You can either eat well, or sleep peacefully
There are dystopian novel plots that resolve, and there are those that do not. Commercial success demands resolution, which is a great reason why Collins will have to overcome a credibility barrier with adolescents and young adults if she ever wants to match The Hunger Games trilogy’s sales with future works. Peeta?? Come on – all pulp bestselling authors know that the dark, masculine hunter is supposed to win out in adolescent-lit love triangle. Anyone writing a conventional dystopian epic knows that readers like resolution, and let’s face it, Panem’s new government doesn’t seem particularly promising. Katniss fails in her assassination attempt, which honestly changes the prospective climax into a major letdown. Most people seemed disappointed by the ending in some way or another, but it’s also safe to say that the third book is the most honest – since it alone in the series doesn’t have to appeal to anyone commercially (they’re all buying it anyways), Collins is free to present her undistilled vision for her literature. Even in the raw, oft-disappointing power of Collins’s vision of her characters as weak, suffering, or powerless, audiences still try to recover conventional meanings of glory from her work. “Real or not real?”, the poster at left reads. “Tick, tock, this is a clock”, a poster from Catching Fire reads. And yet, there are no deep musing on Time in this trilogy, no thematic explorations of reality in the way those two posters would suggest. Similarly, the clichéd love triangle disappoints many readers at the end, and the naive theme of political revolution takes an obvious backseat to Katniss’s own internal trauma. Whatever Collins is presenting us with, it’s certainly not the easy romance and suspense which drew people into The Hunger Games, and neither can it be described by simple catchphrases which, quite frankly, are more situational and fun for Collins than universal or philosophical points. Instead, it’s the plot itself that articulates her vision.
So what is that vision – and why so drab? Often the best-told stories disappoint – di Caprio’s character chooses death at the end of Shutter Island, King Lear dies pointlessly at the end of that work, and I remember a certain story about a rabbi who works miracles, then tells people to keep it a secret, then dies, resurrects and, anticlimactically, disappears. Perhaps the best touchstone to Mockingjay’s ending, however, is Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which charts a trans-generational battle between immigrants and natives. The two leaders battle it out in a finale and, just as we think we’re about to get resolution, everyone gets bombarded by ships suppressing a draft riot. Scorsese’s point in this bizarre ending is that personal conflicts and narratives are swept up in history; time doesn’t wait for our individual hopes and grudges to be resolved.
Where Scorsese moves from micro to macro and thus relativizes the main conflict of Gangs, Collins zooms in upon Katniss’s battered emotions. Right at the point when Katniss and the reader both are most invested in the political storyline, Katniss gets hit by a fireball, transforming from competent survivor-hero into a shell of a human being within about two pages. Her own moral clarity, and ours, are muddled by the new government, and we begin to see the entire rebellion as pointless. Katniss was used as a prop, and object of show. Haymitch goes back to drinking, Katniss tries to recover – there’s nothing new under the sun.
“You can either eat well or sleep peacefully.” Katniss chooses the latter, literally trying to sleep and, in the proverb’s real meaning, choosing a quiet life of contentment. We react violently against this turn of events because we want our protagonist, who certainly deserves it, to live out her life on a steady diet of power, glory, and accolade. We want this so we can eat with her, relish in good’s triumph over evil, buy into a narrative of endurance and prevailing – ‘Katniss victor’, to paraphrase an old theological term. The author denies us this, carefully crafting a narrative of victory, getting us to buy into it, and then pulling the rug out from under us when the climax turns out to be so…anticlimactic.
This sort of literature may be disconcerting, and many of us certainly wouldn’t have purchased Mockingjay if we’d known the disappointing ending, but it’s also profoundly edifying. Christ did the same thing when miracle-working Jesus sucked all of his contemporaries into a narrative of political triumph and then died in the most shameful possible way, then rose, and then disappeared. Suffering frees us by killing our naïve narratives of progress and glory so that we can live in the real world, but good literature can (and should!) have a similar effect. Katniss chooses to sleep peacefully and, alas, Collins forces us all to fast from our narratives of progress at the end of Mockingjay. By killing our naïve expectations for literature, Collins draws us into the real world – the world where narratives of progress, no matter how well-intended, constrain and destroy Katniss as she’s constantly co-opted into commercial spectacle. It’s a parable for our violence as readers in demanding a proper sort of plotline, one which Collins gives us (to sell books, reaching the widest possible audience) and then takes away, to convey the real vision of the trilogy – a careful critique of bestseller glory lit from within. It’s a brilliant model for reaching an audience by giving them what they want, and then being a responsible author by taking it away. In Collins’s retreat from politics and epic conflict into the places of personal brokenness and compassion, she brings us to the brink of the place where grace arrives. Dismantling our inveterate love of glory narratives bit-by-bit, Collins performs a much-needed service to her readers. And, most importantly, Mockingjay resonates – not in the place of commercial appeal, perhaps, but certainly in the place of honesty, humility, and suffering. The place we never want to visit, but are often glad when we do.