier and Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, books I have been anticipating reading for quite some time).

Due to massive snowfall last night and closed workplaces today, I had some extra time on my hands and finished Green’s book this morning between breakfast and lunch.

On the surface, The Fault in Our Stars is a touching, tragic love story, rather in the spirit of “Romeo and Juliet” (although, admittedly, slightly less tragic). The protagonists, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, meet at a cancer support group where they bond over a shared joke involving the group moderator’s misuse of the word “literally.” Hazel has terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs; Augustus is in remission after losing his leg to osteosarcoma. At first reticent to love Augustus for fear of hurting him—“I’m like a grenade, Mom,” she laments. “I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”—she finally admits she loves him, no matter how futile their romance must be. And in that romance they both find hope and comfort.

But The Fault in Our Stars is not just a sappy paperback romance; it is not even just an exploration and challenging of cancer stereotypes. It is an intellectual, philosophical work. Green’s protagonists are intelligent teenagers who reference numerous influential authors, from Shakespeare to Allen Ginsberg to T.S. Eliot to William Carlos Williams to Sylvia Plath to the apostle John, among others. Green’s writing style is engaging and thoughtful (although, fair warning, he is not afraid to curse) and encourages the reader to ask deep questions such as “What happens when we die?” and “How should we live our lives?” and “Why do we suffer?”

The Fault in Our Stars drips with metaphor, both as an expression of the personality of “Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus” who “smokes” unlit cigarettes—“You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing”—and as situational elements of the story itself. The pair’s visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, for example, where families fought to live only to fall victim to Hitler’s mass genocide, illustrates the futility of Hazel and Augustus’s own fight against the looming specter of death by cancer.

As a philosophical work, The Fault in Our Stars disappoints. Although Mr. Green raises important questions and hints at the soul and an afterlife, ultimately his world is nihilistic. On their first meeting, Hazel addresses Augustus’ fear of oblivion with these words: “There will come a time . . . when all of us are dead. . . . There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything . . . will be forgotten and all of this . . . will have been for naught. . . . [I]f the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” Later, after losing a video game, Augustus states, “All salvation is temporary.” This theme of the falsity of “forever” runs as a common thread throughout the entire book.

Logically, a world that ends in oblivion with no promise of eternity, a world where, according to the author himself, “nothing any human being ever does will have any overall effect on the universe,” is a meaningless world. If nothing has any lasting significance, humans should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Indeed, Augustus “decided a while ago not to deny [him]self the simpler pleasures of existence . . . particularly given that . . . all of this will end in oblivion.” And yet. And yet—the characters live largely in direct contradiction to this stated pointlessness. Hazel is vegetarian so she can “minimize the number of deaths [she is] responsible for.” She cares immensely about the people she will leave behind. Augustus wants to be remembered for something heroic rather than “just another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease” and laments that “the marks humans leave are too often scars.”

Mr. Green’s is a world without God, a world where the soul’s existence is dubious at best, a world where nothing matters and yet, somehow, “We must still serve our fellow humans, and the idea of life itself, as best we can,” for “that’s how we make . . . lives meaningful.” The nihilist’s challenge is the reconciliation of meaningfulness with meaninglessness. The result is a world that is at best, illogical and at worst, depressing, for an existence that ends in oblivion is not an existence at all.


Book Review: Mistborn Trilogy

As a friend (hi, Amy!) so astutely observed Wednesday, I have not blogged at all this month. I may or may not have a valid excuse. On June 20, Jordan left for Canada for a reverse-engineering conference. I was originally supposed to go with him, but funny things happened with employer budgets and plans, and I ended up staying home while he went. To keep myself occupied, I started reading a book that I’d borrowed from Nick and Bre and found myself instantly hooked. Jordan was gone until the 24th, and I spent nearly all of my free time devouring the book’s 650 pages. I think I finished it before Jordan returned.

The problem with this book is that it’s only the first of a trilogy that was obviously designed to be one continuous story. And since my dear friends have all three books, I informed Bre that I needed them to bring the other two when they came for our Fourth of July cookout.

Jordan’s parents also came to our cookout, staying for the weekend. So Jordan’s mom and I spent some quality mother-in-law/daughter-in-law time together in the living room, reading, while Jordan and his dad put up new drywall in what will eventually be our study. I tell myself we were being productive too, because rest is necessary, right?

I finally finished the third book yesterday, and I think it’s a testament to the author’s power as a writer that I read all 2100+ pages in under a month. Or maybe I was just desperate for something to read. In any case, I highly recommend them.

Cover of "Mistborn"

Cover of Mistborn

I don’t want to spoil the books for anyone who wants to read them, so I’ll keep my summary to a minimum. Mistborn is the first of a fantasy trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, continuing in The Well of Ascension, and concluding with The Hero of the Ages. The novels are set in a place called The Final Empire, where the sky and sun are red and ash falls more commonly than rain. The Lord Ruler, emperor and god-incarnate, became god and king when he defeated a mysterious evil known only as “The Deepness.” The universe’s system of magic, Allomancy, allows those who are born with its abilities (and have subsequently “Snapped” into the ability to utilize their power) to swallow and then “burn” within themselves specific metals to access the metals’ magical properties. This power supposedly belongs only to the nobility and not to the lesser skaa peasants.

Considering Sanderson is a practicing Mormon, it is not surprising that religion factors heavily into the novels. I read the author’s bio before starting the book, saw he taught creative writing at Brigham Young University, and spent the entire time reading the novels trying to guess if his religious beliefs aligned with those of the university. (According to his website, they do.) His approach to religion I found rather unexpected for a Mormon, however–there is a definite duality to the god(s) of his universe, which was created by the opposing forces Ruin and Preservation. Men become gods, and gods become weak and die. All religions contribute to humanity’s understanding of truth.

Although the religious aspects were rather puzzling at times, from a pure storytelling perspective, I was hooked. The truth is, fantasy is probably my favorite genre, but beyond my personal proclivity, Sanderson is an exceptional writer. His descriptions are vivid without being excessive, his characters are alive and developing, and his approach to storytelling tells you just enough to leave you wanting more but not enough that you can ever be quite sure what’s going to happen next. The endings to both The Well of Ascension and The Hero of the Ages caught me completely by surprise, although I felt like Sanderson gave away more throughout the final book than he did in the first two.

After I finished the books, I discovered Sanderson has extensive chapter-by-chapter annotations to each book available on his website. I think I just might have to read through a second time with annotations in hand!

How about you–what do you like to read (if you’re a reader)? Have you read any of Sanderson’s novels? If you have or end up doing so, I’d love to know what you think!