The image of teenage life has grown dark and distorted in our modern, Western imagination. We can see this particularly in the stories found in the genre of Young Adult fiction. In the last decade a violent portrait of teenagers has emerged—from The Hunger Games to the Divergent series—in which young people become vicious fighters and killers. Although the books make sure to include the obligatory smoldering teen romances, our heroines and heroes spend much of their time giving and receiving beatings, and killing bad guys. They’re tough, deadly, and usually emotionally tormented inside.
Frankly, we miss Ron and Hermione.
But (at the risk of dating ourselves) Rowling began writing twenty years ago—a full generation of readers ago. Times have changed. Now, a raw emotivism exploiting violence and Eros seems to drive many of YA fiction’s bestselling novels.
Nothing shows this like Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark, the latest book after Roth’s smash-hit Divergent series. This bloody sci-fi thriller, which will leave sensitive readers with a stomachache, lacks the substantial moral depth that might otherwise redeem so violent and disturbing a tale.
Roth sets her novel in an alien solar system, with planets inhabited by different cultures. On the planet Thuvhe two mutually hostile peoples live in an uneasy balance: the Shotet scavengers and the agrarian Thuvhians. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story—sort of: the novel’s two heroes come from opposite sides of “the Divide,” a boundary on the planet that divides the enemy nations.
Binding the solar system together is the “Current,” an energy force that also gives each person a unique power. Thanks to the Current, the Shotet girl Cyra has the unique power to cause limitless pain with the touch of her hand. Because of this, her evil brother forces her to serve as his regime’s official torturer to shore up his tyrannical rule over the Shotet people. The Thuvhian boy Akos is a kidnapped political prisoner of the Shotet, and a servant to Cyra in the ruling household. With his “Gift,” he can disrupt the Current, and therefore suppress the unique powers of others. This comes in handy because Cyra’s power also causes her constant crippling pain. Readers can indulge in a collective eye roll when we learn that to free Cyra from pain, Akos must touch her skin. Thus the two attractive teenagers from enemy nations must constantly hold hands or otherwise touch skin-to-skin, in order to keep Cyra from succumbing to her horrible chronic pain. There’s more than one way to give readers a stomachache.
As to be expected, their relationship changes Cyra and empowers her to fight back against her evil brother, while her super-killing skills help her to train Akos into a fighting machine. Romantic sparks fly, and naturally the two find themselves caught up in a bid to overthrow the regime. Parents will want to know that the novel includes some profane language, same-sex marriage, and frequent drug use.
The gravest flaw with the novel lies in Roth’s all-out depiction of extreme violence. With nearly half a dozen graphic torture scenes, as well as numerous brutal beatings, stabbings, and suicide, the book moves far beyond what’s appropriate for most teen readers. Do we need our heroine to get the skin flayed off half her neck and head by the sadistic tyrant? Again: stomachaches.
But really, this violence is merely the symptom of a deeper problem with Roth’s storytelling: she’s taking a shortcut. Graphic, extended exposure to violence evokes in readers a strong physiological reaction. The human response to this violence—the elevated heartrate and sweaty-palms, for instance—actually skips over our intellect and goes straight to our passions. A reader in the throes of a heart-pounding scene of torture can easily confuse this heightened state for an experience of good art. Put another way, we felt shocked and overcome by powerful feelings, so it must be a great story. But when Michelangelo’s Pieta or Donne’s Holy Sonnets don’t give us that immediate, visceral response, we shrug and turn away. At best, this raw emotivism in literature might blunt the aesthetic capacity of teen readers; at worst, it becomes a kind of pornography of violence—stimulating a strong emotional and bodily state that becomes addictive over time.
This is a shame because Roth has real gifts as a writer: her powerful, compelling prose makes for a gripping read. Her imaginative worlds, lush descriptions, and snappy dialogue have no wasted material, and every word counts. Undergirding the violence is the important theme that revenge doesn’t satisfy, and that the act of killing always means a loss and a tragedy for the killer. Akos’s kindness to the conflicted Cyra, who is technically his captor, also teachers her a lesson about compassion, leading her to acknowledge that even for killers and torturers and tyrants, “what we really need is mercy.”
However, by the time we dimly perceive these moments of redemption in the narrative, the damage has been done by the brutal violence of the book. And the novel’s adrenaline rush will leave many readers anxious for the sequels. Yet we might ask ourselves why we’re telling our teens these kinds of violent stories; the answer might suggest that the grown-up world, too, still has some real growing up to do.
Carve the Mark
by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017