Although themes of death and dying have long been regular features of young adult fiction, it is only comparatively recently that they have begun to shed the mawkish sentimentality and reverential awe by which they were earlier conventionally characterised. John Green’s remarkable novel, focusing on the story of two American teenagers with differing forms of terminal cancer, has no time for such bullshit, to use a word he himself frequently employs.
It is clear from the first time we encounter Hazel and Augustus at their cancer support group that this is not going to be yet another predictable ‘cancer’ novel, replete with noble and stoical responses to an illness which will eventually rob two young people of their lives. Rather, as Hazel, its narrator, expresses it in the closing pages, ‘the problem is not suffering itself or oblivion itself but the depraved meaninglessness of these things, the absolutely inhuman nihilism of suffering’. In tracing the course of this ‘meaninglessness’ and ‘nihilism’, Green challenges his readers to confront a notion of death and dying which, paradoxically, sees them as an inevitable part of life, a life which, he insists, in spite of all its pain, discomfort and embarrassment, is to be savoured until its final moments.
The novel’s greatest strength is that he succeeds in doing this not in a didactic, moralising manner but in a way which sees his narrative illuminated throughout by wit and humour, some of it at times of the darker variety. It may be that occasionally the wisecracking Hazel and Augustus are bright, perky and, above all, articulate to a degree that stretches their credibility, but their verbal sparring must be seen in the overall stylistic context of a novel which is itself highly literary and which, in a postmodern sort of way, raises interesting questions about the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’. There are enough intertextual references here to keep doctoral researchers occupied for decades, starting with the veiled Shakespearean allusion in the title and proceeding via Kierkegaard, TS Eliot and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to William Carlos Williams’ ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ – with much else in between.
‘You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories,’ says Hazel at one point, ‘and we made the funny choice.’ Green too has opted for the ‘funny’ – in more senses than one – but what a wealth of profundity is encompassed in his approach!