Entering the Arena: or How “The Hunger Games” and “Brooklyn, Burning” Help Me Talk About Facebook

(Rookie Mag)

When I waffle out loud to people about whether I, at the age of twenty-two, should finally get a Facebook account, I take my arguments straight out of Young Adult literature. In the worlds of novels like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” and Steve Brezenoff’s “Brooklyn, Burning,” I’ve found parables of our current culture of hyper-sociability, ones that heighten the already tricky, barbed-wire paths of young-adulthood to a contemporary intensity. Their depictions of modern human interaction feature the same reservations and convictions I swing between on my journey towards social media. What have we gained by centering our lives around these institutions? What have we lost?

“The Hunger Games’” commentary on reality television is well-known, but the dystopian setting Collins constructs has even larger implications on how we see reality in general. The artificially constructed nether-space of the Games’ Arena resembles our arenas of social media in extreme, Gamemakers conjuring up fires or flesh-eating hounds as deftly and forcefully as Facebook switches itself to Timeline. It’s a giant camera, watching and amplifying to the nation Katniss’ every expression, in a way that feels familiar to anyone whose status updates have rippled through the currents of consciousness of their friendship circles. Even the trees hum with the tweeting of mockingjays, descendants of “muttated” espionage-birds jabberjays, which possess “the ability to memorize and repeat whole human conversations” (43) – imagery which cannot but recall a certain website’s similarly avian, echoing propensities.

Katniss’ Arena and ours, fuelled by equally insatiable mass voyeurism, must by necessity be theaters of their participants’ feelings. During the Games, Katniss learns strategic deployment of emotion to gain public affection and communicate with her mentor. Concealing the complex layers of her person, she becomes instead an avatar, a “Katniss Everdeen” that belongs to everyone. Who in our world doesn’t do the same, selecting specific profile pictures from masses of possible images, choosing to like this comment or follow that person, signaling cultural codes in the subtextual language of cool? The smartest skill to hone in the Games as on the internet is the savvy construction of persona, painting yourself in broad strokes accessible to all, despite the sacrifice of some interpersonal nuance.

If we are all actors, broadcasting emotions like so many smoke signals, the line between our performances and ourselves starts to fade. Katniss, compelled into faking a relationship with fellow contestant Peeta, finds the spectacle complicated by her increasing inability to separate scripted feelings for him from true ones. This blurring of real and not real used to be the territory of celebrity, but now all interactions are up for the same scrutiny – the same compromise – from a voracious public of friends and followers. Even without being in a “Relationship” in the Zuckerbergian sense, I wept alongside Katniss at the incomprehensibility of her own heart: “we’re supposed to be making up this stuff, playing at being in love, not actually being in love” (301). Social media leads us to the great question of our age, more unanswerable with every new acquaintance: who are we when nobody is watching? The screens we build around ourselves as a society have pared down our already tenuous grasp of the self to threadbare wisps; we cannot know if these things we project so automatically are real emotions at all.

Instead we have labels. Thank goodness they attach so easily to things and people – a little too easily, perhaps. Brezenoff’s “Brooklyn, Burning” is a study in how our addiction to labels, even those seemingly “axiomatic” (as per Eve Sedgwick), flattens the three-dimensionality of the human spectrum. The central ambiguity in the novel is the undisclosed gender of its two protagonists, Kid and Scout, the narration’s “I” and “You.” This uncomfortable gap forces us to confront the frenzied categorizing inclinations social media so readily lends itself to. Kid’s father’s inability to deal with his child without the aids of #straight or #gay or #girl or #boy (as he might tweet) belies the reliance we’ve developed on this crutch, one that damages things that can’t be reduced to trending topics.

Like in “The Hunger Games,” geographic space in “Brooklyn, Burning” is representative of informational, virtual space. It prompts issues of community also relevant to social networks: can one place support different, often incompatible clusters of people? In Brooklyn’s collection of disparate communities, brought into uncomfortable proximity with each other – hipsters, laborers, Polish, homeless, developers – we sense a resonance of the melting pot of a platform like Facebook, people interacting with different people in ways they would never have been able to without the internet. What unites the communities within Brooklyn, though, is the feeling of being both part of and separate from New York City – an insider-outsider dynamic that characterizes the experience of participating in social media, simultaneously living through moments and documenting them. The half-welcoming, half-forbidding nature of Kid’s Brooklyn (a network of portals forever opening and closing, “collective backyards” like “the central courtyard of some medieval fortress,” 79) mirrors the push-pull tension in Kid and Scout’s “You and I” pronouns: detached and intimate, universal and particular. These are the central paradoxes of social media as well. To live, these days, is to instagram, blog, pin and otherwise record ourselves living; in this vortex I hear again the hollowness of Katniss’ request to Peeta: “Don’t let’s pretend when there’s no one around” (100). There’s always someone around – if just the two of them, watching themselves playing at love.

Being a constantly public individual is a fragmentation of the self on an often tragic scale; as Peeta confesses before the start of the Games, “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” (141). Why, then, should I consider getting Facebook at all – why not slip a fence into the wild, private freedom of a wood outside my district? Because, goes the simple answer, I am in the world and the world changes. The safety-in-anonymity I’ve been trying to keep intact is an illusion, and ignoring this, as Katniss learns, becomes increasingly morally questionable ground. Facebook, Twitter and the like, frustrating and soul-sucking as they can be, have long stopped being a mere appendage to our real lives and just flat-out become it, the very fabric of our consciousness. Navigating them is the challenge I have to engage in as a conscientious young adult in society, and maybe out of the chaos of friending and liking and following and reblogging that ensues, colors will blend, like those of “Brooklyn, Burning,” into a mural of strange harmony.

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Ache and Salt and Allness: Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”

Can love and loyalty transcend an ancient animosity and the differences in our bodies? In “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” Laini Taylor asks questions about the intersection between family and monstrosity, wholeness and disunity. She paints a sweeping and sensuous fantasy romance with as much care as her protagonist renders portraits in her sketchbook.

Seventeen-year-old Karou is an art student in modern-day Prague whose questions about her own mysterious past continue to defy explanation. All she knows is that, contrary to what her classmates believe, the fantastical hybrid creatures (“chimaera”) she draws are not figments of her imagination but real. In fact they are the only family she has ever had, headed by the gruff, ram-like Brimstone. Having raised Karou in the cramped, dusty workshop he describes simply as “Elsewhere,” Brimstone sends his human foster daughter on missions around the world to obtain teeth, animal and human, for his magical crafts. Though Karou has no idea what power these teeth contain, Brimstone pays for her errands in small wishes – like the one she uses to turn her hair a natural ultramarine, and the one by which she erases a tattoo with her ex-boyfriend’s name. Karou’s exotic, if functional, domestic life is torn away, however, when a mercilessly beautiful angel flies in from a different world, bringing with him whispers of memory she didn’t know she had. Perhaps the ancient war his seraphim clan is waging against the chimaeras is a key to her unsolved identity; perhaps the unexpected sense of rightness – of “placeness” – he evokes in her is the answer to the lack she has always felt inside. Yet Karou is sure that her true allegiance lies with her chimaera family – even though the seraphim call them monsters, even though traces of devilish sorcery hang over them like smoke.

The love story emerges and absorbs the narrative, and its heady quality is unabated by its backdrop of celestial war. Taylor lavishes jeweled, lingering descriptions on both Karou and the seraph Akiva’s exquisite beauty, filling the space between them with the pulsing rush of teenage romance in the way one imagines it should feel for Edward and Bella. These passages range from the passionately extravagant (“They breathed each other’s breath as the pull gathered between and around and in them, astral”) to the morbidly original (Akiva finds love “as new and strange as if an eye had suddenly peeled itself open in the back of his head, seeing in a new dimension”). The bombast in the lines feels about right because of the sheer elegance of Taylor’s prose; if only her characters were a little rounder, a little less nobly perfect (as is usually the case with angels, Akiva’s tortured flawlessness makes him less compelling than I would have wished). Still they make for good star-crossed lovers, and the tragic drama of their circumstance supplies conflict enough for readers in search of some old-fashioned gut-wrenching. Karou and Akiva find their attraction both wonderful and dangerous – when she discovers that the hamsa tattoos on her palms inflict terrible pain on seraphim, her inability to even touch Akiva recalls the bodily rebellion, the joyful burn of young love.

The earthly cities we visit, while contemporary, are full of dark delights, stained with magic and unreality and words like “ghostlight.” Karou’s demon-haunted Prague is sinisterly romantic with its coffin-filled cafes, “a theater with unseen puppeteers crouched behind velvet;” a market in Marrakesh where Karou trades with a graverobber is colorful and grimy. One of the novel’s biggest strengths, too, is the humor and vitality of its human population, led by Karou’s best friend Zuzana. The girls’ prickly, affectionate banter is natural and continually amusing – their friendship makes sense, in a way that many fictional ones don’t. In fact I almost mourned the lushness and vibrancy of the human world when the narrative plunged into the cold bleakness of war-torn Eretz, home of seraphim and chimaera, and the setting of the latter third of the novel. Taylor gives us lovingly crafted details – a spooky underground cathedral, a taste of magical astrology – but I couldn’t help wanting a more coherent overview of the secondary world’s rules, a better picture of how it functioned differently from Earth. This sense of unfilled gaps carried to the end of the novel. The composite nature of the chimaera, for example – each one a mixture of various animal species, including human – would seem to require a more complicated lifestyle than the incongruously anthropomorphic one we glimpse.

This vagueness seems an oversight for a story so obsessed with the diversity of bodies and the limitations of the human frame of view. “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” delves into large ideas with aplomb, waking up the sleepy cliché of angels fighting devils by siding its protagonist with the ugly and the monstrous. Hybridity is one of its major tenets: birth and blood, Karou comes to realize, are meaningless in the face of deeper connections between disparate parts. In many ways the story is an imperialist allegory, with the clipped, Aryan militancy of the seraphim empire pitted against the rebelling former-slave chimaera tribes. And later moments involve an intriguing venture into distinctly racial issues of purity and prejudice, made all the more disquieting by their unfamiliar setting. Older readers will find much to chew on while the exciting plot remains unhindered by the seriousness of its concepts.

I liked where these themes were going and hope they are pushed further in later books. “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” is unapologetic about being part of a series, existing as a first intake of breath, a constant process of setting-up. But the languorously paced narrative bridges characters across species, worlds and time, with enough violence and sensuality to keep anyone engaged. Taylor makes few missteps: when they come to the dramatic end of this installment, readers will ache for more.