Episode 3 – The Fault in Our Stars – On Connections
Hi. I’m M. Welcome to the third episode of Miscellany Media Reviews. Otherwise known as the episode in which I become incrediibly aware of the commitment I have made in terms of producing a podcast. So it’s the episode of existential dread. Or maybe that’s just me…?
Anyway, my mental crisis aside. Today, we’re talking about The Fault in Our Stars.
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The Fault in Our Stars (or TFIOS as the Nerdfighters know it) started as a 2012 novel by the bestselling novelist and internet presence John Green. Well, actually, it probably started as a more abstract collection of thoughts and ideas that John Green then turned into a novel, but let’s just draw a hard if not arbitrary line in the figurative sand at the novel stage. With the support of the Nerdfighter community, it shot to the top of the bestsellers list and stayed there long enough to get the attention of Hollywood executives who decided that they wanted a piece of that action. So then there’s another series of events that are a bit harder to trace, and on June 6, 2014, the TFIOS movie was released.
Now to lay some cards on the table and get all my biases out in the open, in this figurative book versus movie tug of war, I’m pretty far on team book, about as far as one can go. To me, writing just tends to be a more forgiving and capable medium, and when you go from book to movie something is always lost in translation. So in my mind, read the book before the movie or maybe just read the book and don’t see the movie at all. Etc etc but that’s a long conversation for another time.. But all the same, this review isn’t going to be about the book but the movie, though many of the things I’m about to say can apply to both.
The Fault in Our Stars is about Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old cancer patient, who—despite her ardent desire to completely withdraw from the world—meets another cancer sufferer who pulls her out of her shell through his charm, whit, and their shared loves for books especially books in which the author is pretty mysterious and reclusive.
Another caveat that I need to get out there. The storyline is absurdly spoilable. Absurdly so. So much so that when some books was prematurely released, a massive campaign had to be and was born to suppress any and all spoilers that may come as a result. In honor of that, I’m going to go ahead and call spoiler warning. Before anyone object, I’m well aware that there’s an ongoing debate about spoiler etiquette in situations like this in which a piece a media has been out for several years, especially at what point is it a “spoiler” versus just stating a fact that most people could be expected to know.
I recognize this, and that the book has been out for several years, but I don’t think that debate is necessarily relevant here, no matter where you draw that line in terms of time. The community has decided to keep their lips tight, and frankly, I don’t need to reveal anything to discuss it here.
I’m not going to discuss anything specific about the plot. Only the ideas the characters have at the beginning that they have to question and confront throughout the book or movie in this case—which happen to be the ideas that many young people have to combat with throughout their personal life journeys. Then again, maybe plot points aren’t the most important part of a story. (Music stops) Maybe you consider the character’s evolution as the central part. In which case, double spoiler warning. Maybe turn back now if you need to? Or pause and come back after you’ve either read the book or watched the movie. The movie is a faithful enough adaptation that either will work.
(New music starts)
Okay, so we’re back, or you never left. You know how they say two things and only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Well, it’s possible Hazel will never have to experience the latter, probably, because—you know—the former is going to take her before the latter becomes relevant. She was diagnosis with a form of thyroid cancer that then spread to her lungs, and just before she passed the point of no return, her team of doctors tried an experimental treatment that was able to stop the cancer’s takeover but couldn’t push it back or keep it at bay forever.
So now she’s at a standstill, staring death in the face but not getting any closer to it.
I won’t mislead you. I have no frame of reference for this experience. So I take all her thoughts and feelings at face value, lacking any schema with which to be overly critical.
With her death being so possible, Hazel can’t plan for her own future. She’s probably not going to have one. Instead, she finds herself thinking about the future of those around her, a future without her in it but instead will include the smoldering crater of where she once stood. The movie actually has a couple very clever shots in which the camera focuses on a small detail that caught Hazel’s attention, which then stands to represent a thought she will then dwell on for quite some time.
As she sees it, the only way to minimize the damage of this imminent explosion is to disengage from her life, withdraw, and be as much as a recluse as her parents will allow.
In doing so, she’s refusing to participate in the interconnected web of human existence that just forms simply through interaction. Really, any interaction can create some sort of bond, and Hazel’s trying to avoid literally all of them.
If that seems farfetched or an exaggeration in some way, can I offer a few examples from my own life to illustrate how inevitable this interlocking is? I don’t know why I asked. You can’t answer that. This is a podcast, and by any relative standard, I’m all powerful here. Neat.
Example one starts off with the acknowledgement that I’m a creature of habit and tend to go to the same coffee shop day to day. The shop changes as my job changes, but the act of going to a coffee shop is a part of my daily routine. A critical part of this routine. I hop on a bus that’s two or three buses earlier than the one I actually have to be on just to be sure that I’m not going to be late. It gives me a nice little arrival buffer in case of traffic. But then I’m stuck downtown with no place to go. I mean, I guess I could go to work early, but if you listen to the last episode, you’d understand that I’ve been burned once before and I’m now somewhat (in quotes here) ruined as an employee.
So one of the first things I do on that first day is find a nice coffee shop to hang out with and write in for the half hour or forty five minutes I have to spare before my actual work day starts. And because I’m a creature of habit, I go to the same place almost every day. But other than the words I need to use to order whatever I’m having on that day and pretty much every day, I don’t say a word to anyone.
And yet, I have some sort of connection to one of the women who regularly works behind the counter during my visits. I haven’t seen her lately, and admittedly, I never bothered to check her nametag. We had one moment of note in whatever pseudo-relationship it could be said we have. It happened one day when another patron, an older woman, was being dramatic during rush hour. (Music fades out and starts up again) Clearly this person was ready to sacrifice anyone to the unemployment line who did not bend the universe and the fabric of space and time to give her a perfectly toasted bagel instantaneously. Her outbursts of anger, however unjustified, summoned the manager. At first, he was just a set of hands who pushed the assembly line along, but once that phase was over, he reverted to the “damage control” mode a lot of managers have as an almost default setting.
So when my bagel (in quotes here) disappeared but really probably went to someone who hadn’t ordered a bagel but saw an opportunity in the chaos to get a free one. Even if I’m right in my hunger-generated suspicion, it wasn’t the fault of the employee but either the fault of the person who lied or the fault of the diva who caused the chaos but was then long gone. I could see that. I hope everyone with an ounce of common sense could see that if they were in my position. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just far too optimistic and have too much trust in humanity.
The manager apologized profusely when I brought this to his attention. His words sounded genuine, but I could see the glare he was giving his employee from the corner of his eye. And I could see her reaction.
“These things happen,” I said politely but with force. “It’s the busiest time of day for you guys. Maybe you should have come out sooner. You know, maybe you should actually work.”
Yeah, I’m not pretending it’s a triumphant moment or anything like that, but it was a small jab at a slight injustice that I could actually do something about. It shifted the conversation and any fault from her to him, through the supposedly infallible lens of the customer. She smiled at me. Then and every day since.
I haven’t seen her in a while. And it worries me. I wonder if she’s okay, or if another mishap happened on a day I wasn’t there to stand up for her.
Example two. There was this professor in college I was never close to but whose class I had enjoyed and who had shown me a kindness I did not think I could expect. Long after his class was over, I had frequent nightmares about him, and these lasted for about two and a half years. I kept dreaming of his death, a horrible one at that. But we were never close enough for me to tell him.
But even if I can’t say this to him, it doesn’t change that his death—particularly in the manner I was seeing—would have been a grenade in my life.
This may seem like a rehashing of what I said in the last episode, the episode of the human tendency to care. That’s not intentional but inevitable in many ways.
Connection, the subject of this episode, comes with emotional investment. Connections make you care, and you connect with things you care about and you care about the things you are connected to. They are two equally important parts of one whole. In this phenomenon, Within the Wires was more descriptive in that Roimata was already emotionally invested, but in TFIOS, Hazel’s philosophy is more prescriptive in that she is trying to prevent the very thing Roimata is experiencing.
To that end, Hazel is fairly guarded and isolated. And while cancer might have done some of the legwork in that regard, the act of refuses to go out is still her action. The most obvious example, of course, is her refusal to go to the cancer support group her mother and doctor suggests. And while you—dear listeners—might have your own opinion on the efficacy of support groups, you have to at least admit that the elephant that generally follows Hazel into every room (i.e. the cancer) would be locked out of that particular room. (Music fades out) After all, all the people in that room, in “the literally heart of Jesus” will have cancer, and while that won’t guarantee friendships by any means, it would help her odds. In fact, I’d posit this is partially way she is so adamant on not going. Not everyone in that room is terminal, like she is. And even then, it’s almost a race of who goes first.
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Defensive reflex or not, Hazel is incredibly nihilistic, as if that’s the only way to respond to such horror, tragedies, or grand injustices. Just embrace the void that swallows us all up. But that view is brought up and shown to be the destructive force it really is later on, just as its counterpart on the other part of the spectrum—the hollow platitudes of a distinct type of religious devotion—are seemingly mocked or at least deflated in the beginning of the story.
So what’s left? A love story of people who don’t typically get to have love stories. Or a love story seemingly doomed for despair. But then again, by some standards all love stories are.
Now, to avoid spoilers, I need to do a hard redirect, which—conveniently—will also explain why I wanted to break character and focus more on the movie than the book. Hint: it has to do with connecting to other people, what I’m arguing is a central if not unintentional theme of this story.
I wasn’t part of the book release party happening across the internet nor was I part of the mass anti-spoiler campaign happening just prior. It would be another eight or nine months before I even met the person who would someday introduce me to Nerdfighteria and another six or more months before I actually read TFIOS and then binge-watched every Vlogbrothers video. By then, the hype around the release was long gone, but the excitement about the movie was just simmering. In the world of John Green adaptations, there have been plenty of false starts, so many that cautious optimism was the only proper response to the movie speculations. But in time, the movie became more and more real, but this slow born of excitement was perfect for me and really anyone to jump right into.
By the time summer 2014 came around, I was fully swept up in the current, anxiously awaiting the release date. But by then, at that time, excitement had become something of my default state.
It was the summer before my senior year of college, and even though I was on the edge of a giant shift in my life—the one known as college graduation—I was still absurdly happy and carefree. Life was good. I had just finished an amazing semester with amazing classes, and I had a pretty epic senior thesis planned out. Oh and the rest of senior year looked great, too, but I was starting all the reading for my thesis that summer, so it was at the forefront of my mind and was—thus—pretty relevant to my emotional state.
On the other hand, the summer did mean going back to Arizona. Going home is nice, for most people. Just not for me. The past trips home had been something I dreaded. For so many reasons, I hated being in Arizona. For the record, there are some valid complaints one could levy against Arizona. It’s not a perfect place. No place is. But I think some of the problems I had with Arizona—and these were my worst complaints, mind you—were divorced from the physical or real Arizona and instead were grounded in an abstract conceptualization of the state.
You see, I had a largely negative community built around me, and that could have happened anywhere. Also, I’m using the term negative in a very subjective and loose sense. Point being, it’s more about personality than it is geography. Once again, that may have its benefits, but I had either been surrounded by—or more likely—had surrounded myself with—people who were one way in another detrimental to my own wellbeing. However it happened, it was unintentional for all parties involved. People just congregated together. (Music cuts) People just went about their daily lives in a shared space at the same time. Nets of humans, as I’ve discussed, just happened. But this specific net of people only had a space for someone who wasn’t me.
(Music starts again)
I just couldn’t fit into that hole, and it wasn’t like I didn’t try to. Instinctively, I did.
I’m sure a lot of other people have had that experience. Either you’ve outgrown the space that was once designated for you or had been yours. Or, on the other hand, that place was never meant for someone like you, and you just fell into it by default.
When that happens, it’s much easier to try and cram yourself into that space than it is to accept the truth that you cannot belong because you need to be some place n the world, right? And whatever you have to change or contort or outright give up just feels like a small price to pay for whatever safety or sense of security that space—that shelter—can provide.
I’ve been completely alone before. Or at least, it felt that way. I’m sure if I banged on my wall the neighbors would have woken up to yell at me. That’s something. It’s just nothing substantive, nothing I really needed, or nothing that would count on many levels. What I’m trying to say, in a roundabout way, is that knowledge of what it felt like to be alone kept me willing to make a thousand sacrifices for little pay off. And then I went off to college, realized that I did have some sort of place in the world, in the broader interconnectedness of human existence. An authentic one. It would just never be in Scottsdale, and the best thing I could do for myself was buy a one way ticket out.
For now, though, I had one more summer before I could leave forever. And despite all the things I had to be happy about and despite the knowledge that leaving forever could only benefit me, I was still left to face the consequences of my imminent departure from the place that had been my world for so long.
It’s different, yes, in that my situation is an innate good while Hazel’s is innately tragic, but there’s a similar difficult to define surreal-ness that comes from being on the way out. Last time seeing people, last conversations, last encounters. Last time going to the local frozen yogurt place with the people I grew up with. By that point in my life, I’d had more than my fair share of goodbyes, and let me say, it’s not something you get better at in time. And to avoid that, I was going to avoid all those situations and people that required any acknowledgment of that finality, that cessation, or dissolution of anything that could vaguely or remotely be considered a possible future. Somehow, it was easier to think that the end had already happened and happened without fanfare than it was to live with the dread, struggling to brace myself for that moment.
My senior thesis made for a good excuse whenever I needed one. The senior thesis is, after, is an important institution. That can’t really be argued. Mine was a melding of young adult dystopian literature and political theory, which would then require intense and thorough study and notetaking. Consequently, it made sense to be a recluse. That is, until the TFIOS movie came out. Then all human interaction required to get to that movie was completely worth it.
I saw it twice opening weekend. And, strangely enough, both of these viewing play well to the theme.
I saw it with my mother first and then with my best friend, and had it gone the other way, had the viewing with my mom happened second, she and I would have never gone at all. Because for all her attempts at understanding my world and all the pieces I use to build it, she can’t seem to wrap her head around watching a movie twice in the same calendar year never mind the same weekend.
Actually, Mom’s not really into movies at all. She doesn’t dislike the medium, but it’s not something she really enjoys even when she can watch it in her own home. Going to a theatre—with all the extra money and effort—to her, just super isn’t worth it to her.
I begged her to go opening day. And she agreed with surprisingly little fight. She and I went right when she got done with work. Now, this was not my best idea. Maybe she didn’t put up a fight, but I should have known better. In fact, I did. I knew she probably wouldn’t like it. She didn’t like movies. She especially doesn’t like sad movies or any movie that is in any way sad. And I think all parents might have some easiness uneasiness just from the premise alone. But she agreed, simply because it would make me happy.
(Music stops and new music fades in)
It’s hard for either of us to admit out loud, but she and I had been in a rough patch for several years. It’s like, in a very vague sense, how they say a couple whose child died will either come together to form an unbreakable bond or be torn asunder by their own misery. Such is the power of loss. To drastically change connections no matter how carefully forced.
For us, it wasn’t the loss of a child that divided us, but the loss of my father. There’s a nagging voice in my mind that tells me that I don’t have the right to be so upset about this. That there’s something inevitable about losing a parent, considering that’s just how the natural order works. As for my mother, statistically speaking, she was going to outlive my dad. Women tend to outlive men. But his death happened far too soon and far too suddenly. And it’s something we struggled to recover from.
But the main problem was that Mom and I just have such different personalities that we are dependent or we were dependent on a mediating force for our relationship to work. Dad had been that mediating force. And in his absence, we’ve only grown for more desperate for him.
The only solution we could find was living two very separate lives in two very separate states. It’s as complete and total a break as we could manage without diving fully into estrangement territory. We texted frequently, but we didn’t do much more than that, which wasn’t great, but to me, if we weren’t fighting, I was happy.
But by agreeing to go that movie, she was saying that she wanted more. She wanted to get to know me and join me in things I was excited for.
So did she enjoy it? Did she come bursting out of the theatre the newest citizen of Nerdfighteria? Super nope on all counts and all variations of that question. The movie was everything she wouldn’t like, and true to form, she didn’t like it.
When we walked back to the car, she had a few questions about the plot and how well it matched up with the book I loved so much. Once I answered them, we never spoke of it again. In fact, I almost forgot about the whole thing until I received a package from her in the mail a couple weeks ago. She sent me a copy of John Green’s earlier book Paper Towns. Do you know why? She was in the bookstore getting a gift for someone else when she saw it on a display, one of those promotional ones meant to instigate impulse buys. She thought it was a new release, and she was beyond excited to get it to me.
Of course, Paper Towns has been out for a while. I already had a copy, and I’ve read it multiple times. Those types of displays aren’t just for new releases. She didn’t know better, and frankly I didn’t need her to. The important thing is that she was trying, and it makes me think we have a chance.
After that viewing, the next day, I think, my childhood best friend asked if I wanted to go with her and her sister when they went to see TFIOS. Now, she knew I’d already seen it. Everyone knew I had already seen it. What limited social interaction I had with all the people I was trying to avoid centered around the movie I had just seen and telling everyone how much I loved it. It was all I wanted to talk about. In fact, it was all I could handle talking about, given all the things I’ve stated above.
And yes—dear listeners—if you’re wondering, it was a good movie for fans of the book or for people who’ve never heard of John Green.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Now this best friend of mine was in her own category. Let’s call her A. I had spent far too much time my junior year of college spamming A with Vlogbrothers videos. At that point, she wasn’t really into that scene, but she was getting there. In fact, now, I think she’s more into Hank Green’s projects than she is John’s, but hey, she’s an engineer. What are you going to do?
She and her sister were going to TFIOS on Sunday afternoon, and she wanted to know if I wanted to come. Sure, common sense would say inviting me was somewhat pointless or other softly negative adjectives. Hey, I was hearing all of that from my mom too. And accepting her invitation, just shifted the fault from her to me. The only reason I had to go was wanting to see that movie yet again, and frankly, wanting to see that movie was enough reason for me.
As for the reason behind her invitation, well, I think—or I like to think—that she really wanted to see me as well as the move (but emphasis still on the movie). Because, like I said, I’d been home for a month as a pseudo-scholar locked up in my workspace and pretending to read. Despite our previous, almost lifelong closeness, I hadn’t even broken my isolation to see her.
So at this point, would it help if I clarified who exactly A is rather than making these passing comments? A is my childhood best friend. We met in kindergarten and became close in first grade. We had almost all of our classes together in elementary school, with the sole exception being fourth grade. But that year, we played a duet together in the school talent show, so it’s even I guess.
She was also the only friend of mine to visit me in the hospital when my father was dying or to attend his memorial service. I like to think that I braced her through her parents’ divorce, just so we’re somewhat but I’ve never been the most emotionally available person.
We fit together so well, but there was one key difference between us. She didn’t want to leave Arizona. Nor did she need to. That was her home. So it seems inevitable that we were going to drift apart. Almost literary if not for the speed of airplanes. (Music stops) And this friendship was the one thing I didn’t want to give up, but I didn’t have a choice.
(Music starts again)
Honestly, if I didn’t love that movie so much I might not have gone. It was easier to cancel than it was to face the not zero chance that if I went to the movies with her that it would be the last time we actually hung out together. And you know what? Cancelling—even the part where you have to come up with the justification or the excuse—does get easier in time. Then again, at some point, people will stop asking you why so it’s like an easy mode gets unlocked?.
And look, I did want to see A again. I just didn’t want the emotional baggage that came with doing so.
So, does this viewing have its own grand epiphany couple with it? Was that trip to the movies life changing? Did John Green salvage our friendship?
Nope. It was just a normal movie outing between friends, and I don’t even remember the conversation we had after, just the awkward air that hung over us.
But it had been good to see her. It was good to be with her again.
I actually had a conversation with A the other day that made this break between us all the more obvious. We’re still connected in some way, by the skeletal remains of all that came before which gets preserved by Facebook and other digital companies. Considering the past, a full break will never be possible, but that isn’t to say the disconnected present state doesn’t still hurt in some ways. But not all pains are created equal by any means.
“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have a say in who hurts you,” or so the story goes.
There are certain relationships that can’t be saved. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth having. The pains of the future can’t overwrite the good times of the past unless we let them.
A will always be a critical part of my life story. I don’t know where I would have been without her in that horrible time in my life. Maybe not so well put together, using that term loosely because admittedly, I’m still a bit of a hot mess, and rather than let the pain of our estrangement overshadow the good times we had, it makes me treasure them. This may only be possible only because, nothing could truly make me hate the TFIOS movie. (Music stops) Which means I’m always going to look back on that last outing together with rose-colored lenses. It made for good training wheels during this cosmic shift in my life. But no, I don’t regret my choices. In the grand cost/benefit analysis of my life, I feel confident that I’m coming out ahead.
(New music starts)
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