Friday, April 1, 2011

In which I defend the dystopian-ness of Delirium by Lauren Oliver

The United States has found a cure for love, now classified as the disease deliria amor nervosa. There are only a few months before Lena undergoes the procedure and she can't wait. That's when the unthinkable happens: she catches the disease. While concealing her "symptoms" of love for a boy named Alex, she begins to question everything her society has told her is right and good.

This started as a regular review, but I found myself wanting to go on the defence right away. There have been many, MANY reviews praising this novel. And it deserves praise. It's beautifully written. The main characters shine so brightly that all others seem to disappear into the background. The world-building is gradual and thorough.

But there have been a number of reviews that dismiss Delirium as not a true dystopia. As an illogical set of circumstances. I would disagree. I found Delirium to be one of the most carefully constructed YA dystopias that I have read of late. What a lot of authors seem to do is take an idea and run with it: push forward from when a time x becomes outlawed with little concern for how that actually happens. But how it happens is kinda the point. We all want a good yarn from our books, but the word "dystopia" promises something more. It promises a chance to examine the world around us. To look closely at our own behaviour, the words spilling from our politicians' mouths, the hysteria our media is feeding us. Even the most gratuitous of the dystopian genre, the zombie novel (if I can lump apocalyptic in with dystopian), can be used to hold a mirror up to society: what would we degenerate into if our survival was on the line? Would the human spirit survive, or would we descend into barbary?

A dystopia is created out of a specific set of circumstances: someone in a position power, usually with misguided good intentions, attempts to create their idea of paradise. A world without Jews, to use a real-life example. A colony on a new planet where wars can be waged for one person's pleasure. A society of Pretty, happy people.*

In Delirium, the powers that be have seized on the idea that the thing standing in the way of an ordered, happy society is love. A cure is found and the people accept it with open arms: a brain procedure that promises to remove all symptoms of the disease. Pain. Jealousy. Heartache. But also the positive emotions too. Joy. Elation. That ache in your chest that makes you want to do anything to be with that person, and that person only.

Here's the rub: the cure doesn't work until a person has reached maturity. Which means there are teenagers running about with all these dangerous feelings. There have been many books for teenagers in which teenagers are persecuted seemingly because they are the intended readers of the book. It's a cheap trick. But it's true that the adolescent brain is still developing so Oliver's premise isn't entirely unfounded, and she does make reference to this in the novel. I'm inclined to be generous in this case as I enjoyed the book and thought Oliver fleshed out her reasoning well. I don't see it as a cheap trick in this case.

If love was the only thing abolished by the procedure I wouldn't be so forgiving. But the truth is far more insidious. Oliver tells the reader that not only are the citizens of Portland "safe" from the disease deliria amor nervosa, but they're more docile too. More willing to follow the rules. Crime is practically non-existent. The people submit to violent, invasive raids into their homes without a peep of complaint. Portland, by the way, is a massive gated community surrounded by an electrified fence. Designed to keep the Invalids (dissenters) out, but also the citizens penned in. Sedition is quickly dealt with by execution or permanent internment in the infamous crypts. Teenagers who attempt to resist the procedure because they have "caught the disease" are taken forcibly, and the procedure is performed against their wishes.

Now, look me in the eye and tell me that's not a dystopia.

There's a telling scene near the beginning of the novel in which Lena's uncle describes a dream he had where he's sealing a window (I forget the American term, caking? coaking?) but the seal keeps flaking off and he has to apply it again and again. Lena's aunt describes a similar dream in which she can't get to the bottom of a pile of dishes. Isn't that what life is without the higher feelings? Without the sparkle of love or headiness of freedom--a long, hard, grind to the grave?


*The Chaos Walking Trilogy, Patrick Ness; Scott Westerfield's Pretties.


  1. Beautiful post. This is exactly what I think of the book, and why I love it.
    I'd love to feature it in Deliriously Falling, the L.O. fan page. Let me know if we can.


  2. Caulking. ;)

    This was a wonderfully insightful post. Looking forward to reading this at some point.

  3. I did feel like it was a dystopia, but I was still MASSIVELY disappointed in this. I wanted so much more! First, the society has only been like this for a very brief period of time, and there doesn't seem to be much, I don't know, meat to the backstory. I wanted more of the science and propaganda. I wanted to know why there wasn't more of a fight, why there wasn't a bigger resistance or a more immediate fear for those in the cities, since it hadn't been very long.
    I also felt that she crossed too often into eye-roll territory. Lena is one of the most terrified by the deleria, yet she tosses those fears out super quick and to the extreme -- I wanted more of a basis for this, a more natural progression -- to that and a lot of things, actually.
    I loved Before I Fall so much, so I was holding Oliver to that standard, and I think she fell far short. I actually groaned sometimes. It was somewhat cheesy and absurd, and it frustrated me because I COULD SEE WHERE IT COULD BE GOOD. I COULD SEE THE GOOD PARTS! I just wanted her to give those to me!!
    But to be fair, I read an ARC, so maybe the final is different.
    I'm still trying to decide if I want to read book 2.

  4. @Ella Thanks I'd love you to!

    @Caroline THAT'S IT! Thanks :)

    @Frankie :D

    @Misty I hadn't read BIF so had no expectations of Oliver's writing. I was really hoping it would be a decent dystopia and it was one of the better written ones too, so it was a very positive experience for me!

  5. An interesting thing happened when I read this post: I reached the word "barbary" and lurched to a halt. Surely, that's not right, I thought (accompanied by visions of Barbary apes and Barbary pirates)...and I had to stop and check.

    I knew exactly what you meant to say, but that didn't matter, I just had to stop and check up on myself and my understanding of the word "barbary", despite knowing what you meant.

    What does that say about me? I think I need to see a good psychologist about this issue!

    And, I think you meant "barbarity" as Barbary exists only as a proper noun (see Barbary coast etc) - at least according to the online dictionaries which are all I have at my disposal here at the airfield, 150km from my two volume OED!)

  6. I found *one* reference to barbary in the sense that I meant it, which probably means enough people have made the same mistake and it's slipped into usage the sneaky way!