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Divergent and Suspension of Disbelief

October 15, 2014

(Contains the mildest of spoilers: that is, Beatrice’s unsurprising test results.  It’s on the back of the book, people.)

I finally, after many years of having it recommended to me and a movie being made and all that, read Divergent last week.  It is, if you haven’t heard, a dystopian young adult novel in which a girl, Beatrice, lives in a world where everyone is broken up into five factions based on a defining personality trait: Amity (Kindness), Dauntless (Bravery), Abnegation (Selflessness), Candor (Honesty), and Erudite (Intellectual).  A simple test defines you for the rest of your life: where you live, what you do.  Beatrice’s test, however, is inconclusive.  She is what’s called Divergent, and what that means for her and her society is developed throughout the first book in the series.

I went home this past weekend to see some friends for my birthday, and I said to one, “I’m finally reading Divergent.  I’m enjoying it, but the premise is RIDICULOUS.”

To which my friend replied: “It is, but I managed to suspend my disbelief.”

Me too.  I enjoyed the book a lot.  It’s a very impressive debut, as well as a good read.  I know some people have issues with it, but not wanting to get into spoiler territory, I felt that it all made sense as it was happening and that the characters acted appropriately.  But that’s besides the point.

Why did my friend and I both feel like we had to push past the lack of realism in the world to enjoy it?  After all, it’s just as odd of a premise as, say, The Giver.  A little research shows that adults–reviewers–found that premise ridiculous too.  But kids just delved into it.  They didn’t need to put their reality on the book.  I suppose we do.  You can find articles on how we’re a more sophisticated readership, and of course articles on how we certainly aren’t.  But I don’t think that’s it.  Is it generally or generationally, that we need things to be set in reality before we’re willing to let go into imagination?  My thirteen-year-old test subject—er, a friend’s granddaughter–who is a reader but not a voracious one did not bother with Divergent.  “It didn’t make any sense.  I put it down after a few pages.”  This literal kid wanted more.  She read the heck out Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, though.

Harry Potter, I should point out, is fantasy, but its foundation is the real world.  So it might count here.  It might not.

But dystopian novels–those super-popular things–I guess we’re looking for an extrapolation.  “Show us now, but everything is awful, and then show us how to fix it so that if things get worse, we feel like we could effect change.”  Tell us we’re not in our world, and we’re okay.  Tell us we are–Divergent, for example, is set in Future Chicago–and we want the realistic foundation.

I think it’s time to get over it, frankly.  It did me no favors to work to suspend disbelief so I could enjoy an otherwise enjoyable book.  That’s on me, not the book.  It’s fiction, for God’s sake.  Suspension of disbelief comes with the territory.  The first person narrative assumes the character is either writing in present time, or with a past view that somehow manages to capture everyone’s words exactly.  See?  We’re already suspending disbelief when we open up a book in the first person.  So to say, “But Divergent wasn’t REALISTIC enough!” is pretty ridiculous in itself.  I mean, I love superheroes.  I should know how to suspend disbelief like breathing: automatically.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I got the movie out from the library, and I’m thinking of watching it–and enjoying it for what it is.

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