In fiction, you can feel good about resistance without actually resisting anything.
The Hunger Games Divergent
The Handmaid’s TaleParable
The problem may be, at least for me, that I find a lot of satisfaction in witnessing a character’s revolt—and satisfaction is where desire ends, not where it begins.
What I am talking about is not the character’s experience, but the reader’s. (In fact, I feel a lot more satisfaction than is usually described on the page, since these books are often bloody.) The more I submit to my satisfaction, the less I practice resistance as a reader. What do I have to resist? The story is giving me exactly what I want. Rarely do I read a novel in which the empire, as it were, strikes back.
When the system wins, however, I do feel inspired to resist. This is what happens in Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winner The Vegetarian.
Kang’s strategy is brilliant. The vegetarian, her protagonist, is almost never the perspective character. This means that in order to connect with the protagonist and her resistance, we must constantly resist the perspective we are forced into.
Let me summarize, because the structure is important. The novel is in thirds. In each third, the perspective character becomes more sympathetic, so that readers have to practice more active resistance as they go. The first third is told from the first-person perspective of the vegetarian’s husband, a misogynist who punishes his wife (CW: including by raping her) for her belief that she can control what she eats. Because it is in first-person, readers inhabit this monstrous I and must resist the first-person position.
The second third is told from the third-person perspective of the vegetarian’s brother-in-law, an experimental artist. At first, this perspective seems far more comfortable, until the artist becomes obsessed with the vegetarian and takes advantage of her fragile mental state (after her husband’s abuse) to manipulate her into having sex with him in a pornographic art video.
The final third is told from the first-person perspective of the vegetarian’s sister (now separated from the artist), the person who loves the vegetarian best. She tries to take care of her sister, but the vegetarian has been so traumatized that she no longer wants to eat anything at all. In fact, she wants to become a tree. In order to keep the vegetarian alive, her sister has to commit her, but in the ward, the staff sticks tubes down the vegetarian’s throat in violent detail to force her to feed.
Even good intentions must be resisted. Even when the vegetarian has lost her mind, even though her perspective is hardly ever on the page, all we do the entire novel is imagine (and reenact) her resistance.
The solution is clearly not to write more evil narrators, but there is something to be learned here. The perspective characters in The Vegetarian do not establish the vegetarian’s resistance, but our own. What they do establish is what a dystopia establishes: the rules of how power operates and is reinforced. This is what we mean by worldbuilding.
This kind of worldbuilding is done through the negotiation of power between characters who enforce the rules and characters who resist. In a craft talk given at the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College, author Lesley Nneka Arimah calls the resistors “rule-breakers.” Rule-breakers, she explains, can serve to establish what the rules even are.
Rule-breakers, she explains, can serve to establish what the rules even are.
Arimah wants to address the challenge of worldbuilding without long passages of description or explanation. When a rule-breaker breaks her world’s rules, the world tries to reestablish those rules, which in turn clarifies what they are, for the audience (and shows that the world is already broken).
Arimah uses her story “Who Will Greet You at Home” (which I teach often) as an example. Her protagonist is a poor woman who wants to build a baby out of soft and delicate material, which she can’t afford, so she uses hair. This rule-breaking reveals that: (a) in this world, babies are made, not born from the womb, (b) only the rich can afford to raise soft and delicate babies, and (c) hair babies are forbidden. We soon see why: hair babies eat people.
It’s a great story, and a great talk, the implications of which may be even more troubling than a hair baby. What Arimah’s talk suggests—not about a character’s experience, but a reader’s—is that a rule-breaker’s resistance to the social and cultural norms in a story actually establishes those norms for the story’s readers. The rule-breaker doesn’t ask readers to resist the system; her resistance asks readers to build the rules of that system in their own minds.
When you read The Hunger Games, you can feel good about resistance without actually resisting anything. As Katniss destroys her world, you, dear reader, bring that world to life.
Matthew Salesses is the author of The Sense of Wonder, national bestseller Craft in the Real World, the 2021 finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, and two other novels. Adopted from Korea, he has written about adoption, race, and Asian American masculinity in The Best American Essays 2020, NPR’s Code Switch, the New York Times blog Motherlode, and The Guardian, among other media outlets. BuzzFeed has named him one of 32 Essential Asian American Writers. He lives in New York City, where he is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Columbia University.