Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Are You Divergent?

Divergent is a young adult (YA) novel that came to my attention in the Teen Fantasy & Adventure section at Barnes & Noble.  I find myself shying away from “Teen Fantasy” since, well, I’m not a teenager.  Yet sometimes I sneak a peek anyway.  I guess you can say I’m drawn to reading outside of my age group.  But what if Barnes and Noble made me choose between YA or adult?

That’s the genius of Veronica Roth’s novel.  Those who live in the dystopian world of the novel--including the protagonist, Beatrice Prior--must choose to be in one of five factions when they reach sixteen:  Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite.  Each faction is dedicated to the pursuit of a certain virtue, and determines how a person will spend the rest of her life.  As the Divergent cover states: 

One choice can transform you. 
One choice decides your friends. 
One choice defines your beliefs. 
One choice determines your loyalties-forever.

For me, Beatrice's need to choose echoes my choice about what to read.  The "Dauntless" YA choice means I could continue to browse my brother’s bookshelves.  It’s where I discovered Twilight before I ever saw the movie.  And even though my nephews may not have read them all, I know my sister-in-law has.  I’ve suggested adult fantasy, but she likes the YA genre because the books are fast paced, creative, and easy to read given her packed schedule of work, the extra curricular activities of her children, etc.  Should I spend the rest of my life reading these books along with my brother’s family? 

Or do I stick with "Erudite" adult fiction?  That would mean I could continue to talk science fiction and fantasy with my friends.  And though I love perusing their bookshelves (it’s where I discovered The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss), there’s not a Harry Potter book, or any YA whatsoever on their overflowing shelves.  Sometimes I want to suggest The Hunger Games as a good read, but it’s a de facto no-no to stoop so low.  Such a Dauntless book is not Erudite.  Should I choose to be with friends who drink wine and engage in intellectual discussions sans YA?  This is a choice I do not want to make. 

An aptitude test determines which faction you should join, and it may not be the one your family lives in.  Going to another faction literally means leaving your parents, brothers, and sisters.  And if you fail a faction’s initiation, then you are factionless and join the ranks of the homeless and impoverished.  Roth has created a warped experiment of evolution.  Your identity is singled out, developed, and then passed on to the next generation.  Instead of tribalism based on ethnicity, this new tribalism of Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite involves an affinity for being selfless, peaceful, honest, brave, or intelligent respectively.  That’s how Roth takes the theme of belonging and turns it into a value judgement.

Yet there are those who are divergent.  They can belong to multiple factions since their tests are inconclusive.  And it’s the divergent whose lives are in danger.  If you want to know why, you’ll have to read the book.  No spoilers except for this, Roth transforms Chicago into a dystopia.

The Hancock Tower, a building I used to take family and friends to when I lived in Chicago during the 1990s, is now abandoned.  That northern part of town across the Chicago River is deserted and dilapidated.  It’s no longer the Magnificent Mile, the ritzy shopping district of Chicago.  So no more tourists seeing Lake Michigan from the ninety-fifth floor of the Hancock.  That lake is now a marsh.  And I can see the transformation in my mind’s eye.  This is a dystopia that’s fun for a (former) resident of Chicago.  Roth takes me into her imagination and changes Chicago’s landmarks and environment in a way that reminds me of the dystopian classic Escape From New York.

I’m happy this book is becoming a movie.  It’s like Harry Potter being given a knife instead of a sorting hat, with Tris surviving a faction initiation instead of Katniss surviving the Hunger Games.  I hope the big screen captures the struggle of making choices in Roth’s dystopia.  And when it comes to the factions of readers in adult and YA fantasy/sci fi, I choose to be divergent. 

By Mark Schelske