Book Report: Pandemonium

What you need to know: Pandemonium is the second in (yet another Young Adult dystopian) Delirium trilogy from Lauren Oliver. I’ve not read her best-selling Before I Fall, but I can’t recall reading a bad review of it (though I have zero desire to read it). Delirium itself was recommended to me by VH1’s Kate Spencer (whom I’ve never met but keep hoping will become my internet pal because she’s a funny lady).

Set in a similar time to the present but in an alternate dystopian US, love is a four-letter word. Marriages are matched and planned by the government, boys and girls grow up separated from one another, and once you hit 18 you’re given the Cure – a brain surgery that takes away most of your emotions and the ability to love or even care. Oliver sets up an interesting world (first in Portland, Maine and then Brooklyn) without poetry, most music, or religion as we know it. The Bible has been replaced with The Book of Shhh and opponents of the Cure have been killed, imprisoned, exiled to the Wilds (the wooded areas of the country between the government approved walled-in cities), or some combination of the three. Romeo and Juliet is taught as a cautionary tale in health education class – two teenagers who catch deliria, the disease that infects and causes love.

Overall: Boy, am I excited for the second Divergent book to come out this May.

Le sigh. Okay, look: I liked Delirium, a lot – despite of some of Oliver’s easier clichés and explained metaphor (no, she literally explains her metaphor just in case we didn’t get that cows running loose are like the cattle society had become). In fact, I went from finishing the first book to pre-ordering the second via my Kindle (sweet goodness do I love that thing) in a matter of moments. It was just my luck that I finished the first book less than a week before the second came out on February 28, 2012. Yes, it took me more than a month to finish this thing and another week to bring myself to finally review it. This should not be taken as a sign of its difficulty – nay, when you sit and commit yourself reading is rather easy – but rather a sign of how lackluster Pandemonium is after its predecessor.

To indulge something that’s been bothering me for a while because I am fortunate enough to live in the first world where problems are laughable, let’s take a brief moment to compare the young woman on the cover of both Delirium and Pandemonium to the narrator, Lena’s, description of herself:

I’m not ugly, but I’m not pretty, either. Everything is in-between. I have eyes that aren’t green or brown, but a muddle. I’m not thin, but I’m not fat, either. The only thing you could definitely say about me is this: I’m short. (Delirium page 14)

(I will fight the urge to comment on said comparison but please feel free to do so in the comments.)

Did I prefer Delirium to Pandemonium? Absolutely. Will I still read the final installment when it comes out next year? Well, geeze, I can’t very well not see if my predictions are as dead-on in the third as they’ve been thus far.

As a Reader: Pandemonium is missing the urgency and excitement of Delirium. Oliver makes a slightly more annoying choice than in her first installment (where each chapter began with an excerpt from The Book of Shhh) by choosing to alternate chapters between “Then” and “Now.” As a writer (sorry to jump views), I know how difficult non-linear storytelling can be. I try it with just about every essay I write and fail every time. In Pandemonium, Oliver did not do much better.

I’d finally get as excited as I would in the first book, turning from page to page in eager anticipation, only to run head first into the wall of “Then.” The two tracks of time never connect – there is a gaping hole between the final “Then” chapter and any of the “Now” in which we follow Lena. Without the hole being filled there are no payoffs.

Without getting into spoilers or looking into the notes I took (yes, I’m still that girl) I can think of at least three things I called from the get go. One involves a mother, two involve the opposite sex, and one involves a daring escape. Okay, make that four things that I can think of off the top of my head.

As a Writer: I realize this has kind of become my thing, but I cannot stress how annoying it is for me to read a robust character description full of flaws and humanity only to be topped with an obvious and trite name like Raven for a dark-haired woman or Blue for a little girl with azure eyes. (It may or may not be significant to note that the description of each of the aforementioned characters did not include the words azure or dark but, instead, blue and raven.) The prison system is known as the Department of Correction, Reform, and Purification, its prison vans painted with white letters: CRAP.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. It’s YA literature, after all. But if I learned anything from the one class on YA lit I took in grad school, it’s not to underestimate the intelligence of your reader.

I do need to give credit where credit is due: like many entries into this dystopic trend, I couldn’t come up with this crap to save my life. Congratulations to Oliver for creating a sincerely interesting world so far from that in which we live. (A world without Rom Coms? That’s crazy.) Also, kudos for including gay characters or, in this world, Unnaturals. She didn’t have to do that and the words Oliver puts into Lena’s mouth are brave considering she writes for a young audience who often have unfortunate homophobes as parents.

Then I found out that Hunter was an Unnatural, a thing I’d always been taught to revile.

Now Hunter is Hunter, and a friend, and nothing more. (Pandemonium location 1283*)

That’s about as deep into the whole gay thing as Oliver goes but she didn’t have to do it at all. Let’s take the small win, friends.

As an Editor: There would have been more to appreciate from Pandemonium had the story been presented linearly. We never find out how or why Lena ends up within the boundaries of New York City. After reading chapter upon chapter of build up readers are left without the means to the ends. Oliver and her editor could easily have ousted some of the “Then” chapters in favor of whatever time period falls between “Then” and “Now.” (“Once?” “At Some Point?” “Oh, and this Happened?”) As a storyteller, if you’re going to show where you end up and put such focus on where you started by constantly returning to the path that connects the two then you need to show the fulcrum of how What Once Was turned into What Is.

Have you read the Delirium books? What should I pick up next?

What do you think?