I found this novel deeply affecting. I hear from time to time, as everyone does, about various loose relations who have cancer, or are in remission, or have succumb to the disease. I see the cancer stories that describe tragic but stalwart children, their caring and committed parents, the charities they found and causes they champion, the valiant way in which they battle with dignity, their indefatigable courage.
And it all feels like bullshit to me. I don’t have the experience or the pain to justify this feeling, but I feel it all the same. Cancer patients and their families and support networks are not magically heroes. Evolution run amok does not make one noble or immune from normal-person feelings.
I hate the language we use to describe illness. I hate how we so often glorify people suffering from cancer while simultaneously pitying them. I don’t know how to interact with or relate to people who are suffering from disease, and I think the structures we as a society have created make that interaction harder than it should be. When we hold people up on a pedestal due to circumstances outside of their control, we don’t allow them to be normal people with normal-people feelings and concerns and fears and needs.
The Fault In Our Stars is a book about kids with cancer, but it is quick to point out that it is not a “cancer book” full of the standard tropes and plot progressions. The narrator is a teenage girl stricken with a form of the disease that affects her lungs, kept in check via experimental medicines and various machines to assist her breathing. Hazel is weak and frail and still alive long beyond her predicted expiration date. Her Sword of Damocles hangs ever-present as Hazel goes about her daily life, which is entirely normal in as much as she watches trashy TV and goes to the mall, and entirely abnormal in that she has nothing to strive for, few friends, little direction and plenty of pain.
Hazel joins a cancer support group suffused with a macabre sense of competition to outlive and outlast. The reader quickly gets the sense that most of her life post-diagnosis has been like this. There she meets a fellow sufferer, a high school boy with a prosthetic leg and a fear of oblivion.
They form a bond, they share Experiences (capital-E) and pain and fear and philosophy and random poetry and video games. They are overly wordy and prone to soliloquy and sort of strange, but in other ways quite real. They have ways of dealing with cancer and life and parents that feel very authentic to me. Things take dark turns, then people get better, then they get worse again. The future is uncertain, except that it is completely certain — dying is the endgame, and sooner rather than later.
How do you live when so much of your waking time is spent worrying about and wondering about and trying to fend off death? It is horrible and tragic but sometimes brilliant and funny and often just numbingly depressing. It is living, it is not living, it is a disease that doesn’t make sense and isn’t supposed to and doesn’t magically make people heroic or different, a disease that doesn’t care in a world that doesn’t care in a universe full of lives and people that may not have any meaning at all.
Oblivion. How do you face it? What choices do you make, when you aren’t given a chance to go out in a blaze of glory or on your own terms, but instead only slowly, by inches, in pain and agony and sadness? What does it all mean? Why should it mean anything? And how do you deal with that, each and every day?
Deep questions. Dark questions. Real questions.
Thank goodness there is a happy ending. Hazel and her friends figure everything out and feel better and know that they have accomplished something real and lasting and memorable.
No, I made that up. Of course it doesn’t end that way. It can’t. It just ends when it ends, as we all do. A surprising ending, but not surprising at all. Because that’s how endings are. They come along when you least and most expect them. Sometimes, right in the middle of a