As I write this, I am watching "The Matrix" on AMC. This is my absolute favorite movie of all time. They just "woke" Neo from the dreamworld of the Matrix, and he's about to find out what the real world actually is. This movie is visually stunning in so many ways. I've used it to teach about viewing movies with a critical eye. It's just a delight for a film junkie like me to watch, even if this is the fiftieth time I've seen it (at least). In addition to its visual appeal, "The Matrix" is a wonderful story about being the master of your own destiny, fate versus free will, and the dangerous reach of technology. It is wholly original.
Which brings me to Veronica Roth's Divergent, a dystopian novel set in a futuristic Chicago. What does Divergent have to do with "The Matrix?" Nothing, and that's my point. Where "The Matrix" is a highly inventive, groundbreaking movie, Divergent is a remix of The Hunger Games trilogy with a bit of The Giver thrown in for good measure.
As much as her name resembles that of a character out of The Crucible, Beatrice Prior lives not in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts, but in post-apocalyptic Chicago. The city (The country? The world? Roth never reveals what lies beyond Lake Shore Drive) has been divided into five factions, each inhabited by people who embody that faction's virtue: Amity, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, and Abnegation (SAT word alert! Couldn't Roth have just used Selfless?). At age 16, kids choose the faction in which they will spend the rest of their lives. Generally, that means staying in the faction you're born into. But not for Beatrice. Never feeling like she wholly belongs in the selfless realm of Abnegation, Beatrice chooses Dauntless. She doesn't know if she's right for Dauntless either, but at least she won't be bored.
As she goes through the miserable, tortuous, often gratuitous initiation process in Dauntless, "Tris" makes a few friends and a few enemies, falls for her initiation trainer (whose name is Four, by the way, which tripped me up occassionally because it wasn't always immediately obvious whether "Four" was referring to the number or the person), leaps from the roof of a skyscraper more than once, and saves her city (world?) from the evil Erudites. Along the way, Tris's narrative treats us to buckets of blood-soaked violence and the usual teenage sexual longing.
So? You're thinking that Divergent doesn't sound too much like The Hunger Games, except for the choosing ceremony, the training, the smarter-and-braver-than-she-thinks-she-is heroine, and the civil war. What's my beef with this book exactly? I don't think Veronica Roth gives us a new and interesting heroine here, at least not yet. Tris is Katniss with tattoos. The cadence of her speech, her temperament, her gritty vulnerability- they all mimic Katniss, leaving Tris without an original voice. My hope is that as the trilogy develops, Tris will find her own authentic voice. I also hope that Roth develops some of the other characters into rounder, fuller individuals. The bad guys in Divergent are so bad, just through and through evil with no redeeming qualities, they seem like characatures. And a couple of the more interesting characters got themselves killed already, so I assume they won't be around for books two and three.
I have one other issue with Divergent: Since when does covering your body in tattoos and piercings equal bravery? How does erudition equate with greed? And why can't children in Abnegation ask questions at the dinner table or look in a mirror? I get what Roth was going for here. In order to have conflict big enough for war, she wanted the groups to show the extremes of their factions' qualities. But, it's too much. What is so brilliant about Lois Lowry's The Giver is the delicacy of its characters. All of them, from Jonas to Asher to the Giver are so finely drawn. Real people aren't so brutally evil or so utterly selfless. Real people are a messy amalgam of goodness and immorality, nobility and ambivalence; extremes, but also in-betweens. I didn't get that from Divergent, and that was disappointing.
I'm sure that Divergent will find an audience. Kids who are lost without Katniss but who feel a bit too old for Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles will enjoy Roth's series. At least, they'll enjoy the first book. If, by the third, she has not fleshed these characters out into whole people, patience may run thin.