The Maze Runner (A long, sort of angry, not proofread review)
March 23, 2011
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what to do with this review. It’s a little long, and gets a little repetitive. I hate proofreading, especially my own writing, and my review could use a lot of work. The main reason I have done little with it since I typed it about a year ago: I felt better. Getting my thoughts out was its own reward. Plus, this title is fairly popular with teens and librarians, which are two groups of people I like. Still, there are people out there who feel the same as me, and I think many of my points are valid. So here it is . . . my long, sort of angry, not proofread, spoiler-filled review of The Maze Runner by James Dashner.
After I started typing out some of my thoughts on James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, I wondered if I was being too harsh. After all, it’s just a book for teens. A dystopian survival story. Just a piece of escapism. Then I realized it’s that type of thinking that I deal with daily at my job (I’m a YA librarian.) I don’t know how often an adult has said to me, “This is a good book . . . for being in the Young Adult section.” I want to point to the garbage that is found on the New York Times bestseller list week in and week out. Most Young Adult titles, including the most popular ones, are more daring, creative, and well-written than anything John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Nicholas Sparks have ever written. To find adult titles that are that intellectually stimulating I have to look well off the beaten path, unless it’s by Stephen King. Could it be a coincidence that King is a popular author among Young Adults?
Then there is that tired cliché of “kids these days.” It makes me want to pull my hair out when I hear that. I know we want to hold on to the nostalgia of our childhoods, but I wonder if “kids these days” are really that much different. Ageism works both ways. To imply “kids these days” are too selfish or too stupid or too lazy insults me.
So, do I feel that I’m being too harsh? No. No, I don’t. I care very much about the “kids” I work with every day. I believe in them. I feel passionately about my work. They are smart enough to figure The Maze Runner out. It isn’t that tough. Too bad James Dashner has no faith in them. I do.
It should be noted the following contains many spoilers. Please don’t read further if you plan to read The Maze Runner, which you may be. After all, it is a very popular and well-liked book, no matter how much I hate it, or if I think Dashner thinks little of teenager’s intellect.
The Maze Runner begins with protagonist Thomas waking up in a moving box, also known as an elevator. When the doors open he is surrounded by a group of boys, and an alien, enigmatic place called The Glade. This place is really just a community, outside the menacing Maze of the title. Most of the boys work odd jobs, to keep their lives comfortable, while another group searches the Maze for an exit. However, everything changes a day after Thomas arrives, when the Glade’s first girl arrives. She will be the last to ever arrive, and this could be the end of the kids in The Glade forever.
If that sounds like fertile ground for action, suspense, strong teen characters, and puzzle-solving, you’d be right. It’s wide open to that. Dashner from time to time even capitalizes. In a particularly great scene, Thomas is caught in the Maze after dark, when the Grievers, gloriously imagined bio-mechanical monsters, come out. The scene is action-packed, as Thomas swings along the ivy covered walls to escape. It’s cinematic and thrilling, even adding a gut-wrenchingly suspenseful scene where the Griever cuts its lights leaving Thomas in total darkness. Scary stuff.
Those scenes are rare. Even if Dashner has imagined a ripe, terrifying, scary, even clever novel, he doesn’t have any faith in his readers. Most of the book is overexplained and illogical. Dashner’s book is the worst kind of YA. The kind that believes that tweens and teens are absolute thumbsucking morons without the ability to comprehend difficult plots and/or literary devices. Where I think books like Tender Morsels push that idea too far in the opposite direction, Dashner is at the precipice of his book being dangerously dumbed down.
I’m not saying easy reads, or easier reads aren’t important. Look at Gordon Korman’s On The Run series. It isn’t one of my favorite books. It’s built to be chase sequence after chase sequence to keep reluctant readers, especially boys, hooked. In all the melee, however, he brings up tough ethical questions for the readers and characters to face.
Nor am I saying there isn’t a place for “dumb” fiction. Escapism. Raunchy humor. Something to just unwind with. Not everything has to be literary or intellectual. I prefer that it isn’t. If a kid is reading, and enjoying reading, then that will give them a positive experience of reading. Maybe they will move to something more challenging in the future. Maybe they won’t. But that doesn’t matter. That “dumb” fiction isn’t pretending to be something groundbreakingly intellectual. I guess, neither is The Maze Runner. It is, however, pretending to be on a level above “dumb.” Where the danger lies is in it being “dumbed-down” fiction. Instead of saying, “Hey kid, I know this is tough, but I believe you are smart enough to understand. So just use your brain and follow me. We will make it through this together. We’ll be better for it.” Instead it insists that kids are too stupid to figure it out and says, “Hey dumb dumb. I know this stuff is hard, but don’t worry, here is the answer!”
For instance, the puzzle-solving I hinted at before, something I find thrilling in many YA and MG novels, isn’t something the “smart kids” in this book are allowed to do. Instead the author has no faith in them either, instead he brings irrational deus ex machina into the text to tell the characters exactly how to solve the puzzle that’s vexed them for 2 years. Late in the book, it is revealed that each character in The Glade was chosen because they were highly intelligent. Their names are based on famous intellectuals, Thomas for Thomas Edison, Alby for Albert Einstein, etc. What we come to find out though is in two years, these exceedingly smart kids, who were chosen because they are smart, and educated in some sort of special, secret program, can’t figure out a puzzle that is so simple it’s embarrassing it’s in a book for teens, and not for preschoolers. However, these smart kids can’t figure out, even though they pour over maps of the maze daily, that it spells out the clues to their escape. Instead, Teresa, the girl, shows up, in a timely fashion, to tell them, just when they need it, that this is what they need to do (Page 232, “The Maze is a code, Tom. The Maze is a code.”) Neither her, nor Thomas, nor any of the other boys figure this out, even if they know the Maze has a pattern. Nope, they aren’t intellectually capable of figure out something so simple. Instead, Dashner uses Teresa to say it point-blank. Where’s the fun in that? We don’t get to see the “smart kids” do anything other than running around and fighting cool beasts. The one activity they are given that seems to fit their gifts, and they don’t even use their gifts. Instead they have a recollection of it spelling things. That’s the kind of short-hand used in The Maze Runner. It’s also what makes it so sickening. Puzzle-solving is reduced to puzzle-solved. No need to work too hard.
Dashner uses the same kind of shorthand to manipulate things like suspense. In the book, when one of the characters is stung by a Griever, they go through a Changing. The Changing brings back memories of all the things they went through before the Maze, which drives them crazy. They see the faces of the people who put them there, the apocalyptic occurrence that led them to those people, etc. It makes those who have been through the changing wary of Thomas, because they saw him helping build the Maze. Of course, when anyone asks someone who’s been through the Changing what they saw, the Changee can give them vague answers, but once they start to get to specific they begin to choke themselves. This is only for suspense’s sake though. Alby chokes himself, when it is too early in the story. And later Gally chokes himself, so he can’t reveal too much before the second book. However, Thomas knowingly gets himself stung and goes through the changing so he can finally get answers. Then he is given most of chapters 48-51 to lay out in long monologues exactly what is happening to the boys and why. Never once does his hand ever try to choke him. Why not? Well, because dear reader, Thomas needs to tell you what is happening. You can not figure it yourself. Dashner had an opportunity in Chapter 47 to show what Thomas sees during the Changing, thus not having to break his own choking rule. However, he decides to limit that chapter to a page and not show us anything. Instead, he tells. Tells. Tells. Tells. Tells. Tells.
I think it’s these kinds of things I had the biggest problem with. In one of Zadie Smith’s essays, from her book Changing My Mind, she talks of it being necessary for some writers to build a scaffolding around their work. It can be helpful to know the answers as the writer during the writing process. However, the scaffolding needs to be taken down, or hidden in the final draft. We as readers shouldn’t be aware of the work that was done. There’s my issue. I was always aware of the scaffolding, and of Dashner on it, doing the work and pulling the strings. Maybe he’s too obsessive, too worried that his readers won’t get it. But in his obsessing for the reader, he forgets about the reader entirely. Readers aren’t given an imagination over The Maze Runner that hasn’t been directly controlled by its author.
This leads to another problem I had with this book. The cursing. From what I’ve gathered, Dashner seems to be a religious man, maybe Mormon, but that I couldn’t find for sure. I was able to gather he has written some positive-messaged books for young readers. They are not expressly religious fiction, but convey religious messages. While I give him credit for realizing boys in a tough situation would curse, I would have him rather stick to his morals than giving his kids the clunky, doofy words he gives them to say. To be honest, I probably never would have noticed that the kids, who probably would be cursing, weren’t cursing if he didn’t draw so much attention to it with his made-up curses. They could have been entirely clean-mouthed young men dealing with a tough situation, and I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. However, I was highly aware of their utterances of “shanks,” “klunks,” “shucks,” etc. It made the reading, for me, clunky, always aware of these foul-mouthed kids. Even if they’d been dropping the f-bombs, or worse, I don’t think I’d have been as aware. This led me to another uncertainty. Would these kids really go through all the work to make up new curse words? First, they’d have to recognize cursing, the kind you’d see in R-rated movies, is wrong. If they came to this conclusion, then even these other word, which are still curse words, would still be wrong. And they’ve already come to the conclusion that cursing is wrong. Second, there are no parents around and, since everyone uses theses new curse words with no qualms, no one to offend. I find it hard that they would care enough to spend the time to make up these new words. Maybe they just got tired of having the freedom to use the real words. Maybe they used their superior intellects to give themselves a cultural identity. I find either of the last two hard to believe.
My final problem with The Maze Runner: lack of mathematical, and/or, editorial logic. The number of boys living in the Glade bothered me through the whole book. It never said how many were there, but it always seemed that there were quite a few. It is stated expressly, that the Glade was started with a large number of boys, and then one boy every 30 days for two years. We know this is Earth, because they talk of South America and The Andes. So it would be logical that 24 boys have been added to the first group of boys. Ok. So that would make sense, one large group, plus 24. On page 45, however, Dashner and/or his editor blow everything as Alby says, “Two years, I’ve been here. Ain’t none been here longer. The few before me are already dead.” Alright, so that only leaves the 24 boys, with Alby, 25. Even if you give Dashner the benefit of the doubt and say Thomas is 25, making Alby 26, and Teresa 27, there are not enough for his violent ending. 42 kids leave the maze, this conclusion is reached on page 348 when the text states, “Before long eighteen boys joined Thomas and his friends in the tunnel, making a total of twenty-one Gladers in all.” That is fine, that is still under 27. However, a group of boys stayed behind in the Glade to see what happens, because they didn’t believe in Thomas’s escape plan. Also, there is Newt a little further down the page saying, “Half of us . . . Dead.” Now, I am assuming he meant half of the kids who entered the maze. So that means, there is a possible 50 or 60 kids in the Glade. Not possible. There can only be 27, tops. And 21 were killed in the escape plan. Yet, magically, 15 of them come back from the dead to make it into the tunnel, or wait . . . what? This could have all been fixed by cutting Alby’s 3 sentences early in the book. Instead, I was uncomfortably trying to figure out where all these extra kids came from.
I bet the stupid teens James Dashner had to explain everything for could at least do simple arithmetic.