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shatter me

26 may 2012

The latest kick-ass teenage girl rescues world from totalitarian dystopian regime novel that I've read is Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me, an exciting if preposterous exercise in Young Adult fantasy.

In Shatter Me, a society once recognizably suburban-American has been ravaged by apocalypse. A grim, egalitarian collective seizes control, and people allow themselves to be oppressed, while all the people want is "a chance to be normal" (240)

They wanted to believe they could go back to worrying about gossip and holiday vacations and going to parties on Saturday nights, so The Reestablishment promised a future too perfect to be possible and society was too desperate to disbelieve. . . . They said they would help us get back to the world we knew—the world with movie dates and spring weddings and baby showers. (61, 63)
That's about the extent of the geopolitics in Shatter Me. On the one hand, it sounds like Glenn Beck's much-wished-for nightmare of an Obama second term: a grey socialist dystopia that forbids Fourth-of-July picnics. But there's a gesture at eco-criticism; one of the resistance leaders says
Our people are dying because we are feeding them poison. Animals are dying because we are forcing them to eat waste, forcing them to live in their own filth, caging them together and abusing them. (307)
Sounds like the rebels have managed to preserve a few copies of Food, Inc. from the apocalypse. And then there's a weird non-sequitur when some rebels get injured: "Health insurance was a dream we lost a long time ago" (240). So if the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare, maybe it will lead to the world of Shatter Me?

In any case, our story relegates these political musings to the background. We are mostly concerned with the fate of 17-year-old Juliette Ferrars. (By Fair Verona out of Sense & Sensibility, evidently.) Juliette narrates the novel from her prison cell. She does so by writing in a journal, using the annoying typographical tic clever device of striking through words and sentences that she must suppress, and replacing them with ones that suit her self-audience better. The strikethrough habit gets old quickly, but to her credit, Mafi abandons it quickly, as Juliette finds her voice more confidently.

Juliette's in prison because she zaps everyone she touches with a killer energy field, or something. Her pre-apocalyptic world evidently did not contain the X-Men, because she never notices how she's kind of like Rogue, and later on she will meet characters very much like Magneto and Storm (Wolverine seems to be absent). I guess Juliette is not exactly like Rogue, though, because she can also bust through concrete and steel walls. At the end of the book, she gets a superhero uniform.

I am not making that stuff up, but on the other hand I am not really revealing much of the plot, either. It's a fast-paced prison-break story that derives inspiration from comic books, action movies, and video games. And it's erotic, in a guardedly YA fashion. Nobody can touch Juliette, under pain of zapping, except for two young men who are apparently immune to her supermojo but not to her incredible hotness. She broods steamily about Adam, but never quite consummates her desires with him. Meanwhile the despicable Werner, who spends the book channeling Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, also has the hots for her. She just wants to kill Werner, but dang it, he is one of two guys she can't kill. Where are superpowers when you need them?

Late in the novel, the budding relationship between Adam and Juliette reaches a formulaic YA-romance obstacle. Are they really boyfriend and girlfriend – are they really "together" (284)?

I have no idea what it means to be in a relationship. I don't know if saying "I love you" is code for "mutually exclusive," and I don't know if Adam was serious when he told James I was his girlfriend. . . . I wish he would say something to Kenji—I wish he would tell him that we're together officially, exclusively. (250)
I don't want to be hard on Juliette – she is after all a uniquely inexperienced 17-year-old. But honey, when there are only two men in the world who can touch you without going into anaphylactic shock, and one of them is in training to be a Bond villain, while the other one is sweet and heroic and keeps saving your life and says he loves you, you are probably the latter's exclusive girlfriend. I know guys aren't very expressive sometimes, but among factors in Adam's defense, the two of you are being pursued by the forces of absolute evil across the surface of a dying planet. You might want to wait till things relax a bit before pressuring the boy about commitment.

Mafi, Tahereh. Shatter Me. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.