“Delirium” Might Perhaps Miss the Whole Damn Point

Posted on March 3, 2011 by



I was shopping for bog rolls and washing up liquid last night at a box store. I always go past the book sections in box stores because I want to keep an eye on what’s selling.

I ended up buying Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium” after a few minutes of the excuses I tell myself when I impulse-buy:

1) Dystopian fiction is my Achilles heel. I will probably buy it. Don’t make it easy for me, or I will buy it ALL.
2) It was discounted from the RRP by four or five dollars, meaning that either it’s not selling well or somebody had to eat a big discount.
3) I consciously want to support the production of slick-packaged dystopian YA. Dystopian fiction is an important genre, a really important genre: it provokes discussion and emotion, pricks conscience, teaches the value of critical thought — and a highly publicised YA could introduce these things to exactly the right audience.

As you can see, this book has a very pretty cover. I’m getting sick of the “closeup portrait of pretty white 20-something pretending to be a teenager framed by novel-specific Photoshop” cover art, but this is clever, and I like clever.

Unfortunately, the pearlescent dust-jacket paper looked beat-up on every copy on the shelf, because apparently the design people didn’t realise that you have to ship books to stores, and then put them on display — the books can be marked with a matte scuff mark if you rub them gently with a fingernail.

All of the money the publisher invested in the dust jacket seems to have been sucked away from the book underneath: the paper is pulpy and mass-market quality, not hardback, and the cardboard covers seem — how do I say this without it sounding weird — too light, like they’re made out of hardened paper foam. It’s just…cheap. It reminds me of the hardback first-edition Harry Potter (yep, I’ve held one of those, and at the time it was no big deal).

The author has chosen to begin each chapter with a quote from an in-universe text — a move that is so overused that I suppose it’s become a convention, like tabbing. I like it and I don’t: the excerpts are well-written, but on the other hand please stop doing this speculative fiction authors seriously please I am so bored please stop

The plot: 17-year-old Lena speaks to us in first-person present about her life in Portland, Maine. In her United States, love has been classified as a disease, amor deliria nervosa, and its cure is a lobotomy-like “procedure”: brain surgery performed as soon as possible after a person’s 18th birthday. Lena of course falls in love with some boy before she gets her procedure, thus providing the setup for resistance.

Oliver’s choice of register in this book is masterful: she manages to make every voice authentic and sympathetic to her intended audience, which must have been extremely difficult to do, considering the book’s universe, and how different it is to ours.

The worldbuilding is okay: Lena’s perspective is filled out and roughly speaking she tells us what we would expect a 17-year-old to tell us, but there are some gaping absences. We are told that the land between each city and town is left entirely unused, and this begs the question of travel between settlements. The only contact we see with the outside world is a shipping yard. Is this how dignitaries travel? It doesn’t seem like each town is a completely self-sufficient unit; Lena refers to national things — like curricula, laws and texts. So what is the town’s relationship with other settlements?

Another niggle is that I really hate it when people refer to scientists as though “science” were a homogeneous block such that every scientist knows everything that every other scientist is doing and agrees with it. Expecting any subset of the scientific community to agree upon any one objective fact, let alone a full-fledged theory, without constant dissent and loud squabbling is like expecting to be able to throw two cats against each other in mid-air and get a rainbow of love and purring. Perhaps these scientists were brainwashed? Who cares? The only people who say “the scientists” like Lauren Oliver does know nothing about science.

Lena is well-rounded, her emotional progression believable, her psychology carefully thought-out. She’s a likeable character. I love the way Oliver deals with her backstory; Lena’s response to her history is realistic, empathetic, and dramatic without being maudlin. She’s an orphan but it in no way defines her. What defines her, and this is unusual for the YA market — is fear. Full-blown, unashamed, Winston Smith without the resentment.

But apart from the protagonist, Oliver’s characterisation is really quite spotty; conscious or unconscious, it’s something that I really dislike about fiction written for teenagers, specifically girl teenagers.

The male lead, Alex, is (and forgive my brief Americanisation here) the biggest Gary Stu basically like, ever. I’ll give Oliver credit that she spends, I don’t know, three sentences on why Alex likes Lena (because she ran fast and jumped around in front of him a few times and it made her look like a bird, and birds are free, or something), but Alex is a deus ex machina personified, and this produced frequent eyerolling.

Let me explain: he somehow manages to get skeleton keys to the entire city while being one of the least likely people to have them, which makes so much sense (???). Don’t stomp your foot and tell me that I’m wrong and that it’s explained — because it’s only explained if your idea of explanation is, “I am on Death Row and I got out by dressing as a guard,” and leaving it at that. The question of “How’d you get the damn uniform?” is never even asked.

I’d forgive Alex’s characterisation as a golden idol (in both figurative “key to the temple”, “he gets worshipped” and literal “gold-coloured eyes” ways) if the plot holes that define him were just symptomatic of Alex as a Gary Stu, but Oliver tends to dismiss plot holes in general with a wave of the hand like they’re unimportant because the book is just so emotional and so meaningful.

The biggest plot hole is the fact that Alex can go in and out of the city as he pleases because the electric fence that surrounds it is only partially powered, and it seems pretty easy to sneak around the outskirts of the city at night without getting caught unless you’re at a party, and the two of them, when they decide to leave, DO NOT do a perimeter march hand in hand at 3 am with a bunch of throwin’ twigs and a pair of bolt cutters.

But okay. You have to wait until the very last minute before Lena’s procedure to leave rather than doing it twenty days beforehand when nobody’s suspicious because she’s “not ready” or whatever, even though she totally is, and because Alex “would never forgive” himself if she were caught. Where would the tension be without waiting until the very last minute, after all? And where would the tension be, for that matter, if you were to admit that anyone who has hopped the Southern border of the U.S. could get in and out of this city so easily they could set up a tour? I’ll give you these things, even though they make my eyebrows twitch.

But there are plot holes every time Oliver wants to make an emotional point, and I find this kind of intrusion by the authorial voice to be just annoying. My favourite example is when someone escapes from the life-sentence area of the town’s prison/mental asylum by writing the word “love” with a sentimentally significant sharp implement so many times into the stone wall that the middle of the “O” falls out. This is. the. STUPIDEST. plot point I have ever...argh.

Do I really have to explain why? Really?


Cells in modern maximum-security prisons are usually not one cell wall away from freedom. They are, at best, one cell wall, one watchtower, one sniper, one sniper rifle, one spotlight, one thirty-foot-high razorwire fence, a lot of ground and a pack of scent dogs away from freedom.

Even if we’re talking an old prison that’s been taken over, there’s a reason why you have to pretend to be dead to get out of the Chateau d’If, and it’s pretty easy to figure out: stone is one tough mothereffer. It’s hard, it’s rough handling, it’s heavy, and it makes a lot of noise when you move it. The prisoner in Delirium is meant to have been in the prison for a good decade by the time she escapes; I think she will have been fed at least once during that period. You’re telling me the guards didn’t notice that, I don’t know, there was a GIANT chunk of stone about to just fall out of her cell wall?

How, come to think of it, did they not notice her smuggling a pointy implement into the cell when they admitted her, if such an implement were useful for escape?

~~~~I’m going to reveal something to you that will be a spoiler about the prisoner’s identity, so skip down to the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers.~~~~

The prisoner’s escape implement is — I am not making this up — a necklace pendant shaped like a dagger. Oliver mentions it was worn down to a nub by the time of escape but this is totally irrelevant unless the pendant is made of carbon fibre reinforced titanium coated with magic, because have you scraped a nail across granite? Yeah, and that’s industrial-grade steel. The dagger is encrusted with rubies, apparently, so it’s jewellery metal. Not only that, but apparently it’s a military pin which has subsequently been mounted as a necklace, i.e. not too large. So…it’s sheer handwaving.

Oliver sacrifices other things to sentiment: we never find out what really happens to Lena’s best friend Hana, and Lena ultimately doesn’t care, even though Hana is a force to move the plot and characterisation throughout the book. Hana’s fate is only useful inasmuch as she’s a means to get Lena to feel stuff. We never find out her full backstory, and Oliver spends pages and pages and pages and pages on Lena and Alex lounging around and being a couple, without giving us Hana’s full motivation besides, “I like rebelling!” Poor Hana! When the person who wrote you into being doesn’t even know who you are, you’re really in trouble, mate.

All right, fine. I expected sacrifices to the altar of poor editing. What actually upset me about this book was none of the above.

What made me want to write a review was that the entire concept of the book was flawed in my eyes, right from the beginning.

Let me ask you this: why dystopias? Why ever dystopias?

A dystopian premise’s reason for existence was always to be an argument of reductio ad absurdum. To make a dystopian novel, take an aspect of a society you want to criticise, inflate it to its extreme conclusions, and use that inflated parody as the seed around which to build a world. Dystopias are constructed around a purpose, a theorem, that says we should stop doing X or Y or else the consequences will be horrifying.

Since when is love under attack? I was hoping that perhaps Oliver’s book addressed a particular type of love that is controversial in our society, such as love between two members of the same gender, or at least that by addressing heterosexual affection she provided a clear allegory for some other problem that she sees in today’s world, but no.

No, she spends the book defending things that were never controversial to anyone: parent/child relationships and heterosexual pairings. She doesn’t address queer love of any kind except for half-a-sentence that offhandedly mentions that being gay is illegal, and neither does she address something that I had hoped would be a huge issue, given the melding of science and religion: love of God.

The latter is such a non-issue I don’t even know where her society stands on it. They’ve appropriated the Bible to use as propaganda. Okay, so are they advocating religion without loving God, or is love for God just redefined as another word, or what?

That last possibility is so cool I wish I’d written this book just so I could make the book about that. Think about it: earthly love becoming illegal, procreation done clinically, all of people’s sexual and romantic frustrations poured into God, twenty-four hours a day, for their entire lives? A nation full of Thomas Aquinases and people who wear cilices around their genitals? How interesting could that be? (Very, imho.)

But this book is constructing a prison of tissue paper and pushing against it. I feel like patting Oliver on the shoulder and saying, “Good on you?” I mean, does she want a cookie? I feel a little awkward, like I’m watching someone I agree with completely miss the boat and start arguing with me.

Maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe the point is to write a book that teenagers will read and enjoy and that isn’t bad for them, and this book meets those criteria with flying colours. There aren’t any harmful themes in the book, the message is sweet, and the writing is pleasant and not bad (even though Oliver excels at voice, it’s not anything special at the sentence level).

I just…I love dystopian fiction. I love that it can get away with pounding a message in our faces where no other genre can apart from pure satire. I love the delicious chills it sends up my back when I imagine myself in such horrible worlds, and the deep gratitude I feel for my loved ones and my life when I am finished reading it.

This book has none of that.

Posted in: Book Reviews