We’re switching gears from vampire young adult fiction to dystopian young adult fiction! You know, what the kids are into these days! So for the next few months, we’re going to read Veronica Roth’s Divergent.
In case you have no idea what we’re talking about, here is a summary:
In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is–she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone [Ariel says: Except for the reader], including herself.
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her.
“Bad Books, Good Times is reading Divergent?!” You might say. “Consternation! Uproar!” You might add.
Ariel and I thought about this one for a while, because don’t people sort of actually like Divergent? It at least seems to run with a more respected crowd than Fifty Shades or, to use a more appropriate comparison to the target audience, House of Night or The Host. But just because it isn’t the absolutely lowest-hanging fruit like any of those books are, should we not read it for the blog?
I’d like to argue that we totally can, because, holy shit you guys, Divergent is dumb. Dystopian fiction is really hot in young adult fiction right now, so it’s natural that we’re going to get some weird and lifeless offshoots from that. I can’t imagine that the pitch for Divergent could have been anything other than “It’s like The Hunger Games, but a Meyers-Briggs test.” It’s dumb. It’s not the Worst Thing Ever. But it’s dumb.
I’ve always really liked dystopian fiction and fondly remember reading The Giver, 1984, and even The Hunger Games, because I like the thought-provoking and imaginative ways this genre can distort the civilization we live in now and turn it into the end of civilization. Apparently in Divergent, civilization ends because of too many “Which Mean Girls character are you?” online quizzes. And civilization ends because Tris is (dramatic pause) divergent! Aka, somewhere between Cady and Regina. And maybe a little bit Karen!
And that’s the main concept we’re supposed to buy into. That everyone is exactly a Cady (to keep this metaphor going, I guess) or exactly a Regina, and that this is a perfectly believable premise, and that it’s totally crazy that this one super special person is also a little bit Karen, when, let’s be honest, everybody is a little bit Karen.
This is a very thin concept to structure a a story around, let alone an entire trilogy. You can counter-argue that the point of Divergent is that such a society doesn’t actually work, and it shows how conformity doesn’t work. But there’s a lot of problems with how it does this, both in terms of contradictory story mechanics and terms of the message it actually arrives at. I strongly encourage everyone to read Linda Holmes’s NPR piece, “Not So ‘Divergent’: The Cookie-Cutter Nonconformist“, because 1) I sent it to Ariel and that was when we decided, “Yeah, this says exactly why we want to do this book,” and 2) I will never miss an opportunity to brag about how I know Linda Holmes.
I saw the recent film adaptation and I’m eager to see if the book is just as stupid, because even if it’s better written than most of the books we read, a well-written story about utter nonsense is still a story about utter nonsense. And maybe you’re also curious about Divergent and haven’t read it either, and that’s why Bad Books, Good Times is reading Divergent: so you don’t have to.
It took so much deliberation for me to be convinced that Divergent has a home here because I had a good time reading it. You know, like a regular good time, not a Bad Books, Good Times situation. But I did write a lot of jokes as I was reading, and I did have this desire to make these jokes to other people. And once Matt sent me the article he linked to above, I was like YES, we can definitely do this book.
Weirdly enough, the reason I’m excited to write about Divergent is precisely because I enjoyed it. I didn’t think Divergent was anything special (it was no Hunger Games to me), but I read it in like one afternoon, and I found Tris to be more interesting than any of our other leading ladies. In fact, the Casts could learn a thing or two about intentionally writing a character who is sometimes unlikeable while still making her interesting and sympathetic.
There are so many things both good and ridiculous that I want to discuss about Divergent on here, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to be able to be able to praise and poke fun at a book. The writing doesn’t make me want to bash my head against a wall, but I also need to just point out the fact that most of the characters in this story act “divergent”, but Tris will be like, “I didn’t know if I wanted to eat the potato or the beef, I AM DIVERGENT AS FUCK.” Seriously, that’s not too far off what actually happens in the story.
I don’t want any fans of Divergent coming here and bitching at us for hating on this book or what have you because I didn’t hate it. Fans of Fifty Shade, House of Night, Crossfire, etc can still come and whine about that because that would be accurate.
That being said, and to echo what Matt said above, the plot is just inherently ridiculous. Sure, everyone in the different factions are meant to act in certain ways which reflect their culture. Erudite reads all the time and Candors constantly say what they really think (allegedly). But this seems to only last for about one chapter of the book, and then everyone we meet basically is a regular person who might be more blunt than others because Candor! Or they held the door open for everyone because Abnegation! But it becomes clear really quickly that it is really fucking impossible for behaviour not to overlap between factions or that you can interpret the same action in about 300 different ways. If a Dauntless jumps in front of a bullet to save someone else’s life is it brave (Dauntless) or selfless (Abnegation)? IS EVERYONE REALLY DIVERGENT AS FUCK?? Sorry to spoil it, but obviously. It is obviously being human.