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A Divergent Review

  • Posted on August 18, 2014 at 10:00 AM

I can’t remember for sure, but I think my initial reaction to the buzz about Veronica Roth’s Divergent was, “Not another dystopian novel!” I didn’t pay much attention to the hype; then again, I rarely ever do. Besides, I rarely have the time to devote to leisure reading, so I tend to stick to books that I know I’ll like—it’s not like there aren’t enough of those to keep me entertained for the next few decades.

At some point, I caught on to the premise of the story. Tris, the main character, is different in a world (or what’s left of it) that considers difference a bad thing. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Except, this story is set in the remnants of Chicago after a cataclysmic war. If you know anything about contemporary Chicago, then you know its population is full of diversity and probably couldn’t get over being different in any foreseeable future, no matter how devastated that future might be. If the movie is any indication, then this attribute of Chicago is at least partially recognized in Roth’s vision because the movie shows at least some of the racial differences that can be seen in contemporary Chicago. The cultural differences, however, have been sacrificed for the sake of survival. In their place, new differences have emerged, dependent solely on the dominant nature of the individuals: intellectuals, self-sacrificing servants, compassionate agriculturalists, honest judges, and courageous warriors.

Based on the movie (I still haven’t gotten a chance to read the book), I’d have to say that I fit most closely with the Erudite or intellectuals. It’s not because I’m power-hungry, as they prove to be in the movies, but because, especially through my young adulthood, I have usually valued my intellect the most. I can be selfless, I can be brave, I can be kind, and I can be honest. In fact, I try to be all of those things most of the time. But if I had to choose just one, then I would go with intelligence, because I like to solve problems by thinking them through.

Based on the issue of conformity, rather my lack thereof, I would be divergent as it’s described in the movie. Then again, so would most of the people I know. Whether that’s a reflection of the people I know or whether it’s a reflection of the impracticality of the faction ideal, I don’t know. Still, the idea that nonconformists are perceived by those that hold down the status quo is very familiar.

The world is full of people in the here and now that view difference, divergence, and non-conformity as threats to their way of life, even when the people who are different, divergent, and non-conforming don’t actually have anything to do with their life. That is very true to human nature and that fear is the source of the most violent, dangerous aspects of human nature. Ironically, it’s also those parts of human nature that Erudite Jeanine embraced—that and the desire for power.

Giving the selfless the responsibility to govern and administer was a wise allocation of human resources, if a rather futile one. The people who want power the least are those who are going to treat it most responsibly, but they are also the least likely to hold onto it. This is why, despite our best efforts and our best claims about public service, we haven’t been able to create a government or nonprofit sector that consistently serves and protects the interests of all of the people. Unfortunately, these sectors tend to fail the people who are in the most danger the most frequently, because they are inevitably those with the least power.

In the movie, the solution is for a few brave souls to stand up, challenge the power-hungry destroyers, and save the day. In reality, it’s rarely so simple. Government bends in the face of power, especially the power of the most powerful of its own people. The least powerful are in the most danger, precisely because they lack the power to make the government bend towards them. In a democratic state, the only defense we have is to stand together; weaving what power we have into a stronger tapestry than any of us can make for ourselves. By working together and fighting for and with each other, we show those in power that we have enough power that we’re worth bending towards. This isn’t accomplished by separating into factions, but by uniting under a banner of freedom and equality, regardless of the differences that make us “divergent.” Therein lies our power.

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

  • Posted on July 9, 2012 at 8:00 AM

This movie about the problems a child, particularly a child with neurological differences, has in processing events that, in the mother’s words, just don’t make sense.  A little boy loses his father, whom he identifies with and who understands him, to the 9/11 attacks.  A year later he finds a key; keys unlock something; and he thinks if he can find what the key unlocks he can hold onto his father for a little longer, maybe forever.  The unspoken message is that he hopes, by fulfilling this mission, he can make sense of his father’s death.

But his father’s death doesn’t make sense.  Some things don’t, no matter how hard we try to make sense of them.  As human beings, we have to live with the nonsensical.  But some of us struggle with that more than others.

I never endured a significant loss and I never lived anywhere quite as busy and overwhelming as New York City.  As a child, I wasn’t nearly so conscious of my own anxiety or my sensory overload.  Yet, I identify with the little boy in this movie as he struggles to overlay order on chaos, as he tries to make sense of the nonsensical, as he clings to what provided him with comfort and understanding, as he fights against his own limitations, and as he experiences the world with a heightened sense of determination.

I also get the mother, who isn’t quite like her son, who has been left without the interpreter that helped her to meet his needs, and her determination—and struggle—to fill in the large gap left by her husband while dealing with her own grief and loneliness and confusion and pain.

But there is another side of this.  A side that could give advocates fits.

This movie could be perceived one of two ways:

  • It skirts the implications of an Asperger’s diagnosis by focusing on the experiences of the main character without labeling them.
  • It abdicates its “responsibility” to make a conscious point concerning the limiting effects of diagnostic politics in providing appropriate care and support to those who need it.

As a writer, I understand why it would be important to skirt the issue of autism.  For one, unless you live it, it’s very difficult to research well enough to satisfy the critics among those who do live it.  Somebody’s always going to find fault with your portrayal, even if you are intimately familiar with autism, because you’re not intimately familiar with their autism.  Second, by labeling the experiences of a character, you tend to distance viewers who don’t identify with the label from the character’s experiences.  Third, by labeling a character, you label your movie in a way that dominates the story.  So, I can certainly empathize with the decision not to label the character.

On the other hand, involving people with the appropriate label can minimize criticism of your portrayal while also grounding the character in reality.  Labeling the character also validates the truth that stories about people who are labeled in a similar manner are worth telling, which also validates the humanity of those who share the label.  Finally, by labeling a character you challenge people’s preconceived prejudices that people who carry the label are “other” and therefore they cannot be identified with.  So, I can certainly empathize with those who are disappointed in the choice not to label the character.

Perhaps more importantly, the choice to almost label the character brings up an entirely new issue.  According to the main character, the tests for Asperger’s were inconclusive.  By what the movie shows, the child was challenged with a disability.  He faced barriers to his goals that consisted of the combination of his own neurology and a world designed not to accommodate his neurology.  Over the course of the story, he had to face and overcome (or not) those barriers himself.  Yet the movie doesn’t address how the lack of a label prevented the boy from accessing services that could have helped him.  The movie didn’t address the unfairness or inadequacy of services, which it could and arguably should have done.

So, while I applaud the story, I can’t help but be disappointed in the lack of a conscious attempt to address the failure to effectively support this family—at least, to acknowledge that supports, accommodations and other services could have benefited this family.