I have a complicated relationship with Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden trilogy, which so far includes Wither and Fever. I wasn’t hugely impressed with Wither, but it wasn’t really because I thought it was poorly written or dull. I guess you could say my problems were more ideological, but I’m not sure that’s totally accurate either.
Regardless, I liked it enough to read the sequel, Fever, which I finished a few days ago. I had a lot of the same problems with it as I did with Wither, and rather than write a review which would mostly just be a re-hash of the one I did for Wither, I wanted to talk about the series of books in broader terms. More specifically, I want to discuss how sex and rape are portrayed in the books, and how problematic I find those portrayals. (There will be some spoilers for Wither, but not any for Fever that you wouldn’t discover by reading the jacket copy.)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot more since reading this opinion piece by Drew McWeeny, which discusses how problematic depictions of rape in movies have become for him. His thesis is that so much of rape in movies lately serves no purpose other than to shock or titillate, and neither of those purposes are artistic or justify the rape’s inclusion. In short, it’s exploitative in the worst way.
In a related way, there’s something about the Chemical Garden books that seems exploitative. It’s different from the movies that McWeeny references, since the readers of the Chemical Garden books are probably more likely to be female than male (so presumably the titillation aspect isn’t as prominent), but I can’t stop seeing parallels. I do have major problems with media that throw in a rape to shock or simply as an easy way to say “Look how shitty this person/situation is!” It’s bothered me more and more as I got older, and now I screen everything I read or view so that even if I choose not to avoid the book or movie, I at least know what I’m getting into and am prepared for it.
In the Chemical Garden books, I don’t feel that the rampant sexual violence has much purpose beyond demonstrating that Rhine lives in a terrible world. And that’s not enough for me. Just because it’s not explicitly described doesn’t mean it needn’t have some real purpose for being there. In Fever, Rhine and Gabriel escape Vaughn’s estate only to run into another nightmare: a brothel set in a decaying carnival/circus site. This section of the book (about 100 pages) introduces a character who sticks around for a while, and it builds Rhine’s world a bit further, but I don’t think either of those reasons really justified the inclusion of the brothel. I didn’t see it do much for Rhine or Gabriel’s character development and I didn’t see it do much to further the plot. The new character didn’t seem to have much point, and I already knew Rhine’s world was shitty since I had read Wither. I knew her world was filled with just this sort of violence and sexual abuse. I didn’t need this chunk of the book to reinforce that knowledge. It seemed extraneous and left a bad taste in my mouth. It felt exploitative.
Obviously, my feelings and thoughts about these books hinge very strongly on how much and what kind of meaning I require in my books. Perhaps it is unfair, but I require more meaning in my dystopias than in other books I read. By “meaning,” I do mean it in a pretty traditional sense: I want the books to say something about our world, whether that something is social, political, familial, or anything else.
This series of books has often been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale and Julia Karr’s XVI, both of which have copious amounts of rape and both of which I found to be valuable reading experiences. So why the difference in my opinion between the Chemical Garden books and these two? The meaning in each resonated with me. The Handmaid’s Tale had so much to say about religion and faith and the power of story. XVI wasn’t as smoothly done, but it had plenty to say about the power of media to make us believe impossible things. Both books have a lot to say about the problems with power and unflinching obedience. I suppose the Chemical Garden books have something to say about what desperate people do in desperate times, but McWeeny addresses that in his piece. It’s not enough for him, and it’s not enough for me, either.
Clearly, my problems with the books aren’t enough to stop me from reading them. DeStefano has made me care about Rhine. I want to know that she’ll be OK. I want to know if she’ll live past her 20th birthday. I want to read the third book and witness a world that begins to heal. Hence my complicated relationship. I’ll probably read the final book, but I predict it will be punctuated by these moments of frustration and distaste, just as my readings of Wither and Fever were.
I don’t intend this post to be a slam of the books. Many people whose opinions I respect enjoy them quite a bit and presumably derive a great deal of meaning from them. I only intend to describe my frustration with them and perhaps open up a dialogue with others about these aspects of the books. If you’ve read them, did you experience the same frustration?