Hazel Grace Lancaster is 16, addicted to a TV show called America’s Next Top Model, and a voracious reader. Augustus Waters is a fast-talking, sharp-witted, attractive boy of 17, hooked on videogames and fantasy fiction. And the two are in love with each other.
It could have been the plot of a typical young-adult (YA) novel, except for the fact that Hazel and Augustus, who appear in John Green’s international bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars (2012), are both cancer survivors—or rather, they haven’t been killed by the disease yet, as their story begins.
Green’s book, pitched as YA fiction, was published in January 2012, but has managed to stay in the news ever since. It was widely acclaimed—Time magazine listed it as the no. 1 fiction title of 2012—and no less deplored, especially by conservative newspapers like The Daily Mail , which labelled it as “sick-lit”. The Guardian defended this charge with gusto, but Green’s own, rather goofy, response was perhaps the best: he simply tweeted this video to make his feelings known.
Last month it was reported that indie film-maker Josh Boone will be directing the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars. A tale of doomed love between two sick teenagers is exactly the sort of thing Hollywood loves, but Green’s book is anything but sentimental. Yes, there are flashes of youthful flamboyance—Augustus, or Gus, craftily uses his ultimate “cancer perk” to ensure that he and his beloved get to go on a three-day holiday to Amsterdam. There are lump-in-the-throat moments, when the couple kiss for the first time during a tour of Anne Frank’s house. But the overwhelming feel of this love story is one of morbid humour.
Hazel, who was detected with stage IV thyroid cancer at the age of 13, has managed to survive, thanks to a miracle drug (which does not exist in reality). But she thinks of herself as a “human grenade” that will blow up whoever invests in her emotionally. She knows she is “the Alpha and Omega” of her parents’ suffering. But because she is a fiercely intelligent girl, she has enough wit to call her oxygen concentrator “Philip”—she has to carry around an oxygen tank with tubes stuck into her nostrils because her cancer has metastasised to her lungs—and thinks of the BiPap machine, to which she is connected when she sleeps, as her “pet dragon”.
Gus, who has been left without a leg by osteosarcoma, “smokes” as a metaphor—which means, he carries a pack of cigarettes with him, puts one between his lips from time to time but never lights up. He had met, and fallen in love with, another teenager called Caroline Mathers at the hospital, but had lost her to brain cancer. And he had stayed “clean” for several years following his amputation. Until one day he starts feeling an ache in his thigh and undergoes a PET scan, in which he “lights up like a Christmas tree”.
Green wrote the book partly to mourn his friend Esther, who died of cancer, and partly to understand “if it is possible to have a full life without a long life”, as he said on the 1book140 Twitter chat organized by The Atlantic . It was also an experiment in empathy, an attempt by a 36-year-old male writer to understand how a girl 20 years his junior, dying slowly but steadily of cancer, might feel to be loved and desired by a fellow sufferer.
The Fault in Our Stars is an exceptional novel by any standard. But coming from a writer best known for YA books, it is nothing short of an act of daring. Not only does it push the boundaries of a genre conventionally associated with feel-good fantasy rather than hard reality, it also brings into sharp focus the way young people are perceived across the globe by different cultures, societies and classes.
In hyper-articulate, therapy-driven America, sickness is memorialized, theorized and apotheosised obsessively. From Susan Sontag’s writings on cancer and AIDS to Joan Didion’s memoirs of losing her husband and daughter, “sick-lit” is a crucial part of 21st-century American intellectual history. In more reticent Europe, or stiff-upper-lip Britain, such a genre may come across as gratuitous if not glib. For young people in India or the subcontinent, societies where decay and death are endemic, it might not cause too great a culture shock.
It seems the unease inspired by The Fault in Our Stars has more to do with existential rather than ethical questions. Green’s interest, as he explained in the Twitter chat, was to explore “how the privileged imagine destiny”. Indeed, his book shatters the seemingly invincible bubble of safety that the elite like to imagine they are living in. It is entirely likely that keeping YAs away from “sick-lit” is after all a twisted ruse by elders to protect themselves from the blinding light of reality.
This fortnightly column, which appears on Mondays, will talk about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.