Thinly Developed Dystopia Theatre, pt. 1 (Review #5, Shatter Me; Tahereh Mafi)

probably one of the most attractively worthless covers ever

probably one of the most attractively worthless covers ever

Hey folks, GOOD TO SEE YOU … I think one of my issues in running a book review blog (aside from reading far more than I would ever have time to review) is that I always feel the need to write HUGE essays about whatever books I actually decide to use in a post, hence that monstrous examination of Elixir down below (has it really been almost a year … ow).  In the interest of committing more and myriad thoughts to digital paper, I am going to try … not … doing that.  Thus, here is a quick (maybe) review of a  ‘dystopian’ YA books that I recently swallowed and then coughed up, hairball-style, onto the carpet.

SHATTER ME, by Tahereh Mafi, is first.  I need to tell you that, like most YA fiction, this cover is ridiculously misleading.  If you go into this book knowing the blurb info, which sells it as a cross between The Hunger Games and the X-Men, you might be expecting an Emma Frost type of character and atmosphere from this cover–this girl, while slender, looks healthy, confident, and … I don’t want to say ‘stylish’, as that dress looks kind of like a cream puff, but you can tell that’s the vibe the designers wanted.

The actual protagonist is a severely malnourished, broken, frightened wisp of a young lady named Juliette.  She’s locked up in a mental asylum, not because she’s insane, but because she has a special power that makes her dangerous to the general public.  Physical contact with her causes extreme suffering that quickly results in death; she’s basically Rogue, except without the temporary transfer of someone’s abilities in addition to their life-force.  Juliette’s life is pretty awful: she’s rarely fed, and what she’s given barely qualifies as food, she is isolated, she is dirty.

She’s also ridiculously aggravating.  This book is written in the first person, which is fine; first person is wonderful for establishing a unique character voice, and Mafi tries to do just that through a variety of stylistic/visual text quirks.  Many very silly people have read this book and described the prose with words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘poetic’ and perhaps even ‘lilting’, but all of those terms imply that there’s some kind of sensible rhythm happening here, and that is just a plain falsehood.  Slogging through this book’s idea of narration is like being in a locked room with someone who cannot stop wailing, WAILING incomprehensible things about butterfly dust and glass shards and pieces of the sky for five fucking minutes.

“I close the world away.  Lock it up.  Turn the key so tight.

Blackness buries me in its folds.

[…]

My eyes break open.  Two shattered windows filling my mouth with glass.”

WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN?  Later on, there’s a scene between Juliette and the primary love interest, Adam, who also happens to be a soldier in the Oppressive Regime that’s currently going around oppressing everybody.  He’s been ordered to TAKE HER TO HER CHAMBERS by the primary antagonist, who is also a love interest (and a psychotic rapist, but we will get to that), inexplicably.  Juliette spent some time in a cell with Adam earlier, thinking he was just another prisoner, and so at this point she’s feeling understandably a bit betrayed and confused.  Adam is trying to tell her that he’s one of the good guys, but when he lifts a hand to convey some arcane sign language to that effect, Juliette thinks he’s about to strike her.  The problem is that the scene reads like he DID strike her–the narration goes like this:

“I didn’t think he’d be the one to hurt me, to torture me, to make me wish for death more than I ever have before.  I don’t even realize I’m crying until I hear the whimper and feel the silent tears stream down my face and I’m ashamed so ashamed so ashamed of my weakness but a part of me doesn’t care.  I’m tempted to beg, to ask for mercy, to steal his gun and shoot myself first.”

This reads like someone is getting their shit jacked, DOES IT NOT?  This is Juliette’s reaction to Adam putting a finger to his lips because there are goddamn cameras in the room.

Look, I understand what Mafi is trying to do.  She’s trying to present the internal life of someone with severe instability; someone who has suffered so badly at the hands of the Oppressive Regime that she can hardly function.  I get that.  But there are better ways to do this, ways that don’t involve peppering your text with gimmicky, repetitive cross-outs and prose that does not actually give you any indication as to what the fuck is going on.  There are a lot of crossed-out sentences in this book.  It’s like reading an FBI dossier, for God’s sake.  Again, I know the intent–she’s trying to suggest that Juliette is so divorced from her sense of self that she constantly censors her feelings, even in her own head, but tricks like these should be used gently, lovingly.  The reader is beaten around the ears and face with Juliette’s mental state at every turn, to the detriment of the actual scene.  I only need to read about how Juliette thinks everything will be OK if she doesn’t move or how much she wants to vomit once.  After that, I get it.  She’s in a bad way.

I can grant that the style might appeal to some.  It’s common to mistake piles of attractive words that are placed in close proximity to one another as ‘poetic’, even when the sentences they form don’t actually make much sense.  It’s a trap that a lot of writers fall into, myself included.  Reading this book is like watching someone fall into that trap over and over again, for me.  But that’s not the only problem here.

First of all, the worldbuild is about as thin as tracing paper.  Juliette offers us a brief explanation of a world that fell into sudden environmental chaos, maybe (92 degrees in winter?!  Welcome to Memphis, Tennessee, honey).  There’s about two paragraphs early on dedicated to how food doesn’t grow, animal life is scarce, people are dying, etc.  I should note that I have no idea of where anyone is at any given time; presumably somewhere in a ruined America?  Anyway, some guys called the Reestablishment are running the joint now, and they are, predictably, not very nice.  There’s not really any examination of Oppressive Regime’s overall motives and goals; they just shout at people, execute rebel sympathizers, and have nice meals in their offensive luxury domes, blah blah–all the notes  you’d expect an Oppressive Regime to hit, basically, without any details to make them personal and unique to this world.

Warner is the guy in charge of this particular branch of Oppressors’R’Us and he is super obsessed with Juliette.  Rape-ily obsessed.  Every interaction between them suggests that he is moments away from pushing her down and forcing himself on her, and he only does not because of the whole killer touch thing.  Here’s the saddest bit: of all the characters in this narrative, Warner alone is imbued with more than one or two personality traits.  Adam’s only characteristic is his abs, according to Juliette, and our protagonist herself doesn’t do much but break down on every page–interspersed, of course, with moments of feisty rebellion directed at Warner. Mafi saw fit to complicate Warner’s emotions and position just enough so that he can be viably placed as another romance option, despite the fact that his sole goal is to control Juliette’s life and use her as a super-hot weapon of mass torture and destruction.  He has something going on with his mother, you see.  He’s really desperately in love with Juliette, too, even though he forces her to TORTURE AND ALMOST KILL A TODDLER (what) in one scene.  Nothing Warner does is acceptable on any level, yet it’s very clear that Mafi wants the reader to feel badly for him–she’s even writing a full novella from his crazy-ass perspective, tag-lined ‘SHE WILL CHOOSE ME’ (gurk).

Again.  I like creepy dudes.  Creepy dudes are great.  But there should not be a Team Creepy Dude, and there is.  This book culminates with Warner nearly full-out raping Juliette, because, CONVENIENTLY, both Warner AND Adam are immune to Juliette’s powers (not toddlers or random soldier mooks, though.  They are fucked).  Juliette permits Warner to get handsy so that she can gain access to the gun in his vest pocket and shoot him, and he gets her up against the wall with her thighs around his waist just before she pulls the trigger (don’t worry, HE SURVIVES).  What’s worse–Juliette feels an electrical charge between them as this is going on.  WHY.  STOP.

The X-Men element is introduced in the last part of the book and it’s stupid; it’s basically Xavier’s Underground School for Gifted Children and I am sure it will form the foundation for the follow up, because naturally this is a trilogy.  I am going to go lie on the floor now.

TOMORROW: The Last Princess, another entry into the world of pseudo-dystopian YA fiction.

Rating: Half a can, because the writing is OK when it actually makes sense!  The premise is also not inherently awful; it just has no flesh to it (much like the protagonist, haha, see what I did there).  P.S. to writers everywhere: creepy obsessive dudes are awesome.  Creepy obsessive dudes who are actually significant in the story’s love geometry?  NOT AWESOME.

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