May 3, 2010

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

First things first: GHDFGHGH!1@

This isn’t quite a review.

Whatever this is, it won’t include a synopsis of any kind: Monsters of Men is the final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, a brilliant YA dystopia, and at this point I can’t possibly talk about the plot without giving too much away. Apologies in advance for that.

A few days ago, my friend Stormfilled was saying on Twitter that she feels too close to the Chaos Walking Trilogy as a story to be able to assess what Patrick Ness has done here as a writer. That’s exactly how I feel about it myself: if someone tells me they didn’t love it because the pacing was too fast, for example, or because the odd spellings got on their nerves, part of me goes, “But...that’s how it happened! It really was that fast!”, or “But… that’s Todd’s voice! He can’t help it! He never learned to read and write because the Mayor closed the schools!”

See what I mean? Part of me can’t step away from the story enough to stop thinking about it as something that happened and see it as something that was written. Obviously I know this is a book (otherwise I’d probably be well on my way to the loony bin), but my emotional investment is such I just can’t quite analyse it as a piece of fiction – not just yet. And while this probably makes me unable to say anything about this series that will be of use to those who aren’t already under its spell, I hope it’ll still be enough to intrigue you. Because don’t you love it this happens? When a story feels so real that until you finish it you walk around in a haze, worrying about the characters? That when you do finish it, you feel bereaved because you won’t get to spend more time with them? Don’t you love getting this invested in a fictional world, in what’s going on the lives of a group of fictional characters?

If I’m not waiting until I acquire some critical distance to write this post, it’s because I think that perhaps there’s a place in conversations about books for an emotionally overwhelming response to a story. This is part of what literature can do, is it not? I don’t think this kind of response is necessarily less relevant than a more collected intellectual one – I don’t even think the two are really mutually exclusive. Yes, this series grabbed me by the gut, but the reason for that is as much what it does as a piece of storytelling as it is what it does thematically. It’s as much the characters and how much I grew to care about them as it is the questions the story asks, and how much these matter to my life – to all of our lives, really. For this reason, I can’t really separate my emotional and my intellectual responses to these books. And I suspect that the fact that the two are inseparable is yet another signal of how excellent this series is.

As I said back when I posted about the first and the second books, there’s so much here: feminism, the nature of prejudice, our potential for violence, totalitarianism, terrorism, propaganda, complex and extremely painful ethical conundrums, and, in Monsters of Men in particular, war. The book’s title comes from the quote “war makes monsters of men”, and over the course of 600 pages we see again and again how much that’s true—and yet not. Because at the heart of these books is the inescapable fact that although people are often placed in monstrous situations and do monstrous things, there is, in fact, no such thing as a monster. Nobody is devoid of humanity. This isn’t to say that these books aren’t peopled with some truly unpleasant characters, but even they are portrayed as nothing but human beings. Dehumanising our adversaries often makes things easier to deal with, but Todd and Viola are far too honest and smart to be allowed that kind of cop-out.

The battle scenes in Monsters of Men are some of the most painful I’ve ever read – the reason being the fact that Patrick Ness uses multiple points of view expertly to make sure we never, ever forget that there are real people on both sides. We see real people dying, real people killing or being killed, real people for whom someone out there will grieve. Throughout the book, several characters are forced to confront the impossibility of making war personal, and also the impossibility of not making it personal. It’s always personal, because it’s always about real living beings. And perhaps not acknowledging this is where our troubles begin.

In Monsters of Men, it’s those who can confront the fact that they’re capable of killing to save someone they love who work the hardest to stop the war. Because they accept that under certain circumstances they are capable of committing acts of violence, they never slip into self-righteousness. And that means there ceases to be a saintly “us” and a monstrous “them”. There’s only people; people doing kind and cruel and brave and cowardly and horrible and admirable things, all in a muddle. But such is life, and it’s worth preserving all the same. Then there’s of course the fact that true ethical choices are not about deciding we’re incapable of doing certain things – they’re about acknowledging that we could do them, but still deciding not to.

This series’ other obvious major themes are communication, information overload, and the desire to control everything that we know – or the lack thereof. In this final book, Mayor Prentiss is contrasted with another character, whose identity I can’t reveal to avoid spoilers, but who responds to the overload of the Noise in a diametrically opposite way to the Mayor’s. For those who haven’t read the series, the Noise is a consequence of a virus that infects humans when they arrive to the planet where the story is set, and which makes the thoughts of boys and men audible to anyone near them. This is yet another thing that makes many of the characters wear their humanity on their sleeves – it makes them vulnerable and all too real to one another. How different characters respond to that kind of exposure tells us a whole lot about them.

The Mayor learns to silence his Noise and to use everyone else’s to control them, while this other character learns to be comfortable with being that vulnerable, that completely aware of how real the other living beings around him are. What makes the Mayor such an interesting villain is that his reaction to the Noise is actually understandable: yes, it’s easy to be crushed and hardened by the things we know. In a world in which we know so much, in which distances are meaningless, in which an earthquake in Chile feels personal because someone you know online lives there, in which our moments of vulnerability can be perpetuated and exposed before the whole world, this is something that really resonated with me. What we know can harden us, crush us, drive us mad. But it can also make us care. That’s the best we can hope for; that it’ll make us care.

As I read Monsters of Men, I was reminded of the final lines from “Lead”, one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems: I tell you this / to break your heart, / by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world. These lines are an apt description of what many of these characters go through. Being this open, connecting to others, remaining emphatic, refusing to be hardened or to see monsters where there are only vulnerable and flawed sentient beings: as Todd would put it, it all effing hurts. But you have to let it hurt, because the alternative is so much worse.

One final comment on one of the many brilliant things Patrick Ness does here – though I should warn you that perhaps this is something you’ll want to find out for yourselves as you read the book. The same sex couples in this story: wow. He simple has them there, with no fanfare, no apologies, no explanations. They exist, they love, they grieve, they’re fully human. And then suddenly you notice something about the pronouns in a certain sentence and you go, “oh”. I absolutely wish there was no “oh”; I wish we lived in a world where this was frequent enough to be unremarkable, but the fact remains that it isn’t. Yes, we notice the pronoun in a sentence like “you loved him” – in my case with joy, but sadly not in everyone’s. Yet in the world of the story, nothing draws attention to these characters’ sexual orientation in particular. They’re simply there, human and vulnerable and in love and experiencing grief, same as everyone else. This is one of many, many reasons why I love Patrick Ness so effing much.

This series is the best thing that happened to my personal reading life in recent times – and in my humble opinion, one of the best things that ever happened to speculative fiction and to YA. Please read it – read it right now.

Favourite passages (warning: the first one contains a minor spoiler)
I look back down at Lee’s face, what I can see of it under the bandages, the bottom of his nose just poking out, his mouth open and breathing heavy, his blonde hair in my hands, sticky with blood. I can feel him underneath my fingertips, the injured warmth of his skin, the weight of his unconscious body.
He’s never going to be the same again, never ever, which makes my throat choke and my chest hurt.
This is what war does. Right here, in my hands. This is war.

…Mistress Coyle agreed, and Simone set to work, planning the whole thing with the absolute focus on capturing a Spackle and sending it back with a message of peace.
Which seems strange after we’ve killed so many of them to do it, but it’s been obvious since the beginning that wars make no sense. You kill people to tell them you want to stop killing them.
Monster of men, I think. And women.

“But you can’t make war personal,” I say, “or you’ll never make the right decisions.”
“And if you didn’t make personal decisions, you wouldn’t be a person. All war is personal somehow, isn’t it? For somebody? Except it’s usually hate.”
“Lee—”
“I’m just saying how lucky he is to have someone love him so much they’d take on the whole world.” His Noise is uncomfortable, wondering what I’m looking like, how I’m responding. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“He’d do it for me,” I say quietly.
I’d do it for you too, Lee’s Noise says.
And I know he would.
But those people who die because we do it, don’t they have people who’d kill for them?
So who’s right?

32 comments:

Susi (The Book Affair) said...

I'm normally not that big on YA fiction, but 'The Hunger Games' have completely changed my opinion. I'll definitely look out for this trilogy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Nymeth said...

The thing about YA is that it's not much more than a marketing niche, which is to say, the label YA doesn't say much at all about the tone, complexity, or content of the books it's applied to. Which is why I always want to get on my soapbox when people call it a genre :P But anyway, I hope you do enjoy this series when you get around to it. As you *might* have noticed, it's a big favourite of mine ;)

Melody said...

Yikes! I still haven't read this series yet! But I'm glad that I've all the books in my pile now (just bought the final book earlier!). :D

Nymeth said...

On the other hand, it's actually good that you waited until they were all out, Melody. You won't suffer the horrors we suffered at the end of books 2 and 3 :P

Stormfilled said...

Perfect response! I think you're right, sometimes that 'omg omg' response needs to be shared. I was very grateful for Twitter while reading this, somewhere to just squee for a bit. Thanks for saying all the things that my brain won't let me formulate! :) (Go #teamboycolt).

Ladytink_534 said...

I don't remember hearing anything about these books but it sounds interesting!

Amanda said...

While I didn't have that particular reaction to the first book in the series, I *have* become so invested in a book that it's hard or impossible to look at it critically. I understand exactly what you mean there. I do wish I could have liked this one better but sadly it was too easy to separate myself from the story and see all the plotting and narrative issues. I really wanted to like it when my friend Debye gave it to me (about 2 weeks before you read it), but I just couldn't. :/

On the other hand, I'm really glad that the last book was not at all disappointing. If it had been, that would have been so much worse than a third book in a different series, you know? I'm glad this was everything you wanted it to be. It's nice to hear you so enthusiastic again. :)

likeglass said...

I really need to get my hands on this, Ana. It sounds like it ends perfectly.

bermudaonion said...

I haven't started this series, but it really sounds like I must!

Elisabeth said...

I haven't read these, but Yay! I celebrate with you LOVING a book so much. This is such a wonderful feeling.

Zibilee said...

Ok, you've totally convinced me that I need to try this series! I love that you had such a strong reaction to these books and that they invaded your life and your thoughts. Truth be told, I had not heard much about them, but now you have me wanting to rush out and grab copies as soon as I can. This was a wonderfully enticing review. I will have to let you know what I think!!

Jenny said...

I want to write all capitals and exclamation points because I am so desperately excited to read this book. I'm so glad it didn't disappoint you! And I am maybe a bit resigned to waiting a little longer than I'd like to wait to read it, just because when I do read it, it'll all be over. I know Patrick Ness will keep writing, but it'll be sad not to have any more time with Todd and Viola.

Amy said...

OK. I have been seeing more and more about this series and I admit. I. Want. It. Now! I am going to find this series and read it very soon. I admit to skimming through this post as I don't want to learn anything early!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Sigh. Alright, ALRIGHT! I know I need to read these! I know I will love them, so rest assured I won't hurt your feelings (and yes my feelings do get hurt if people don't like certain books). Isn't that a funny reaction, that only us bibliophiles understand? Like if someone didn't like Lionel Shriver or Let the Great World Spin, I'd cry.

Darren @ Bart's Bookshelf said...

Well you're doing better than me, I'm still not able to coherently collect might thoughts enough that I can write them down. (I've seriously considered just posting OMG! repeated about 100 times ;) )

I'll come back and give this a proper read, once I've done that!

Fence said...

Ooooohhh, I can't wait for this one to arrive at work. I'm so looking forward to it.
And this: Dehumanising our adversaries often makes things easier to deal with, but Todd and Viola are far too honest and smart to be allowed that kind of cop-out.

The battle scenes in Monsters of Men are some of the most painful I’ve ever read – the reason being the fact that Patrick Ness uses multiple points of view expertly to make sure we never, ever forget that there are real people on both sides. We see real people dying, real people killing or being killed, real people for whom someone out there will grieve. Throughout the book, several characters are forced to confront the impossibility of making war personal, and also the impossibility of not making it personal. It’s always personal, because it’s always about real living beings. And perhaps not acknowledging this is where our troubles begin

makes me so happy, not because I like reading about war or anything, but because it strikes me as so very true! Can't wait.

Iliana said...

Ok, I admit I glossed over a bit of your post because I haven't read the first two books and didn't want to get too spoiled :)

But you've convinced me that I must read this trilogy!

Trisha said...

Oh I am so jealous you have already read this. I have got to get my hands on a copy!

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Darn it, Ana, you may have just convinced me to order Monsters of Men from Book Depository (I almost never buy brand new books... I know...). Thanks for not spoiling it at all, though, because I'll definitely be reading it as soon as I possibly can.

And I get it, these books touched me too. I almost want to read the first two again, just to remember what I love about them.

Emidy said...

Fantastic review! I reserved the first book of this series at my library, but I had no idea it has so many important themes. Now I'm really excited to get it!

Chris said...

Oh Ana I just love your thoughts on this. So perfect. I haven't finished it yet, but you capture my feelings on the series as a whole so well. It really is the best thing to happen to spec. fic/YA in a long time. One of the best things to happen in a long time period. He did such a fantastic job with this series...so many important things here all of which you captured. And now I must return to it...and be crushed :/

Jo said...

What a great post! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about this series --- and I can't wait to get my own hands on this book. :)

Nymeth said...

Stormfilled: I loved that we got to share our reaction to this book :) It reminded me of when the final Harry Potter book came out.

Ladytink: It goes to show that you have been absent from blogland for too long :P It's great to have you back, btw :D

Amanda: Thank you - it's good to feel this enthusiastic again :D

Lena: I really think it does. I can't say much about the ending, obviously, but I suspect not everyone will be happy with it. Personally I felt it was perfect, though.

Kathy: Yes you must! Right now :P

Elizabeth: Isn't it? :D

Zibilee: Do let me know! I hope you love them as much as I did.

Jenny: Caps and exclamation marks are definitely called for! It being all over is indeed very sad :( I wonder if he'll give us at least a glimpse of New World's future in a short story one day - kind of like the prequel short story...

Amy: I'm glad to have enticed you :D This is seriously one of the best series ever.

Sandy: I hope you do love them, but I promise not to feel too hurt if you don't :P I *might* shed a tear or two, of course, but I won't hold it against you ;)

Darren: "OMG" about 100 times would about cover it ;)

Nymeth said...

Fence: Exactly - it's painful to read about, but so true.

Iliana: I hope you enjoy it if and when you do.

Katherine Langrish: It is in the UK! I ordered it via The Book Depository. The US edition will come out in September.

Trisha: Yes you do! The Book Depostory awaits you ;)

Heather: Like I told you on Twitter, September is a LONG way away :P

Emidy: It's a great series - fun to read and with lots of food for thought.

Chris: I can't wait for you to be done so I can discuss specific parts with you. Until then, my lips are sealed about whether or not you'll be crushed :P

Jo, I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I did :)

melissa @ 1lbr said...

Ack! I can't wait! I totally thought the US release date was in May. Darn.

Jenners said...

I've been intrigued by this series since I've started hearing about it but now you've got me even more intrigued. I'm sure I'll be citing yet another review of yours on this series when I finally get around to reading these books and reviewing them ... some day ... possibly in 2011.

chasingbawa said...

I love books that demand an emotionally overwhelming response. There aren't enough out there! And I like that you wrote about it. Brilliant post! I haven't heard of this one before so I'm going to search it out.

valentina said...

I'm so looking forward to this! but I want to savour it,and read it when I'm ready. I'm getting there though!
I can't wait to know what happens to Todd and Viola but on the other hand I don't want it to be the last book, where there's no more after you've finished reading it. I don't want to get to the last page, but I also can't wait to. It's a hard situation.

valentina said...

oh god Ana, how did you manage to collect all these coherent thoughts right after finishing this, I don't know. I've just turned the last page, and I'm all "ohmygodohmygodohmygod". I was so ready to throw the book at the wall towards the end, I was so angry I couldn't even cry,but then of course I kept reading.
Such an emotional rollercoaster, how can I even think of starting another book anytime soon?

Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

This post is pretty much why you are my blogging hero.

Karma said...

I read the entire series, and I loved the first two, but I think the last one really fell short of my expectations.

Wulfie said...

These books were amazing. They have just the right about of beauty and horror mixed into the story of finding yourself, of standing up for what you beleive in. I love them so much.


*(SPOILER)*
But, Patrick Ness, I think I may have to kill you for killing off Manchee. *Sniff, sniff.*

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