AUGUST 4, 2012
IN THE OPENING CHAPTER of Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, 17-year-old Lena Haloway takes a mandatory state evaluation designed to determine what kind of wife she will be. Even though she has rehearsed her answers a million times, some impulsive, un-tameable part of her rises up as she faces the panel of government officials. “What is your favorite color?” they ask. In a moment of unbridled independence, she answers, “gray” and not the state approved color of “blue.”
Lena lives in Portland, Maine. She is a normal girl, mildly insecure but also stronger than she knows, not particularly pretty, but not un-pretty. An accomplished runner, she loves sleepovers with her best friend Hana and longs for the day when she can get married and settle down. In fact, there is probably nothing more defining about Lena than her own longing for and belief in normalcy. Normalcy is a big thing when you’re a teenager — either rejecting it or molding yourself into it.
But this is not Maine — or the United States — as we know it. Lauren Oliver’s trilogy, Delirium, Pandemonium and the forthcoming Requiem takes place in a nightmarish future. In Oliver’s prediction, Church, State and Science have fused into one fundamentalist institution. People have come to believe that love or, as they call it, amor deliria nervosa, is the root of all unhappiness and illness. Upon turning eighteen, the state requires citizens to submit to the aforementioned evaluation (so that they can be matched with suitable partners) and then undergo the procedure. The procedure is a painful operation on the brain that makes it impossible to fall in love. Post op, people might resemble empty robots, but they also have long marriages and stable, pain-free lives. Like all good fantasies about the future, it is easy to imagine how this world would evolve out of our own. Just try Googling “Dr. Walter Freeman — lobotomy — homophobia” to see how disturbingly close to reality Oliver’s imaginary procedure is.
When we meet Lena, only months before her procedure, she can’t wait to be cured. She is disgusted and frightened by the idea of love. She hates knowing she still has the “disease running though [her] blood”, making her feel “dirty.” A lot of Lena’s fears come from The Book of Safety, Health and Happiness Handbook. The Book of Shhh is a Bible slash code of law that everyone in Lena’s world has committed to memory. In a stroke of brilliance, The Book of Shhh actually shares stories with the Old Testament, but, unlike the Bible, which leaves room for interpretation, The Book of Shhh is a fundamentalist text. It makes sense that Lena believes everything she reads. The word is a powerful thing.
And honestly, even without the cautionary tales laid out in The Book of Shh, I can understand why Lena is afraid of love. Who isn’t? “Love is the deadliest of all deadly things it kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.” There is comfort in Lena’s protected, all-girl, pre-sexual existence. Her best friend Hana is gorgeous, but it never occurs to Lena to be jealous of Hana until a boy enters the picture. Desire changes everything.
The boy is Alex, and he mysteriously appears for the first time on the day of Lena’s government exam. As soon as they meet, he and Lena start circling around each other in that way that people do when they have crushes on one another. Liking and loving are pretty much the same thing in the eyes of the government (and in the eyes of teenagers too) so the chemistry between Lena and Alex is forbidden.
Alex is an intoxicating combination of good and bad. His kindness towards Lena is unwavering, but he is still shrouded in mystery. Alex is just the right amount of dangerous to make a teenager swoon (and, yeah, maybe this thirty year old woman too!) but he is also very respectful towards Lena. This ability to create crush-worthy male leads is a Lauren Oliver trend: I noticed it in her first book, Before I Fall, another must-read. The romantic relationships in Oliver’s novels form an empowering model, one that proposes that love can be safe and exciting at the same time.
As Lena’s eighteenth birthday approaches, her feelings for Alex grow and she starts to dread the procedure. It’s not just Alex she is afraid of losing, but her newfound feelings, too. She doesn’t want the government to take away the sensation of desire. Once Lena suspects that the campaign against amor deliria might just be a means to control the people, she starts to question everything she has been taught. By the end of Delirium, she is completely radicalized.
Even as the stakes get higher and the action gets bigger, Oliver keeps us close. She writes sensitively, moving slowly and observantly through every shift in Lena’s experience. The result is that we are really with Lena, practically inside her skin. This closeness is an intimacy that only really good writing affords, and it is amazing that Oliver manages to maintain it throughout all the cinematic, post-apocalyptic drama that unfolds in these books.
Lena’s rebellion might have started with a crush, but by the time Pandemonium begins, she is a full on enemy of the state. (These books say nothing if not the personal is political!). In Pandemonium, Lena has escaped from Portland and is on the run in the Wilds, the parts of the country that the government has failed to control. People who live in the Wilds are “uncured”, meaning they are still susceptible to love, desire and the pains of rejection. They live in makeshift, DIY societies, their communal bonds strengthened through the need for food and shelter. Lena falls in with a political crew, led by a group of rebels bent on combating the US government and putting an end to the procedure.
While Delirium is a pent up, slow burning story that unfolds in an eerily quiet suburban landscape, Pandemonium is an action-packed adventure. This will be fun for some readers, but I tend to get a little alienated by too many brushes with death and almost-getting-caught escapes. I had a similar issue when I was reading The Hunger Games, which is one high-risk event after another. I actually think the two trilogies complement each other by pointing out different afflictions in our society: if The Hunger Games is a parable about political oppression and exploitation of the labor class, the Delirium series warns us about the dangers of ideological rule.
In Pandemonium, we meet Julian, a new hot boy for Lena to try to not-love. Like Alex, he is both sweet and sexy. There are enough scenes that crossed over from action to sexual tension to keep me totally absorbed. But my favorite scenes in Pandemonium are the ones that take place in post-apocalypse Manhattan. The details of Oliver’s imagining of the city — what has become of the subways, the rationing of electricity — are really beautiful. They are also chilling in their plausibility.
For me, the idea that gray is a forbidden color lingers in the narrative. In the first two books, Oliver set up a lot of blacks and whites: love versus not love, the Wilds versus the cities, the rebels versus the government. But a romantic twist at the very end of Pandemonium complicates that binary system. Requiem will give Oliver the chance to navigate the gray area in between.
One last thing about Oliver: she is great at writing heart-rending endings. I’ve cried at the end of all her books. Which is one more reason to look forward to Requiem. I seriously can’t wait.