A Young Adult “Ulysses”: Kelly Talks about Literature and “The Fault in Our Stars”

This is not a review! The Bibliomantics reviewed this in our book club on Feb 4th. This is in fact a poorly formed essay on the wonderful references and challenges to literature that is the backbone of The Fault in Our Stars. I didn’t want to hijack the aforementioned review, and have decided to write a separate entry. So, obviously, this is going to contain MASSIVE SPOILERS. And me blathering about capital “L” Literature in an overly-excited fashion.

You’ve been warned.

I blame this all on John Green. During the Tour de Nerdfighting, he mentioned the story of Odysseus among other literary stories. The guy disappears for ten years, and when he gets back home his wife is surrounded by suitors. Then the rivers ran red with their blood. As John said, that’s not how it should be. Penelope has every right to go on dates; she assumed he was DEAD. Plus – he was off cavorting with Calypso. Dude has no right to be mad. Anyway, John then spoke on wanting to create a tale that was not on this epic scale like in old romances (or coughTwilghtcough), in which love conquers everything – even time. Because that’s not how real life works.

This immediately rang my inner James Joyce alarm (Literature majors of Irish-descent get one implanted upon graduation). Okay – Ulysses in a nutshell. (Those who have read it will laugh at my attempt, but bear with me!) Ulysses follows the intersecting paths of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus during an ordinary day in Dublin – June 16, 1904, to be precise. Joyce uses the story of Odysseus as inspiration for the 18 episodes of which Ulysses is comprised. He turns the epic into the everyday. It’s insanely difficult and wonderful and I could gush about for pages. But I won’t. Instead, we’ll focus on the ballsy-as-hell James Joyce. In each episode, he writes in a different style, with each style deliberately evoking those literary greats that have come before him. Writing in their style while subverting their intent. Goddamn, I love James Joyce SO MUCH.

So what does this have to do with TFIOS? Everything! Seriously – things are about to get all SPOILERY up in here. Leave now or don’t blame me.

John Green is challenging our notion of great literary love stories in the same way Joyce answered the literary traditions of epic lives. Green does so by weaving in references to literary classics that deal with love and loss in in very different ways. Let’s start with the title – The Fault in Our Stars. As quoted from Julius Caesar by Peter Van Houten, “the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” Van Houten then states that this is so very wrong, and easy to say when you’re a nobleman with powerful friends. Because the fault lies in circumstance, not with Augustus and Hazel. Nothing they can do will change their circumstances, something that Hazel so painfully articulates: “This can never be enough for you. But this is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. This is your life. I’m sorry if it sucks.” Gus tries to find meaning and longevity in a world that will not provide it for him, but it’s no fault of his own.

So Green takes on The Bard in the title. Flip open the book, and we have the epigraph, written by some mysterious Peter Van Houten fellow. I’d never heard of him, so quickly typed the name into google. The results quickly revealed he was made up by John Green. Which immediately made me think of The Great Gatsby. This poem begins TGG:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

-Thomas Parke D’Invilliers

BUT D’Invilliers does not exist. Made up by Fitzgerald for a book about made up ideas of love and ladies and the American Dream. (Also is Daisy Buchanan the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl?? Let’s discuss.) Okay, so we have a play on Shakespeare and Fitzgerald before the damn book even begins. My English major heart is all aflutter at this point. But then I read TFIOS and I watched two people, two smart, funny, all around deserving people, fall in genuine love – and then one dies. And my heart was crushed into an infinite number of pieces.

Even as I cried, I asked myself – isn’t that the point? – in a world filled with promises of forever, with literature telling us that love conquers all and we deserve happiness, our reality is starkly different. Most people want to believe as Gus does. That the universe wants to be noticed and that our lives are incredibly important. As Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake “thinking always if I go all goes.” But John Green gives us Hazel, who calmly looks at her life and sees not the ruler of time and space, but a frail and transitory life. Yet even knowing her fate, she revels in being snarky and irreverent, and feels genuine compassion and love for the world.

In a way, John Green is even answering himself. The structure of this book evokes Looking for Alaska. There is a clear “before” and “after,” just like in Alaska (I’d argue it’s when we find out Gus is going to die). But the fact it’s not defined as such makes all the difference. Hazel is no Pudge. There is no pining over an idealized person. Hazel is there through the death of a person she knows and loves intimately. The romance is far more realistic than anything achieved in Alaska, as this time its mutual. There is resiliency and pain mixed in with tenderness.

And there are so many more references – William Carlos Williams’ “Tract” at Gus’ funeral, Wallace Stevens, and Emily Dickinson woven in there. Of course Anne Frank’s diary, which is the story that most honestly resembles Hazel’s. While I would love to go through them all and do close readings, I think you would probably never read this blog again if I tried to put you through that. But humor me once more as I bring it back to Ulysses.

The last episode of Ulysses is done in stream of consciousness style, from the perspective of Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife. There are marital problems, which form a major conflict in the book. However, the book ends with this line “yes I said yes I will Yes.” It is Molly recounting how she accepted Bloom’s proposal, and (as I choose to read it!) an ultimately affirmative end to the book. So I flip to the last page of TFIOS and read. And my eyes hit the last lines “I do, Augustus. I do.” Molly’s lines were clearly evoked here. And I think my sadness reached a new level as I think that Gus will never hear her response, but then I read it again. I do. It is also an affirmation, an affirmation that their time together was important and worth it. Even if it was fleeting.

There is importance in the everyday. For it’s in the everyday that we exist. It’s there that we find ourselves watching Tyra Banks teaching girls how to “smize”; where we learn that our parents aren’t infallible; where we fall in love. We don’t often look back on memories with a panoramic view. It’s a much smaller scale: the image of a boy, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. The foreign taste of champagne on your tongue in a city thousands of miles from home.  To quote my favorite David Foster Wallace line (something ringing in my head throughout the entire book): “The capital-T Truth is about life before death.” To me, The Fault in Our Stars is ultimately about this concept. To be engaged and creating our own meaning, even as we know it’s only important in our brief infinity.

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2 thoughts on “A Young Adult “Ulysses”: Kelly Talks about Literature and “The Fault in Our Stars”

  1. I never got that bell installed. =( I think the Jew in me outweighed the Irish in me. Not fair! I will try to read “Ulysses” by the end of the year. I didn’t make it one of my resolutions but I will try my hardest.

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