Just in time for the movie, if two years behind the teens, I read The Hunger Games. But even though he’s been dead for almost ninety years, Franz Kafka beat me to it. In 1922, just a few years before he died, Kafka published the short story A Hunger Artist, a weirdly candid but unsurprisingly depressing mediation on a man who starves himself for the entertainment of others. Although the story was published ninety years ago, it is already nostalgic, looking back on the golden era of starvation artists, a real-life phenomenon where men would live in cages, their wasting public for gawking spectacle. As the story opens, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.”
As usual with Kafka, it’s nearly impossible to easily interpret, although at least no one wakes up as a cockroach. Is the story autobiographical and symbolic, with emphasis on the word “artist”: starving artists as hunger artists, sacrificing themselves for their art? Is the hunger artist a Christian martyr or Christ himself, sacrificing his body for the seeming benefit of others, even if those others don’t know it? Is the story sincere or ironic—does Kafka really think that slow starvation is a great performance? Is the hunger artist a victim of a vicious society or the perpetuator of a con, making a living literally doing nothing? Is he misunderstood, as he believes, or does he misunderstand himself? Kafka seems to want to story to seem spiritual and existential, but in our contemporary culture of eating disorders and reality television, he now seems anorexic and narcissistic, equally food- and attention starved—psychiatrically disordered, rather than acetic, spiritual, or even alienated. The hunger artist would have loved the present.
So let’s cut to the present. The Hunger Games, the first major post-Harry Potter young adult lit phenomenon, seems the titular heir to Kafka’s hungry hungry hero. Yet I had some major qualms about the book—at least until I was more than halfway through it. Like Hunger Artist, Hunger Games is also nostalgic, not because the days of starvation are behind them but because they are ahead. In this futuristic, totalitarian dystopia—like there’s any other kind?—America is now Panem, but not the friendly skies: a weird amalgam of technological advancement amidst an overall feudal, semi-agrarian society.
In order to keep the story’s twelve districts in line and circumvent rebellion, the government, such as it is, uses a lottery to select two contestants—Tributes, one boy and one girl—from each district, elevates them to celebrity status, has them model haute couture and eat haute cuisine, makes them appear on TMZ, then televises their gory fight to the death, with a single winner rewarded with food and other valuable prizes. The good news is that this set up keeps ex-contestants from robbing convenience stores or starring in pornography once the show is over. The bad news is that it doesn’t make much literal or political sense. We like our ultimate fighting and our reality stars separate, not that I’d be surprised by Kickboxing with the Kardashians. But time tested, old fashioned slaughter, secret prisons, pograms, public impalement, and killing fields are far more cost effective for the frugal, discerning despot.
The influences show everywhere: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, obviously, Stephen King’s Running Man and The Long Walk, an episode of Justice League called War World, which itself borrowed from Spartacus, and every battle royale ever written, from Koushun Takami to Ralph Ellison. Plus, the writing seems equally prosaic. While it’s ostensibly the first person POV of Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist (and therefore, we quickly surmise, winner of the Games, a kind of built in spoiler), the language is often so clichéd and dry that it reads more like a book report about some other, better written novel that Katniss read and is telling us about secondhand.
Yet somehow, even with this ticker of criticism running through my head as I read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more, until by the end, none of the problems mattered, any more than the unlikelihood of talking bears or the existential crisis of wishes in a fairy tale.
Even more than what turns out the be the novel’s narrative triumph—that is, somehow creating suspense even when the ending is predestined; somehow making interesting a violent snuff film of a bunch of kids killing each other—is what the novel does for gender. It may seem, in our post-Aliens and Terminator world, that female heroes are at last the norm, but they’re not, not really. Katniss is simply herself, and who she is is tough, but not particularly smart; self-preserving more than altruistic, even if, like Kafka’s hunger artist, she seems to sacrifice herself for her sister Prim and despite that she does rue Rue; skilled at traditionally masculine tasks like hunting; and lucky, but the kind of lucky that comes after the disaster of living in Panem and winding up in the hunger games. In other words, she’s far more like Harry Potter than Hermione Granger, more Peter Pevensie than Susan, who does receive a bow and arrow from Father Christmas but is admonished to use it only “in great need…for I do not mean for you to fight in the battle.” Girls are supposed to be the smart ones, the sisters, the girlfriends, the blank slates, the protected, the supporting characters. Katniss is not any of those things. She’s better. Yet at the same time, the book never seems to have any gender agenda.
What’s more interesting, though, is her contrast with the male District 12 tribute, Peeta, whose name sounds feminine and reminiscent of bread (he’s the baker’s son), who protects himself in the hunger games by painting himself in camouflage and hiding, and whose sensitive romantic dumb love for Katniss could give Bella a run for her hanky. This alone would be an interesting gender reversal. But the book does more. After an improvised rule change forces Katniss and Peeta to team up, Peeta’s injuries make him more of a liability than an asset for Katniss. But not only does she have to protect him, she needs to protect his male ego, so that as she’s protecting him, she has to make him believe that he’s protecting her. Edward, Jacob, and all those other guys just have to protect, without any self-consciousness and subterfuge. And in the end, [yes, yes spoilers, although why you’re reading this if you haven’t read The Hunger Games is a mystery to me] when Peeta and Katniss both live, we discover that Peeta’s leg has been amputated. He’s been saved by a girl like a hundred times, and then symbolically castrated. And all he wants is looooove.
I remember in my first year of college reading a super politically correct textbook called Racism and Sexism. I no longer have it, so I can’t double check this (although I never sold books back so it must still be on my old bookshelf in my parents’ house). But in it I remember a thought experiment for guys, imagining that every President, nearly every major world leader, nearly every famous scientist, nearly every writer until only a hundred years ago, etc etc etc, was a woman, and how women must feel about the real world. I got it then, of course. But I think I get it much better now, thanks to Katniss and The Hunger Games. In the back of girls’ minds, there had to be a little nagging that the girl is always a Wendy but the boy gets to be the Peter Pan. Yet when kids read Hunger Games today, they’re not going to think about Kafka, or Shirley Jackson, or the occasional clichéd language. They’re not even going to notice that Katniss stands almost alone as a realized yet nonchalant female hero. They’re just going to take the book as it is, and Katniss for herself.
For a story in the dystopian future, it makes me very optimistic. And the only Kafkaesque hunger the fans feel is for the next book.
Time: a little over an hour
Coming soon: from Wall-E to Hunger Games to Gone to Uglies: what’s with all the dystopia for kids?