Hazel summarizes the plot of An Imperial Affliction. The narrator is a girl named Anna who develops blood cancer. Anna lives with her mother, a one-eyed tulip obsessed gardener, who falls in love with a dubious, allegedly rich figure called The Dutch Tulip Man. As a reader, Hazel questions the man’s wealth and even his real nationality. Hazel admires Anna’s candid nature in the face of cancer. She finds it comforting that Anna also, views herself as a side effect of the endless biological mutation that provides the planet with its abundant diversity of life. The only issue with the book is its lack of a conclusion. It ends midsentence without any character resolution. To make matters worse, Van Houten mysteriously vanished into obscurity after publishing the novel.
Setting the book aside, Hazel calls Augustus, who is busy consoling the recently dumped Isaac. Augustus invites Hazel over, and she arrives to find the boys playing video games. Isaac is distraught. Quoting An Imperial Affliction, Augustus points out that “pain demands to be felt.” When Isaac’s carelessness gets the boys flanked in the video game, Augustus heroically sacrifices himself by jumping on an enemy grenade, in a futile effort to save a group of children. The screen reads mission failed, but Augustus contends otherwise, noting the children were spared. Hazel, however, points out that all salvation is temporary. Suddenly Isaac snaps and attacks the pillows. Augustus points out that pillows, unlike basketball trophies, are unbreakable and coaxes Isaac into smashing all the trophies.
A week later, Augustus phones Hazel. They discuss the things they love and dislike about An Imperial Affliction. Augustus coyly asks about Van Houten’s reclusive nature, then reveals that he has miraculously gotten in contact with Van Houten through the author’s assistant, Lidewij Vliegenthart. Augustus shares the content of Van Houten’s correspondence. Van Houten’s response is warm but philosophically cryptic, especially in regard to the purpose of art, which the author questions wholeheartedly.
Later, Hazel spends hours formulating the perfect email to Van Houten. Finally, she strikes out a list of questions all pertaining to his novel's lack of resolution. What is the fate of Sisyphus the Hamster? Does Anna’s mother remarry? Is the Dutch Tulip Man actually a con man? Email sent, Hazel calls Augustus and reads him “A Certain Slant of Light,” the Emily Dickinson poem that An Imperial Affliction derives its title from. They also discuss Augustus’s past relationship with a girl named Caroline who died from cancer. At the end of their conversation, Hazel thinks of how speaking on the phone with Augustus is like being in an invisible “third space” that only they occupy.
A few days later Hazel gets a text from Augustus stating that Isaac’s surgery was successful and that he has been ruled cancer free, though the excitement is somewhat empty on account of Isaac now being eyeless. Hazel visits Isaac at the hospital. When Isaac falls asleep Hazel buys him some super-scented hospital flowers. On her way out, Hazel encounters Isaac’s mother, who asks if Hazel knows Isaac’s ex-girlfriend, Monica.
The next morning Hazel receives a response from Van Houten. He states he cannot answer any of Hazel’s questions for fear that she might twist those answers into a sequel. However he extends an invitation: They can discuss the novel in person if Hazel ever finds herself in Amsterdam. Hazel is elated by the offer, but quickly determines a trip to Amsterdam would be financially unfeasible. She shares the news with Augustus, who asks if she's used her wish from The Genie Foundation, an organization that grants sick kids one wish. Unfortunately Hazel spent her wish on a cliché trip to Disney World when she was first diagnosed. A few days later Augustus plans a surprise Dutch themed-date at the Funky Bones sculpture park. He shocks Hazel with the news that he never used his wish, and The Genie Foundation has agreed to fly them to Amsterdam.
Chapters 4 and 5 deal with a question that ties into the motif of existentialism, namely: What is authentic and what is artificial? The question turns up in a variety of ways. Some are subtle, like Hazel learning that all the flowers in the hospital are sprayed with Super Scent, so their scents aren't real. They smell good and like flowers nonetheless, but the scent is artificial. Augustus also makes note of the “cold and artificial” pleasures of the theme park in his soliloquy during their picnic, implying that the pleasures of a theme park are hollow and not really authentic. The authenticity question comes up more directly in Van Houten's reply to Augustus's email, when he asks if “the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us” is valuable or not. It's a question at the heart of An Imperial Affliction's symbolism, and The Fault In Our Stars does suggest an answer. The Author's Note says the idea that fiction can matter is “the foundational assumption of our species,” indicating that, at least for John Green, art can have real, i.e. authentic, value. In addition, Hazel obviously finds great meaning in An Imperial Affliction. Reading it and experiencing a story that resonates with and captures her own life provides her with a great deal of comfort. The value Hazel places in the book is quite real, suggesting that art can have authentic value and isn't just, as Van Houten implies, a temporary distraction from life's meaninglessness.
In these chapters we learn a great deal more about Augustus, whose character raises further questions about the idea of authenticity. The way Augustus behaves, such as preparing an entire Dutch-themed picnic, composing and memorizing a soliloquy, arranging to use his wish to take Hazel to Amsterdam, frequently keeping an unlit cigarette in his mouth, and doing things for their metaphorical value, seems like a kind of performance. It's as if he's putting on a persona that isn't necessarily fake but certainly appears calculated. The fact that he goes by two names, “Augustus” with his friends and “Gus” with his parents, also lends weight to the idea that he's constructed a persona. It isn't quite clear whether this persona can be called artificial or inauthentic, but what's obvious is that a sense of grandeur is important to Augustus. We get a hint why in his choice to gleefully sacrifice himself in the video game he and Isaac play. Hazel notes that he talks about the game as if it were real, and we see that he genuinely enjoys the idea of dying gloriously for a worthy cause. All these details imply that Augustus finds value in the idea of being an extraordinary, larger-than-life character, as well as in the idea of sacrificing himself. Throwing himself on a grenade in the game allows him to live out this fantasy, and the desire to be a hero, maybe as much as his attraction to Hazel, could be why he offers his wish to fulfill one of her dreams rather than using it for himself.
The section demonstrates some of the realities of cancer and the ways Hazel and Isaac cope with the emotional turmoil they face. The reality Hazel has to confront is the fact that she'll soon die, inflicting a huge amount of pain on her parents. She deals with it indirectly by fixating elsewhere on An Imperial Affliction. Her obsession with learning the fates of the fictional characters seems to stem from her desire to calm her fears about her own parents. If everything works out for Anna's mother and the Dutch Tulip Man after Anna dies, it means her parents will similarly be alright after her death. The reality Isaac faces is much more immediate, and his response is accordingly much more visceral. He'll soon be blind, and his girlfriend, rather than help him through the ordeal, has chosen to remove herself from the difficult situation. He reacts with volatile mix of sadness and rage, first feeling totally distraught and then exploding in a sobbing, pillow-punching, trophy-smashing outburst. The incident offers us a glimpse at the sort of emotional distress that many cancer patients whose lives will be permanently changed by their illness experience. Augustus, quoting from An Imperial Affliction, articulates an idea that will appear again in the novel as the characters try to deal with the inevitable suffering they'll experience, that pain “demands to be felt.”
John Green has also published Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Leviathan), and has worked on a number of short stories and anthologies, most notably This Is Not Tom and Let It Snow (with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle).
As a die-hard fan of John Green novels, I have read The Fault in Our Stars six times. Augustus Waters is actually seventeen, not sixteen.
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