So, here we go! Blogging The Hunger Games! If you're new to this blog you should know that you by no means have to read along with me. I will do my best to make everything clear to even the non-reader, and you can still make lots of sex jokes with us in the comments. If you ARE reading along though, as many of you planned to do, I really want to hear from you! What were your first impressions of chapter 1?
Part 1: The Tributes
When I was little, my brother and sister and I liked to play a game with our babysitters called “Guess That Spice.” The way it worked was, we'd blindfold the sitter, sit her down in front of the spice cabinet, and proceed to hold various jars of herbs and powders under her nose. The punchline to the game, such as it was, was that after oregano and thyme and what have you we would subject them to powdered mustard, which to us was the worst smell/concept imaginable. And then we'd all have a weird laugh. It was one of our better games—much better than when we'd play “toll booth” on our bikes, riding in endless circles and handing a rock to a standing friend in the middle of each lap—and I look back on it fondly. I'm assuming this series, The Hunger Games, is about similar sorts of innocent fun activities between children.
Our narrator wakes up to find herself alone in bed. That's always a drag, but it turns out she's only looking for her sister anyway. Said sister is named Prim, and with a name like that somehow I doubt she's passed out in a gutter somewhere after a night of hard-partying. Indeed she's in bed with their mother, for “this is the day of the reaping.” So that doesn't sound good.
Our narrator gets up, looks at her sister fondly and her mother not so fondly, puts on her hunting boots, and heads out. She describes the way her “district,” known as “the Seam” is usually “crawling with coal miners” at this time of day:
Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces.
Sounds like a Springsteen song. But all the broken heroes have the day off for The Reaping, which, again, doesn't sound like a birthday party (but DOES sort of sound like a volume of E Street Band b-sides). I can sense that sooner or later we're headed for a long bout of exposition, explaining what the districts are and what The Reaping is and why our narrator hates her mother, but Suzanne Collins thankfully puts that off for a while and lets a few minor details of the world seep in like so much coal dust.
(It certainly could have gone the other way. I mean, what if this book started with “My name is Katniss Everdeen and today I'm going to tell you about something called The Hunger Games”?)
Our narrator hops a fence that “in theory” is supposed to be electrified 24/7, but the so-far so-nebulous dystopian government is too cheap to pay for it. That's a cool detail, evocative of North Korea, and even gnarlier is a passing reference to the existence of cannibals roaming on the other side of the fence, which is part of the reason our narrator retrieves a bow and arrows she's stashed in a tree. Her father taught her to use the bow before he was “blown to bits in a mine explosion” five years ago. “There was nothing even to bury,” she says. Yikes. Coming down from the risk-free, deathless environment of Twilight, this shit is no joke! Anyway dad crafted several bows our narrator keeps stashed in various places (“If there's a bow stashed in the woods in Act I, someone will shoot it in Act III.”-Suzanne Chekov), and we're told he could have made money selling them but if he'd been caught he'd have been “publicly executed for inciting a rebellion.” With bows and arrows? Why are tyrannical governments so insecure? Buy a goddamned sports car, tyrants!
Our narrator tells us she was quite the budding radical as a child—that she'd spout off anti-government rhetoric at the market, terribly embarrassing her mother, Mrs. Levov—but that sooner or later she learned to hold her tongue (“If there's a silenced dissident on the wall in Act I...”).
In the woods our narrator, who we learn is named Katniss, meets her platonic friend Gale, the only person she can be herself around. She assure us that there's nothing romantic between them, that even though he's very handsome she's never thought of him that way and even though she gets jealous when girls swoon over him it's because she's afraid to lose her hunting partners. Okay, sure.
Hmmm. So Katniss is all “fuck bitches, get money” and her best friend with whom she emphatically is not involved is named Gale. Is she Oprah?
Katniss and Gale apparently have the same black hair, olive skin and “gray eyes.” I'm imagining the kind of future race Time Magazine wrote about a few years ago—a blend of everything. Oddly, though, Prim and Katniss's mom have “light hair and blue eyes.” That might be worth keeping in mind (“If there are white people on the wall in”—okay, I'll stop now). Katniss refers to her mother again and explains that she went catatonic after her husband's death, leaving our narrator to pick up the slack. Wait a minute. We've got a main character here who is going to be played by Jennifer Lawrence. Her mother is catatonic, her father is gone, and Gale refers to catching a squirrel to prepare as a meal. Stop me if you've heard this one before:
That's pretty weird. Or maybe Jennifer Lawrence has weirdly specific demands for the movies she appears in. “Is my mom catatonic? Can I eat a squirrel? I'm in.” I'm assuming those scenes were cut from X-Men: First Class and will be on the DVD.
Gale and Katniss hunt, then hawk their wares in the Seam's black market; there's a kind of old Soviet vibe to the Seam, what with the coal and incompetent leaders and the easy-going corruption. And indeed they even sell picked strawberries at the back door of the mayor's house, which is about as heavy as you can make your hands, so to speak, without being ridiculous.
At the mayor's backdoor, Gale has a vaguely class-conscious tiff with Madge, the mayor's daughter. She's dressed up for The Reaping and mentions the possibility of “going to the Capitol.” Gale sardonically implies that because of her wealth, that will never happen. But rich people always go to the Capitol, Gale! Or is that a bad thing here? And here is where we finally get that deluge of exposition. The first of many, but whatever, you gotta serve somebody.
The Reaping is basically a casting call for the Hunger Games (not that we really know what those are yet), and every child in every district is liable to be drafted. Starting at age 12 and ending at 18, you put your name into the lottery; the “catch” is that each year you put your name in one more time than the last, so it's biased toward older kids. But poor families can enter the names of their children multiple times in exchange for more food rations (tesserae), so it's also biased against lower income brackets (Gale's folks are so hard up that he's in the lottery forty-two times). We're getting shades of Vietnam now, and it's a little unclear how people have different income levels in this socialist coal-mining town, but whatever.
The direction of the satire, in terms of left or right on the political spectrum, is hard to place, but dystopian sci-fi is smart to avoid being too direct with its political imagery. There's a reason that Tea Partiers can evoke George Orwell now and liberals got to evoke him under Nixon and Reagan: 1984 is about the potential evil of government in the vaguest way possible. Orwell certainly had his targets in mind, but the book still works today. If you get too specific, like say Dante Alighieri did (creating thinly veiled versions of his rivals as inhabitants of hell), your work won't stand the test of time. So The Hunger Games is anti-government but also anti-oligarchy, which tends to be what anti-governmental policies create. Here's Katniss trying to square that circle:
And even though the rules were set up by the Capitol, not the districts, certainly not Madge's family, it's hard not to resent those who do not have to sign up for tesserae.
Katniss goes home to find her mother (who is not catatonic anymore, I guess? It might be confusion borne from the somewhat awkward present-tense narration) and sister ready to go. She bathes and gets dressed herself, dealing with big-sister dread over the fact that this is Prim's first Reaping and she's powerless to protect her. Her name's only entered once though, so she should be fine. Right? RIGHT!? They file into the town square and are sorted by age group. Katniss describes a bit of the macabre scene, with camera crews hovering predator-like on the rooftops and Mundungus Fletcher types taking bets among members of the aged-out population.
The mayor gets up and reads a little propaganda piece about the formation of their nation, detailing the droughts and storms that destroyed North America and the rebel uprising that led to the current state of affairs. Want a little more detail about the stuff that brought our empire down? Too bad, Katniss just summarizes rather than sharing the actual dialogue with us. I guess we'll have to wait a few years and see!
The aforementioned uprising is the reason for the Hunger Games. The proletariat finally did rise up and were defeated (Sorry, Karl Marx, turns out we had more to lose than our chains!) and now children from each district are essentially sacrificed once annually, in a battle to death, to keep the people humble. Yikes, Panem! Even a notorious asshole like God had the decency to yell “Psyche!” before Abraham could swing the ax, you know? Again, there are sports cars for this kind of inferiority complex. (If only God drove a Ferrari, right? Shit, that could be a dynamite new ad campaign.)
The last child standing is rewarded with a year's supply of plentiful food for their home district, but District 12 is having a Curse of the Bambino kind of situation. Maybe this will be their year! Except no, no it won't, because a lady named Effie Trinket (of all things) gets up to select the female draftee and it's Prim. Oh snap.
Stray notes & questions
- I have nothing to say about the fact that this book is written in present tense other than it is sort of weird. Or is it? Are there many other notable novels written this way? Is it a YA thing?
- I wanted to downshift the sex jokes on this blog—they reached a fevered, orgasmic pitch at the end of Twilight—but Katniss is making it so hard for me (is what Gale said). The smell of bread makes her mouth “flood with saliva.” The taste of a berry “explodes across [her] tongue.” Katniss, my laptop practically inserts blowjob jokes automatically at this point. Watch yourself.
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