Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Divergent" trilogy by Veronica Roth (2011)

While interviewing John Green, Stephen Colbert recently defined the term Young Adult novel as "A regular novel... that people actually read." The genre gets crap from the snobbish, but a good story is a good story. If Tolkien published "The Lord of the Rings" today it likely would be pigeonholed into the YA category. You bought the first of this trilogy because you thought your wife would like it and she burned through the series in a week. So, you thought you'd give it a try as well. Not surprisingly, you were glad you did.


The "Divergent" trilogy is written in First Person Present Tense, like "The Hunger Games." Books written like this always make you feel like you can't put them down because the story feels like it's happening right now! It is a limiting style and forces authors to write characters who miss obvious details or make assumptions that readers can see right through, but it is a fun way to read an action story.

"Divergent" is followed by "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" and follows the story of one sixteen year old protagonist who lives in a dystopian future. Beatrice Prior lives in Chicago, but she doesn't know her city even has a name. The city is walled off and the citizens aren't sure what is on the other side of the walls, but they know it's dangerous. Society is arranged into factions, which are like castes but with two major differences. At sixteen, everyone is allowed to choose which faction they want to be for the rest of their lives, and these factions are based on basic personality traits determined by trippy psychological tests. Most people follow the Hindu idea of dharma (although they never call it that) and stick to the factions they are born into, but some switch even though it means being ostracized from their families.

Right away it is clear that Beatrice does not want to stay in Abnegation, her faction. They dedicate their lives to selfless service and she has decided that she cannot live like that. They don't even look at their reflections in mirrors for fear that it might lead to unseemly vanity. She knows that she is not good enough for that life. There are other options for her as Choosing Day arrives for all of the city's sixteen year old citizens; Dauntless value bravery, Amity are dedicated to peace and cooperation, Candor hold the search for truth and honesty as the ultimate goal, and Erudite value lives of study and intellect. Some fail to meet the standards of their chosen factions and face a terrifying prospect. They are kicked out into the cold world of what constitutes a sixth faction, the Factionless.

At her test, Beatrice discovers that she is something special, something that defies easy categorization, something Divergent. Confounding the authorities, her aptitude test confirms that she could fit well into three different factions. She is warned to hide her Divergent status from everyone. Divergents are dangerous and she is not the only one.

Beatrice chooses Dauntless instead of staying with her family in Abnegation, and she changes her name to Tris. The Dauntless seize every day and seek every adrenaline rush they can find. They travel around the city by jumping into open-sided train cars while the trains are still moving, they zipline from the tops of the tallest buildings just for fun. Tris finds that she is braver than she thought and quickly learns that the Dauntless realize that shared experiences and extreme exploits can forge a group of nonconformists into one unit. In Abnegation acceptance is expected, in Dauntless acceptance is earned and that makes it sweeter.

The Dauntless use a powerful hallucinogenic serum to face their fears in a dream world that can be projected onto a screen for others to see. They realize that bravery is not the absence of fear, rather it is doing something even though you are scared to, sometimes even because you are scared to. Roth made you ask yourself if your fears can ever leave you or if they just lose their power over you instead. The older you get, the more you agree with the Dauntless idea that the only way to find out, is to face those fears honestly and intentionally.

Tris falls in love with a slightly older Dauntless instructor named Four, and Roth does not shy away from the fact that sixteen year old girls are sexual beings. Every glance at Four, who lets her call him his real name, Tobias, makes Tris want to be closer to him, every touch sends electrics shocks through her body. The two spend the rest of the trilogy searching for times to be alone together. Tris' lust for Four is exciting and evokes a passion in her that reminds her why she chose Dauntless in the first place.

It soon becomes clear to Tris that something is wrong within the factions. They are all struggling against one another and tensions are high within the city as the factions slip into an "Us vs Them" mentality. And even within each individual faction, something has become corrupted, some central tenants lost. The Erudites are thirsting for power and influence. The Dauntless no longer seem to value the urge to sacrifice oneself in order to protect others. Conflict is inevitable and the plot of the trilogy is one of revolution, the second book is even titled "Insurgent."

Roth is able to subtly teach several lessons in her books. She reminds you of the utter finality of choices made with a gun in your hand and the regret that is inherent in using the ultimate violence against a soldier who was manipulated into fighting you. But really... aren't all soldiers manipulated to some degree into fighting? The plot reminded you of the tenuous nature of revolutions. Most of America's Founding Fathers had different ideas about how to shape their new nation, how to run it. It took two tries at forming a government and a bloody Civil War before we arrived at the system we have today. Most revolutions are far more bloody.

The story gives the lie to the idea that humans can be easily categorized by simple personality traits. We are far more complex than that. We can, of course, embody more than one faction at a time. We can be brave and smart, honest and cooperative. We can be happy and selfless, and in fact, you have learned that it is often difficult to be happy without being a little bit selfless. The last book reminded you also of the beauty in equality. There is a deep fulfillment and joy in the freedom of sharing the same citizenship and equal rights with all.

Above all, the "Divergent" trilogy is all about our choices. How they shape our lives, how each choice ripples out into the lives of others and echoes into the future. Our choices are precisely what make us who we are. You and Nico talked about this while you were reading the books and he observed, with the clarity of a child, that we literally choose to live. Every day. Every moment. We choose to go on. How we choose to define those lives is no less important than our choosing to live them at all. We are our choices.

Roth goes on to make the argument that we also get to choose what we believe, that truth may not be as objective as it seems. There is a conversation between Tris and her best friend in "Allegiant" that excellently tackles the idea of why we believe what we do. Tris starts:
"I know I'm fumbling for an explanation, one I may not really believe, but I say it anyway: 'I guess I don't really believe in genetic damage. Will it make me treat other people better? No. The opposite maybe.' 
And besides, I see what it's doing to Tobias... and I don't understand how anything good can possibly come from it.
'You don't believe things because they make your life better, you believe them because they're true,' Christina points out.

'But' - I speak slowly as I mull that over- 'isn't looking at the result of a belief a good way of evaluating if it's true?'"
The whole series was worth it to you just for that one scene.

The series, Like "The Hunger Games" is violent and bloody. Tris watches family members and good friends die right in front of her. She struggles with hard questions and impossible choices. There are deceptions within deceptions and the truth of the world that lies beyond Chicago's walls is one of a cold disconnection from humanity (and you missed those trains the Dauntless rode on). Lies and brutality are commonplace, people are treated like lab rats, and all for the sake of control. Also like "The Hunger Games," "Divergent" reminded you what we choose to sacrifice for. We should only do it for love, and we should only let others do it for the same reason. Self sacrifice should never be motivated by coercion or even obligation. Only love is powerful and meaningful enough to require the greatest price from us.

"Divergent" however, unlike "The Hunger Games," ends with a slightly more hopeful note. Roth leaves you with a beautiful reminder that although life is hard and we will all inevitably get hurt by living in this world, we can help mend one another. We each help to heal the hurts the world can inflict on us. We fix one another. There is hope in that knowledge, and also in the realization that we get to choose who will help make us better.

On to the next book!

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