I read The Hunger Games several years ago when a member of my writer’s group, Carolyn Marsden, said, “Read it.” Carolyn writes very sophisticated and evocative YA novels and tracks hot spots in the publishing world like a blue tick hound after possum in a bayou. So we all read The Hunger Games and I thought, “Okay, this is the cri de Coeur of the young, the perennial outrage at whatever system happens to be in control.” In this case it’s the diseased corporate “government” currently in power. All systems relentlessly crush autonomy, even spirit. It isn’t necessary to be young to recognize and hate that, although railing against it is the province of the young. The rest of us realized long ago that survival lies in a combination of deft camouflage and feigned disinterest while quietly sabotaging what we can.
Recently I also saw The Hunger Games movie just because everybody else did. It was so faithful to the book that there was nothing to complain about and I shelved the whole Hunger Game thing with “interesting but fleeting literary/cultural artifacts.” It didn’t touch me, I thought. But that was all about to change.
It was all about to change because at some point in there it dawned on me that I’m not dead. I’d always assumed I would be by now, gone in a flaming car crash with Bach blasting from the radio a la Anthony Perkins in Phaedra. I really, honestly thought some dramatic event with a terrific soundtrack would occur whenever it was supposed to, transporting me to whatever comes next. My only concern has always been the music. But a few months into The Hunger Games frenzy, I realized that my Bach-filled car crash not only hadn’t happened but probably wouldn’t. I mean, surely it would have happened by now, right? Rats. If I was going to live indefinitely I was going to need a job. Enter The Hunger Games.
I applied for two famously underpaid adjunct professor-type positions and was hired by one. When the second scheduled its “interview and candidate assessment” I already knew I couldn’t take the job even if they offered it. I was employed elsewhere with the job that is now devouring my life so that I have no time to write. But I’d already provided enough documentation for Job 2 to qualify for top secret clearance with the CIA, an effort I saw no point in wasting. I’d go to their assessment. Why not? Facing an unanticipated future in which the price of haircuts and Kettle Corn will rise inexorably, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have Job 2 as a backup for later. So I dressed up in my famously underpaid adjunct professor costume (turtleneck, long skirt, artsy scarf and earrings) and went, although I wasn’t serious about it. I didn’t care, and from that perspective I would be able to see what no one else could. I would see that I had become a participant in a hunger game.
And here I have to admit that I have been warned not to write about this. Friends have hinted at dire consequences. “Even if you don’t use the name, everybody will know what you’re talking about. What if ‘they’ see your blog? They’re huge. They can hurt you professionally!” “Oh for God’s sake, this isn’t a spy novel,” I thought. At least it isn’t a novel. It’s reality. And who’s going to rat me out? Nobody likely to read my blog, for sure!
So I showed up in a room of sixty or seventy people dressed in interview drag, all warily sipping water from plastic bottles. I was, I think, the third oldest candidate there, depending on the real age of the guy in dyed hair, pancake makeup and a bright peacock blue dress shirt that strobed in the neon overhead lights. I remembered Clue and named him Mr. Peacock (in the large corporate cafeteria, with the plastic water bottle). He was the only interesting character in sight and I hoped he’d get a job so he could stop living in his van in beach parking lots. There were mountains of shrink-wrapped sandwiches, tiny bags of potato chips, soft-baked cookies, water, soda, coffee and tea. It was going to be a long night.
Everybody had to stand and introduce themselves, a nightmare of pointless discomfort. We were there to destroy each other, not to socialize. In a room full of out-of-work college instructors during an economic recession, the twin odors of desperation and boredom snaked amid scents of tuna salad and Earl Grey tea. Teachers are not skilled in peer combat and are thus incapable of masking the reluctant but inevitable homicidal ideation that is natural among primates in competition for scarce resources. As each person stood to fake warmly intelligent quips about their fascination with stateless protocols in web design or a breakthrough in the teaching of English As An Alternative Language, over sixty others smiled brightly while their eyes beamed murderous hope that the speaker would collapse and die on the spot, freeing a job. It was then that I realized what was going on. We were all contestants in a hunger game!
But I wasn’t going to play Katniss because the survival of no fragile little sister, depressive mother or entire starving village awaited my triumph. Disengaged, I could not be killed. I was going to be the Participant Observer/Stealth Investigative Journalist. It’s a fun mindset and I was ready for the first Game.
It was The Teaching Demo. Imagine an empty corporate classroom at dusk. It’s chilly and the politically correct compact fluorescent lights have just been turned on and are still dim, casting the room in insecure shadows. At a round table in the back, the shadows hover around three women in those little primary-color business suits with fitted jackets that button all the way up and have a wool ruffle at the neck. These are the judges of the first game, representatives of the corporation, holding checklists on clipboards. As they tell the aggregate four of us to begin, I am aware that something’s wrong.
In The Hunger Games, the corporate functionaries are decadent, dressed in bizarre haute couture. They are a Grand Guignol cast swilling moss green, arugula-flavored vodka between agonizing murders displayed on big screens. But our judges are not refugees from antique European drama; not one wears theatrical mascara or harlequin gloves. There is no flavored vodka. There is only the chill, the weak light and a pervasive exhaustion animated by a soundless whine I recognize as fear. The candidates are afraid, but so are the judges. Their eyes are flat as dying ponds and I keep thinking, “This isn’t right; they’re supposed to be shallow and gleeful and evil, but they’re not. They’re just regular people, half dead in a cold grey space full of shadows.”
I did my demo (Framing in Expository Writing – yawn) with faked gusto to a room of slivery unease. The other candidates did theirs (Prepositional Phrases, How To Fill Out a Job Application, and Avoiding Plagiarism). The judges scratched things on their checklists and told us to go back to “home room” and wait for the next “assessment activity.” We didn’t talk as we walked back, sworn enemies in a fight to the death. We wondered which of us had just died.
To Be Continued…