Saturday, October 24, 2009

Killer Kids(' Books): Two Novels

2008 was the year of the YA novel.  You could see it on the Hugo ballot, on bestseller lists, and on the blogosphere.  On a personal level, I see it in the fact that I'm still catching up to the year's crop, starting with a book that received ecstatic and effusive praise from many of my friends and most respected reviewers, Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go.  To name but a few, Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts have all raved about it, and Martin Lewis called it "the best effing science fiction novel I've read all year."  Taken together, these reviews build up a heavy burden of expectations that few novels could gracefully shoulder, and even as I was turning The Knife of Never Letting Go's first page I was preparing myself for the inevitable disappointment.  My reaction to the novel, however, turns out to be more complicated. Knife is a compelling, engrossing read.  I wolfed it down in a single sitting, and found myself genuinely affected by its characters and set pieces.  Still, I'm reluctant to call it good, and leaning more towards adjectives like 'successful' and 'effective'--by which I mean successfully and effectively manipulative--and the novel's themes and premise trouble me with their presumably unintentional implications.

Knife is narrated by Todd, the last boy in Prentisstown and, as far as he knows, on the whole of New World, a planet colonized by humans twenty years ago, whose native inhabitants (again, as Todd has been taught) unleashed a virus that killed all the human women, gave animals the ability to talk, and turned all men into projective telepaths.  Todd has spent his entire life being bombarded by Noise, the violent, chaotic morass of thoughts, feelings, fears and fantasies projected by the men around him.  Readers with even a little bit of experience reading YA fiction will not have needed the caveats planted in the preceding sentences to guess that some or all of Todd's understanding of his world is mistaken, and Knife's opening does promise the slow investigation of their world so beloved of YA protagonists, as Todd, feeling surly and discontented--by the loneliness of being the only boy in a town of men who consider him beneath their notice; by the manhood that will be thrust upon him by his fast-approaching 13th birthday, after which he will be forced to put away childish things; by the general uselessness of his dog Manchee, whose gift of speech is employed mostly in discussions of poo and things to chase [1]--seeks a brief reprieve by venturing to a nearby swamp to pick fruit and finds something else, a hole in the planet's blanket of Noise.  Nonplussed, Todd returns home (on the way giving us a tour of Prentisstown and introducing us to its atmosphere of misery and barely-suppressed fear and violence, and to its most prominent citizens, the deranged preacher Aaron and the charismatic Mayor Prentiss, who together hold the town in their thrall) and tells his guardians, Cillian and Ben, about his encounter.  In a traditionally structured YA novel, the adults would either scoff at Todd's claims or dismiss them in a manner so cagey and suspicious as to immediately confirm them, but Cillian and Ben merely blanch and spring into action--"[they] take a look at each other and then back at me.  "You have to leave Prentisstown," Ben says."

And with that, it's off to the races, the novel's pace ratcheting up to the maximum and not letting up until its cliffhanger ending.  But then, the whole of Knife is made up of cliffhangers.  Returning to the swamp, Todd finds the source of the quiet he experienced there--a girl, called Viola, the sole survivor of a scout ship for a new group of colonists, who, astonishingly to Todd, has no Noise.  Together, they flee the Mayor and Aaron, but each escape to safety turns out to be the equivalent of the penultimate scene in a slasher film, in which the presumed dead or outdistanced antagonist surprises the heroes as they finally allow themselves to rest.  The relentlessness with which these false bottom endings keep coming is probably Ness's most impressive accomplishment with Knife.  It pulls the reader along, making the novel almost impossible to put down, and leaves us, at the novel's end, feeling nearly as exhausted and wrung-out as Todd and Viola, and, naturally enough, panting for the next installment in their story.  At the same time, however, I'm not sure whether Ness should be applauded for so blatantly manipulating the readers' emotions by any means necessary, using the cheapest tools in his toolbox with all the subtlety of sledgehammers.  It works, of course, but how admirable is it to get a rise out of readers by, for example, endangering the cute talking dog?

Still, perhaps what's really most impressive about Knife is that despite its breakneck pace and cliché-ridden plot, Ness manages to actually say something with the novel.  In interviews, Ness has likened Noise to the din of media and information with which the modern world bombards us, but the involuntary exposure of a person's raw, churning id and subconscious strikes me as a very poor analogy for the processed, calculated information we encounter on TV, in newspapers, and even online, where the most confessional of LiveJournals is ultimately an attempt by its author to present a certain face to the world.  More successful, however, is Ness's use of Noise as a means of exploring, furthering, and hindering gender relations.  The metaphor is not at all subtle--Todd has grown up among men whose every thought has been laid bare before him.  Viola is incomprehensible to him because he can't imagine how she thinks--is even, when they first meet, doubtful whether she thinks at all, whether she isn't simply empty of all thought and personality, a void, a nothingness (as I said, not subtle).  Over the course of the novel, in the brief interstices between escaping one menace and discovering and fleeing another, Todd and Viola get to know each other the old-fashioned way, and Todd learns just how many of the truths he's been raised with--about women, about his family, about Prentisstown, about New World--have been lies.

A more successful metaphor, but also one that leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, in that it seems to turn The Knife of Never Letting Go into the equivalent of those well-intentioned science fiction stories that try to speak out against racism by using aliens as stand-in for people of color.  It's all very well and good that Ness has written a story that encourages its readers to learn to understand the Other, but despite the misogynistic cliché, women aren't actually an alien species.  The premise of Knife, however, makes of them something even more foreign and incomprehensible than that--New World's native inhabitants, after all, produce Noise, and even animals speak.  Only women are so foreign that they require careful study before their personhood is even acknowledged.  Feminism, we're told, is the radical notion that women are people, but when Todd first meets Viola he knows her for a girl even though he's never seen one before because there is something ineffably different about her--"Something about her shape, something about her smell, something I don't know but it's there and she's a girl."  The otherness of women persists throughout the novel, and what Todd learns through his acquaintance with Viola isn't to reject that notion (which in fact he can't, because in Ness' world women truly are Other), but to find ways to overcome it--upon his departure from Prentisstown, Cillian and Ben give Todd his mother's diary, but Todd, a poor reader, can't make heads or tails out of it until he asks Viola to read it to him (again, not a subtle metaphor)--and in so doing validates the 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' worldview that is baked into the novel's premise.

Part of the reason, I think, that The Knife of Never Letting Go makes such troubling statements about women and the relationships between men and women is that it isn't really concerned with either.  Knife is, ultimately, a novel about masculinity and what it means to be a man--albeit one that, unlike Fight Club or Black Man, defines masculinity, in part, through its attitude to women.  The other component of the definition of manhood Todd must struggle with is violence.  A man, Todd has been taught from childhood, can kill.  Killing may, in fact, be the very definition of manhood, and Todd, who repeatedly flinches from striking the killing blow against his and Viola's pursuers, must ask himself whether he can be a man, whether he can fashion his own definition of manhood, and whether he can take a life without buying into Prentisstown's definition of it.  Though it is, on the whole, successful, there are two problems with Ness's treatment of this issue.  The first is that Todd does kill someone halfway through the novel, an alien whom he and Viola encounter after a near escape, and whom Todd kills out of misdirected anger and fear even though the alien posed no threat to them.  The Prentisstown men Todd meets later on insist that this act isn't enough to make Todd a killer and thus a man, and though I do take the point that killing an alien whom one has been taught to hate and fear is easier than killing someone you think of as a person, coupled with the novel's Western/frontier story trappings this attitude has an uncomfortable whiff of 'not including Indians and Chinamen' about it.

The other problem with equating murder and manhood is, of course, how completely it leaves women out of the picture.  The notion that women might feel bloodlust, and that they might wonder how those feelings and the choice to act on them affect their femininity and humanity, is not even considered until a few pages from the end of the novel, and though that consideration seems definitive--Viola takes a life--the novel's repeated emphasis on the inextricable link between manhood and killing, and the nature of the murder--Viola kills only after Todd has repeatedly refused to do so because he doesn't want to become a Prentisstown man--have the effect of flattening the very question of what violence means to her.  The implication is that Viola is allowed to kill because killing doesn't affect her definition of herself the way it would Todd.  Which, to be fair, is not an attitude originated by Ness--unlike the concept of Noise and the disconnect it imposes between men and women, the notion that women don't have the same relationship to violence that men do is entirely familiar from the real world--but the novel's premise imposes such a disconnect from Viola's internal monologue that we never get to delve any further into the question.  Even her telling Todd that she wanted to kill her victim feels more like a statement about Viola than about womanhood, whereas Todd's bloodlust is of course a reflection of his masculinity.

It seems likely that Knife's sequel, which among other things splits the narrative between Todd and Viola, will address at least some of the issues I've raised here.  Nevertheless, on a thematic level Knife feels like a self-contained argument.  It's the story of how Todd develops his own definition of manhood, rejecting violence as a component of his self-definition and seeking to understand the other.  That's a worthy message, and Ness delivers it with delicacy and assuredness, making it clear how wide the gap is between Todd's convictions and the actions his circumstances force him into, and how quickly the world erodes his innocence and makes him complicit in horrors.  But it's also a message, and a definition of manhood, arrived at through a comprehensive othering of women, and which implicitly defines womanhood as not-manhood.

It seemed logical to follow my reading of The Knife of Never Letting Go with Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, another novel about children forced into violent actions with several interesting differences from the Ness, most notably the fact that the narrator is female and her companion is male.  Katniss Everdeeen lives in a dystopian future, in which the wealthy, decadent capital of her nation maintains its dominance over the twelve districts that serve it and produce for it by pitting them against each other.  Each year, two tributes, a boy and a girl, are selected from each district, and forced to fight against each other and tributes from other districts in the titular games.  The last child standing wins their district glory and wealth.  Katniss, a skilled hunter and tracker, hails from the impoverished district 12, a mining district whose inhabitants often go hungry, and has been her mother and younger sister Prim's protector and breadwinner since the death of her father, putting food on the table by poaching in the nearby woods with her friend Gale.  When Prim is selected as this year's tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and is joined by Peeta Mellark, a baker's son [2] for whom Katniss has distinctly mixed feelings, resenting the relative ease and safety of his life in a slightly-closer-to-middle-class family, but also remembering fondly the time he gave her some bread when she and her family were on the verge of starvation.

As it turns out, The Hunger Games is Knife's reverse image in more respects than just the genders of their protagonists.  Both novels talk about gender roles, about violence, and about the effect that modern media has on society and individuals--in The Hunger Games this is the structure of the games themselves, which are broadcast live to the capital and the twelve districts like a Running Man-style reality TV program, and which are won less through the competitor's martial skills than through their ability to charm the audience and thus win wealthy 'sponsors' who will send them much-needed supplies.  But if Knife is unpersuasive as a metaphor for modern technology and has interesting, if problematic, things to say about gender and violence, Hunger Games is the reverse.

Gender seems to be a non-issue in this novel.  Collins seems content to have posited a reversal of gender roles--Katniss is the stereotypical tomboy, accustomed to hardship and physical exertion, abrasive and confrontational, uncomfortable with weakness and caretaking (though her mother and sister are skilled healers, Katniss can't deal with the sight of injury), and, unbeknownst to her, a heartbreaking beauty, whereas Peeta is gentle, thoughtful, and self-aware--and doesn't explore this reversal, how it's seen by Katniss and Peeta or the people around them, in the body of the novel.  Similarly, there's very little exploration of the morality of Katniss and Peeta's predicament, and Collins repeatedly avoids confronting them with a scenario in which they must kill an innocent in order to survive.  She does so by positing the existence of 'Career tributes,' children from wealthy districts who have been training for the games, and have volunteered for them in order to win glory.  These are uniformly depicted as vicious and sadistic, and do most of the killing in the novel, either picking one another off or killing the other, 'good' children from the poor districts.  The latter murders, of course, justify the Careers' own deaths, and on those rare occasions when Katniss or Peeta kill it's usually one of these characters [3], and often one whom we have witnessed brutally killing a more sympathetic contestant.

Where The Hunger Games shines, though, is in its portrayal of reality TV.  Not since Series 7: The Contenders has a work of fiction so perfectly skewered that genre's obsession with 'real' emotion and 'real' interpersonal drama.  Desperate for the attention that will win them sponsors and a chance to win the game, Peeta and Katniss come up with just to right faces to present to the voracious Hunger Games audience.  They will pretend that Peeta has been secretly in love with Katniss for years, and that Katniss has just found out about his feelings under these tragic circumstances.  The two immediately become audience favorites, and as they enact their doomed romance first in the pre-game interviews and presentations and later in the game arena, the swell of audience sympathy forces a rule change that will allow them both to win the game, if they can survive it.  Katniss and Peeta end up performing for their lives--buying a hot meal with a kiss, medicine with an intimate conversation.  Even the most inexperienced reader will have guessed that Peeta is not faking his feelings, and that Katniss's performance of growing infatuation isn't entirely that, but the brilliance of The Hunger Games is that it depicts the corrosive effect that selling their love to the audience has on Katniss and Peeta's romance.  How can you be certain of your feelings for someone when you're not only stuck in a life and death situation with them, but when the difference between life and death is determined by your ability to successfully sham the right kind of feelings for them?

As interesting as Collins's treatment of this issue is, it isn't enough to make the novel, which on the whole leaves me rather cold.  Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Hunger Games is manipulative, but neither successfully nor effectively so.  If Ness's manipulations pulled me into his novel despite my better judgment, Collins's knock me out of hers.  The difference, I think, is that while both authors are manipulative, only Collins uses manipulation to make life easier for herself and her characters, to elide and smooth over the difficult aspects of her story.  When Todd abandons Manchee, even as the uncomprehending dog calls him back, in order to save Viola, it's a manipulation, but one that forces us to question his choice even though we know that a girl's life is worth more than a dog's.  When Katniss befriends a young contestant named Rue, whom the narrative repeatedly compares to Prim, only for a Career to kill Rue, it's a manipulation, but one that makes it easier for us to countenance Katniss killing Rue's murderer.  When Aaron repeatedly tracks Todd and Viola down, reappearing each time, more physically damaged and more deranged, like a fundamentalist Freddy Krueger, it's a manipulation, but one that puts us at odds with Todd, who grows increasingly reluctant to take a life even as we begin baying for Aaron's blood.  When the Careers brutally murder each other and the weaker players, it's a manipulation intended to justify their deaths at Katniss and Peeta's hands.  The first person narrative is a manipulation in both novels, locking us into the point of view of a person with only a limited understanding of the world, but whereas Todd's incomprehension is all-encompassing and often quite frustrating, Katniss's is localized.  For the most part, she's a smart, observant, savvy person--much better, for example, at recognizing the messages being sent to her by her team outside the game arena through the gifts they send her, and tailoring her and Peeta's behavior accordingly.  But somehow, when it comes to realizing the reality of Peeta's feelings for her, she's a dunce [4], and the novel persists in telling us that she's emotionally illiterate even as her first person narrative spews pop psychology such as "Most of [my life] has been consumed with the acquisition of food.  Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is."

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Hunger Games's manipulativeness is that manipulation is actually the subject of the novel, that even as it encourages us to sneer at the games' audience who are lapping up Peeta and Katniss's manufactured romance, it expects us to buy into the real romance, despite the fact that they are the same thing.  "I think the real excitement for the audience was watching you fall for [Peeta,]" Katniss is told in her victory interview, and there's supposed to be a rich irony in our knowledge that the infatuation was completely staged.  But the readers are also supposed to have been excited by watching the 'real' Katniss develop 'real' feelings for Peeta, and the novel seems entirely unaware of the disconnect between the two reactions it's aiming for.  It helps a little that Peeta and Katniss end the novel at odds, for the first time genuinely shamming affection instead of pretending to fake feelings they really feel, but it seems pretty obvious that this is merely a temporary setback, that future novels in the series will see the two crazy kids making it work. As impressive as I found Collins's reality TV satire, it is entirely undermined by her insistence on framing her novel as a love story.

At the end of The Hunger Games, I had a pretty good idea of where Katniss's story was headed--a difficult reintegration into her old life, a tortured choice between Peeta and Gale, perhaps rebellion against the capital and the Hunger Games system--but not a great deal of interest in continuing to follow it.  The Knife of Never Letting Go, meanwhile, has captured me.  Despite my serious reservations about it (and the fact that there isn't a single aspect of the novel that is as perfectly handled as Collins's reflection of reality TV in The Hunger Games), it is at least an uncompromising novel, one that, unlike The Hunger Games, shies away from easy answers and crowd-pleasing solutions.  I have no idea what's in store for Todd and Viola, but whatever it is I'm sure it'll be terrifying, and force them both to make difficult and uncomfortable choices,  and for that reason if no other I'm interested in continuing to follow their story.  Neither The Hunger Games nor The Knife of Never Letting Go are a perfect way to wrap up the year of the YA adult novel (and anyway I still have Kristin Cashore's Graceling to go) but Ness's novel, at least, will keep me following the field in 2009 and 2010.

[1] Knife was published in 2008 and written some time beforehand, so the associations with Up are presumably a coincidence, but it doesn't help that one of the first things Manchee says is "Squirrel!" and that he and Todd encounter a large, food-obsessed, flightless bird.

[2] I can only imagine the despair of the Hebrew translator who has to craft something not-hilarious out of the combination 'Peeta the baker's son.'

[3] Actually, Peeta kills two non-Careers, but these death are minimized--one is inadvertent, the other happens off-screen, and its victim was already mortally wounded by the Careers.  At any rate, his feelings on the subject are never explored.

[4] As annoying as Katniss's calculated dimness is, it does perhaps say something about the different requirements from male and female YA protagonists.  Todd, who is not too bright, stubborn, illiterate, and often quite unpleasant, needs only a prodigious force of will to make him a sympathetic protagonist.  Katniss is smart, strong, cunning, compassionate, determined, and beautiful, presumably in order to achieve the same effect.


Teresa Kravtin said...

In my quick reading of your post, I'd just like to add re: KNIFE, that I read that Patrick Ness equated noise to the drone of riding on mass transit and overhearing other conversations on bluetooth devises. Hearing other's thoughts with no proper filter.

I think you've hit on what is so fascinating about what Ness has done, in making all of these topics fodder for discussion. Keep reading and tackle The Ask and The Answer and you might find that it only gets more interesting. There are only grey areas in these issues he is presenting. I found myself surprised at my own inclinations in reacting to plot developments, only to realize there is a much bigger story here unfolding.

Foxessa said...

My reading of Knife came about because so many raved about it. It didn't work for me on any level.

Also, why was sexual desire and action in these communities entirely without women so carefully no mentioned that it loomed over all of it by its absence. We all know what goes on in prison, what went with the poor cabin boys and other boys on ships in the days of yore, etc.

The book left really icky feeling in my mouth and I wish I hadn't read it.

Love, C.

thestoryandthetruth said...

I know exactly what you mean - there is an othering of women in the book, and it is undoubtedly key both to its structure and its effect. But a few things occur to me on this front. One, that it is so clearly an othering in error: that is, Todd is from the off rather clearly characterised as a bit slow, and those people from whom he has received this concept of the female other are very early on indeed shown to be aggressive, destructive and dysfunctional.

Two, that the only men of the village shown not to be this way are Ben and Cillian - who clearly tell Todd, and the reader, that this othering is specious. They are also, to address C's point, subtly presented as a couple. That subtelty is no cop-out - I found it rather touching for its lack of comment.

Three, that this is a novel of identity, an as you imply archetypal-to-the-point-of-cliche bildungsroman in which the adolescent protagonist builds himself, and does so in relation to those around him - his ability to kill them, to understand them, to interface with them. This necessarily requires almost everything - female, Speck, adult, Old Terran, even the inscrutable Ben and Cillian - to be othered before they can then be brought back in to an adult conception of the world. Sure, this makes for an uneasy - even unpleasant - transitionary stage, but, then, adolescence is uneasy and at times unpleasant.

So I agree that all of what you say is true; I am not certain, however, that the text is any more comfortable with it all than you were.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Like you, I was thrown by the absence of any reference to sex in Knife. As Dan says, it seems very likely that Cillian and Ben are lovers, but there's almost no convincing evidence one way or another.

I'm of two minds about this choice. On the one hand, it was a bit of a relief that Ness chose to leave romance out of Todd and Viola's relationship (especially given how thoroughly The Hunger Games is scuttled by its romantic focus). On the other hand, as you say, it seems unlikely that sex would have played so small a part in the colonists' lives. It gives the impression that Ness left out a crucial piece of the human puzzle because he couldn't make it work with the novel's thesis.


I had this discussion with Niall last week, and I'm still unpersuaded by this argument. I'm not sure that it's the othering of women that Knife (and Todd) view with suspicion. Rather, it's the results of that othering - the killing of women in Prentisstown, their oppression in the last refuge Todd and Viola find before they reach Haven, and even their dominance in Farbranch - that the novel speaks out against. On the contrary, othering, it seems to me, is treated like a fact of life. Which is in fact what it is - a biological difference that turns men and women into different species. That's not a choice the characters have made, but one that Ness made when he framed the novel's setting and premise.

thestoryandthetruth said...

On the sex issue ... it simply seems to me that Todd doesn't yet see it himself. TKoNLG is a novel encased by Todd's perspective, and his emerging adulthood. It can only encompass what that can encompass. The reader knows it's there, expects it to be there when it isn't - and Todd's failure to spot it is another way he is keyed as an incomplete narrator (and, indeed, man/person).

On the othering - in order to argue that the novel endorses/accepts othering whilst condemning its consequences, you need to provide a single example in the book of positive othering. If there is none, then process and consequence are indivisible. Ness is not presenting othering as a fact of life, but depicting a world broken by its wrongheaded insistence on that factitutde.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's true that Todd isn't sexually aware, though I'm not sure that even that excuses his ignorance of the true nature of Cillian and Ben's relationship. But I simply don't see why he isn't sexually aware. We're explicitly told that he's been bombarded with the Prentisstown men's violent pornographic fantasies for years - that these fantasies are, in fact, his most powerful introduction to women before he meets Viola. If anything, he should be unhealthily hypersexualised.

to argue that the novel endorses/accepts othering

I never said that. I said that it posits the otherness of women as a fact of life. Neither positive nor negative but simply there, in much the same way that, though I'm not the biggest fan of menstruation, I won't deny that it exists and that men don't do it. In Ness's universe, Noise or its absence are a fact just like menstruation, except that this difference makes women noticeably psychologically different from men.

Niall said...

I had this discussion with Niall last week

Indeed! So it feels a bit silly to repeat my counter-argument. But in case anyone's wondering: my feeling is that it's not a *biological* difference that separates men and women in TKONLG, it's an *environmental* difference; Noise is inherent to the planet, not to men and women. Which in turn makes me more charitable towards the idea of Noise as a reflection on the construction of gender roles; by definition, the fact that the novel is science fiction set on another planet means that it prompts you to realise that these things are contingent on where and when you're living, not on anything essential.

I also tend to agree with Dan that the trajectory of the book(s) is to gradually bring everything back into an adult conception of the world (or, just possibly, to *fail* to do so, though I'm not sure Ness will really go that far).

The near-absence of sex seems to me of a piece with the odd reticence about swearing -- that it, it's one of the (very) few ways in which TNONLG felt restricted by its marketing category. Although I don't really buy the idea that Todd should be hypersexualised, I think it's reasonable that he doesn't fully understand what he's being blasted with.

Your footnote 4 seems like a sad commentary, doesn't it? (Both ways.)

(Also, new style comment box! Although boo to not being able to copy and paste text into it.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

my feeling is that it's not a *biological* difference that separates men and women in TKONLG, it's an *environmental* difference

And to repeat myself as well: it's Ness who created that environment, so its implications are on him.

The near-absence of sex seems to me of a piece with the odd reticence about swearing -- that it, it's one of the (very) few ways in which TNONLG felt restricted by its marketing category

I hadn't thought of that, to be honest. Can't help but feel that there ought to have been a way around that restriction on par with the 'effing' compromise. (Insert the obligatory complaint that the book was published in its category with a prodigious amount of violence - for which it was attacked and resolutely defended - but apparently sex and swearing are a bridge too far.)

Your footnote 4 seems like a sad commentary, doesn't it? (Both ways.)

Boy, does it ever. And it applies to TV and film, as well.

(Also, new style comment box! Although boo to not being able to copy and paste text into it.)

Yes, hurray for Blogger slowly catching up to the rest of the internet. Cut/paste, incidentally, works fine on Safari and IE, but not in Firefox. Now if only the comment preview weren't nearly unreadable.

Niall said...

not in Firefox

Ah. Damn you, Firefox! *shakes fist*

its implications on him

If what you're objecting to is the fact of imagining this sort of world on principle, it feels like we're edging towards a broader argument here about what sf does or doesn't imagine. In general terms, I would agree that there's not enough contemporary sf that imagines worlds with radically different gender roles. But given how much sf simply recapitulates our society and its various limitations, I still find the critique inherent in Ness's creation worthwhile.

As for content: I may be imagining things; after all, there are books like Tender Morsels on the same shelves. But it was actually the violence that made me suspicious; because I can't see any good reason to engage with violence to that degree and not also engage with sex(uality), when both are inherent in the premise, unless something external to the book is stopping you.

Anonymous said...

Now I haven't read the book, but reading this review just made me think "oh no, not another book where boys are over here and girls are over there". I hated those even as a kid. I totally agree with Abigail that it is pretty much irrelevant how well and how nuanced this premise is later dismantled. Why on earth would one be interested in constructing it in the first place? The tiptoeing around sex is, I suspect, not entirely unrelated.

thestoryandthetruth said...

In Ness's universe, Noise or its absence are a fact just like menstruation, except that this difference makes women noticeably psychologically different from men.

Right, but as Niall has implied, the important part of that sentence is 'In Ness's universe' - that is, the reader is aware from the off that this 'difference' is contingent upon a particular time and place, not the men and women themselves. If, as you seem now to be saying, your issue is that Ness shouldn't have written the book - or, rather, that by doing so he makes himself inseparable from the (explicitly in the text) awful situation he has posited - then we are moving away from a discussion of a specific book and towards one about all books, actual or potential.

Niall pre-empts me on Todd's sexuality, too - yes, it is noticeable in its absence, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that Todd hasn't quite got all that sexual chatter.

(Woo, I can paste again! Thanks for the tip. :P)

Sherwood said...

I thought I was the only one in the world who found Knife cheap and manipulative, without addressing any of the interesting questions--especially the handling of women.

I also resented the plot clumsily shoving the reader toward the tiresome "Will you rescue the dog or the child?" moral dilemma we were often forced to write about in junior high.

Unlike you, I have zero interest in reading the sequel.

rushthatspeaks said...

I haven't read Knife, but I'm fascinated by your take on Hunger Games.

For one thing, I didn't actually think the book was a love story, and I don't think that Peeta and Katniss are going to end up together. (I have read the sequel, but of course there are going to be three of them.) I saw it as Katniss juggling her unwilling ability to see Peeta as a human being against the single moral choice she'd made for herself prior to the start of the books. Katniss starts off having decided not to rock the boat, not to try to rebel, start a revolution, work with a revolution, etc.; she's focused on getting by and surviving. But she has decided, because the system is so horrible, never to marry or have children. And that's why she's not with Gale at the start.

I see Peeta as a threat to this stance of hers not because he makes her reconsider marrying-- the text explicitly says he hasn't-- but because treating him like a human being and trying to save his life abrogates her position of not being in rebellion. There's a pretty major theme in these books of Katniss being forced to work against the state, being pushed out of apathy despite the fact that rebellion actually is as dangerous as she thinks it is.

And what I suspect is that when and if Katniss' determination not to marry crumbles (possibly due to the destruction of the system that necessitated it) she'll wind up with Gale, because of Peeta's influence. Which is I think a much more interesting story.

rushthatspeaks said...

(Mind you, I agree with you one hundred percent about Collins manipulating her audience in a very annoying way with things like Rue and her death, and that is the largest problem I had with the book. It improves somewhat in the sequel, but not spectacularly.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...


the important part of that sentence is 'In Ness's universe' - that is, the reader is aware from the off that this 'difference' is contingent upon a particular time and place, not the men and women themselves

I honestly don't see why that's significant. I don't think that Ness actually believes that women are aliens. But there is a misogynistic cliché along those lines and he's written a novel that literalizes it as the foundation of its plot. That bothers me. Both you and Niall have concluded that I think the book shouldn't have been written, which seems extreme - I liked the book, after all - but I see a serious problem with it that I don't think Ness gave any thought to. I'm sure there are plenty of books you like whose fundamental assumptions give you pause.


Not that killing the cute talking dog isn't manipulative no matter how you do it, but I do think Ness deserves a little more credit. There was no doubt in my mind that Todd would choose Viola over Manchee, and I don't think Ness expected me to think otherwise. What the manipulation does is make us regret a choice that nevertheless is the right one and has to be made, which seems fair.


You've read the sequel, so you probably have a better sense of the series than I do, but I really didn't get most of you mention here from The Hunger Games itself. You're right that Peeta is more aware of the moral implications of what he and Katniss are doing, but I didn't sense that Katniss underwent a moral awakening over the course of the novel. Her choices over the course of the novel conform to the kind of person she was at its beginning - fiercely protective of those she considers friends and family. It's just that her definition of friends and family widens. I most certainly don't see her behavior during the games as rebellion, except at their very end - most of the time she's just playing the game better than anyone else.

Niall said...


Why on earth would one be interested in constructing it in the first place?

Because much of the real world is still like that. This is, of course, exactly the same reason why one would deliberately choose *not* to construct a fictive world along these lines, but I think both reactions are valid.

I honestly don't see why that's significant.

I think it's significant because it means that women are *not* alien -- they just appear to be, from Todd's initial perspective.

... and actually I wonder if I've just worked out how we're coming at this so differently -- the definition of "alien", maybe? To me, to say that women in book x are alien to men is to say that they are fundamentally, eternally incomprehensible. This is not the case in Ness's books. But I get the impression you're using alien to mean something like "not immediately transparent to men in ways that are more extreme than the ways in which any two humans are not immediately transparent to each other". Which is also true. I just don't see the second as particularly problematic when the point of the story is to establish that the difficulties in communication (a) are a function of specific circumstances, rather than "real", and (b) can be overcome much more easily than their press would have you believe.

Am I anywhere close?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think it's significant because it means that women are *not* alien -- they just appear to be, from Todd's initial perspective.

No. They're not alien (or whatever word you're comfortable with that means something very different that one can learn to communicate with) in the real world. They are alien in Todd's world, but Todd learns to talk to them. The point of Ness's novel is 'even though [Other of your choice] are different from us, we can learn to see them as people and communicate with them.' That's a great message, but he's constructed his world so that [Other of your choice] == women, and in the process literalized a common misogynistic cliche.

Niall said...

Damn. We do just disagree, then. If you can learn to communicate with x, the message I take is not "x is very different, but we can learn to communicate with them", but "x is not that different, actually". And external to the text, as I say, I take the fact that it's sf as a reminder that the differences between men and women are caused by context; internal to the text, I expect the reminder to be the arrival of the ship following Viola.

Niall said...

Thinking about that ship some more: it occurs to me that in TNONLG, what "learn to communicate" means is "learn to use the natural method of human communication", ie *talking* to people. That is, Todd and other men of his planet may perceive women as the ones who are different, but compared to *us* (and, presumably, the other people from the ship) it's the men who have been changed, removed from human normal. Which is, for me, another thing that undercuts the argument that the women on the planet are other or alien.

This makes me even more interested in hearing Viola's side of the story, of course.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

it's the men who have been changed, removed from human normal

But since the whole story is told from Todd's point of view, that's an academic observation. Also, I'm not sure how significant it is that the men are other rather than women. What's important is that they are different - the Mars/Venus divide, instead of two genders of the same species.

And surely the ship's arrival won't solve this problem? If history repeats itself, Viola's fellow colonists will become infected by the Noise germ within days of their arrival.

Niall said...

I'd say it's not academic because (a) we know we're going to get Viola's viewpoint in book two, and (b) with respect to TNONLG specifically, it reinforces the idea that Noise isn't as insurmountable a difference as it's initially made out to be.

If we know Viola is like us, and we know Todd's like us, despite Noise, because we can see inside his head, then the problem must be *not* that the two of them are different in some fundamental way, but that Todd has been raised such that he *perceives* Viola as different in some fundamental way. They are literally from different planets, but ultimately that matters less than the fact that they're both human.

As for the ship: even if the colonists become infected immediately, it dismantles the Mars/Venus idea from the other side (the societal perspective rather than the individual perspective) by making explicit what I've been arguing is already implicit: that is, it demonstrates that "Ness's universe" is not a universe where men and women are literally different, but that it's a universe where how men and women relate is variable and context dependent.

(Of course, the ship's crew may not be infected immediately. And even if they are, if Noise is caused by a biological agent, it can presumably be counteracted; it may be that the function of the ship is to turn up and create a cure.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think you're mistaking what the whole Mars/Venus divide means. The cliche is that men and women can't talk to one another because they think differently, want different things, and communicate in different ways. The issue isn't whether they are both human but whether they can talk to one another, in the same way that I don't doubt the humanity of someone who speaks only Chinese but still can't communicate with them except at the most rudimenary level. The fact is that a person's interiority isn't as important, when it comes to communication, as how they present themselves and how they speak. What Knife does is make explicit the alleged difference between male and female communication by positing a male form of communication that women can't participate in. And yes, that's a fundamental difference.

We're just going to have to agree to disagree about the importance of Noise's localization. I simply don't see why it's significant that the difference between men and women is limited to one planet when that's the planet Ness chose to set his story on.

(According to Ben, Noise begins to afflict the colonists within days of their arrival on the planet. It may be that the ship will be able to counteract the agent causing it, but as I've already said I'm not willing to give Knife credit for things that might happen in its sequels.)

Niall said...

Hmm. I don't really follow the logic in your first paragraph. Do men and women in TKNONLG think differently? No. Do they want different things? No. Do they communicate differently? Not in the sense that the cliche has it, I'd suggest -- it is, as you say, referring to a difference in how language is used, a difference in *understanding*. That's not Noise. It's what Noise initially *appears* to be, but actually, Noise doesn't affect understanding.

I'd also have to say that in a culture with Noise, a person's interiority *is* how they present themselves and how they speak -- that is, there is no interiority (for men). So how Todd's narrative presents him seems very relevant; it is how Viola and everyone else will perceive him. And given that women can hear Noise even if they can't broadcast, "can't participate in" doesn't seem like the right description of the difference it creates. Women are not cut off from men in the way that the Mars/Venus cliche would have it by Noise; precisely the opposite, in fact. Men initially appear to be cut off from women; but as Todd and Viola show, that's not the case either.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Do they communicate differently?

If men communicate through Noise and women can't, then yes.

Women are not cut off from men in the way that the Mars/Venus cliche would have it by Noise

But the novel is told from a man's point of view.

Niall said...

then yes

Again, I feel you're conflating two different senses of "communicate differently" here, and I'm not convinced it's justified.

But the novel is told form a man's point of view

So what? You can't just ignore the position of women. The Mars/Venus cliche requires that the incomprehension be mutual -- that it's not here suggests to me that how Ness is building his world is not as straightforward as you're arguing it is. In the same vein, if you look at the *way* in which Todd initially perceives Viola as different -- silent, uncommunicative -- and the way in which Viola must initially perceive Todd -- a constant rush of thoughts and feelings, nothing suppressed -- that looks much more like a *reversal* of gender cliches (stoic silent men, overly emotional and expressive women) than a reinforcement of them.

thestoryandthetruth said...

They are alien in Todd's world, but Todd learns to talk to them.

No, they are alien to the men of Prentisstown - actually, even that isn't accurate, since they are alien only to the indoctrinated adolescents of Prentisstown (and other extremists enclaves). Other men, across the planet, communicate fine with women. As you point out, the whole novel is told from Todd's point of view - but that point of view is not the world, as we, and he, learn.

I think you're right that agreeing to disagree is the wisest course here; but I agree with Niall that the book and its world is wildly more complex than all this Mars/Venus stuff.

Gary Couzens said...

I've read both novels, though not yet their sequels. Both were fast-paced reads that held my attention, but I can see the issues that are being aired here.

A point on swearing and sex - YA novels certainly can and do them. (I mean those aimed at 13 or 14 upwards, as TKONLG is. Hunger Games is probably slightly younger - the age band on my UK Paperback says "11+" though it's since been reprinted with a "Teen" age band, as the sequel - Catching Fire - does.) To give an example I read this year, Hannah Moskowitz's Break - which is a US-published contemporary-realist YA from 2009 - contains 87 "fucks", a number I have from the author. And over in the UK, Melvin Burgess has explored teen sexuality in novels such as Doing It and Lady: My Life as a Bitch, the latter having a fantasy premise.

However, this may be that the American YA market is more developed and larger than the UK one. According to Wikipedia, 10-12 YA novels on LGBT themes are published every year in the USA, while after some searching I can only think of four examples from the UK, one of which dates back to 1982 and one I'd call borderline for reasons I can't say without spoilers. Also, we have newspapers like the Daily Mail which now and again runs "won't someone think of the children" when a somewhat edgier YA novel comes up. (They did one such when two novels with the word "knife" in the title appeared on last year's Guardian Award longlist - Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me and TKONLG.)

So I'm wondering if Ness's avoidance of sex and swearing might be a self-imposed one. Too many people think that YA has to be safe and sanitised, but it doesn't - though including such topics will restrict your readership to older teens upwards.

Thras said...

There are a couple of references to sex in the early discussion of the noise of Prentisstown (although not explicit). I wasn't bothered by its being mostly left out. I notice that no one is complaining about the lack of constant references to masturbation, right? I know that some females have an idealized view of what goes on in communities of men, but there's a lot more of that than the homosexual rape. In fact, I would guess that homosexuals would get weeded out of a place like Prentisstown very quickly.

The biggest problem with the book, to me, was not the emotional manipulation. It was the author's pursuit of the "big reveal." The "secret" of Prentisstown is held over our heads for the entire book, even though Todd is the one character who doesn't know it. And in the end, it doesn't turn out to be a very rational secret. (Men break other people's toys, not their own.)

The choice between murder/mercy is way over done. The first time Todd wusses out, it's cute and interesting. The tenth time, I'm more than a little annoyed.

And finally, the whole "completetion of the army" angle is really, really stupid.

As far as other people's complaints go, I wouldn't have minded seeing the female-as-alien angle explored more. Ness' male characters were mostly up to it. It's too bad the stock female characters that he used were not.

Parenthetical Sam said...


I agree with you about the pursuit of the big reveal, which was especially irksome because even *Todd* knew a lot of it before the book let us in on the secret. And, of course, there were enough clues that I'd figured it out long before I was explicitly told. The final reveal felt less shocking than like, "Ok, already."

I was also bugged by the emphasis on the "Come to the Dark Side, Luke" final battle. Isn't it possible to draw a moral distinction between killing the way the Prentisstown men did/do, and killing your one merciless enemy?

This book is about Todd's growth into manhood (among other things, of course), and it seems to me you can't become an adult without some moral grey areas. The book even deals with that when Todd kills the Spack and Ben tells him that everyone makes mistakes. So why couldn't he kill Aaron in the end and still be a good, if conflicted, person?

Janne Kirjasniemi said...

I just stumbled upon Nicola Griffith's Ammonite, which seems to be the setting of Patrick Ness's story, except reversed. It depicts a colonized world, where all the men are killed by a native virus and the women form a shared Jungian consciousness. I haven't read it, but it sounds very different as a novel from Ness's, but the striking similarity of the setting is intriguing. I wonder if there is a connection.

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