Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska

Written by: John Green

Published: 2005

Synopsis: Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" (Fran├žois Rabelais, poet) even more. He heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.

After. Nothing is ever the same.

“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.

When my Ninja swap package arrived I squealed and groaned when I unwrapped Looking for Alaska. I had put down YA as the genre I wanted to get a little more acquainted with, but after my rocky experience reading The Fault in Our Stars I wasn't really sure how I'd feel about another John Green novel. Would I find the characters as shallow? The narrative as manipulative? The whole thing so over-hyped that the enjoyment I did find within in the pages would be negated by my utter bafflement that people have lines from the book tattooed on their arm? But the whole point of the trick or treat swap is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and I hate writing off writers after a single book, so I decided to start the book that very day.

I liked this far, far more than TFioS. Some of my issues are still present (which I'll get to), but I felt that in spite of these issues it was far more ....honest, is what I'm thinking. More genuine perhaps? A quick Google lets me know that this is actually John Green's first novel, so maybe it was simply that he was putting a lot more of himself into the characters and mining his own life for anecdotes and settings. I don't know, but I definitely felt like this book had characters that lived, rather than simply moved through a series of events.

The book takes place at a co-ed boarding school in Alabama. Our protagonist "Pudge" is a collector of last words and a seeker of the "great perhaps". Back in his native home of Florida he is utterly friendless and while he loves his parents he's 16. Your parents being your only friends is not something any teen wants in their life. So off to his father's alma mater he trots, where he first meets his stocky map-nerd room-mate the Colonel and the smoking hot Alaska. Pudge and the Colonel click immediately, which sort of makes me wonder why he had zero friends back in Florida, but things are a little more rocky with Alaska. I mean she's hot, so that's a huge tick in the positive column, but she's moody and snooty and when he turns up at her room door that night wet from being dumped in the lake (a prank to get back at the Colonel - which actually freaked me the fuck out because he could have died*) she tells him to mooooove on stranger. Ugh, aren't girls the worst sometimes? 

Somehow though Pudge manages to wade through Alaska's comstant mood shifts and faux-existential garbage and spark up a friendship. So strong is this friendship that he passes on Thanksgiving with the folks and stays at the school with Alaska alone where they rifle through everyone's personal belongings watching their porn and stealing their booze. Okay, so obviously a few things in this book didn't exactly rock my world. But pushing past that for a minute the majority of the book is a lot of fun. Pudge is adopted into the Colonel's little group of friends, and along with Alaska, Lara and Takumi, the quintet drink and smoke and study and prank together. And as we all know, the group that drinks, smokes, studies, and pranks together, stays together. Except that these 5 don't. 

As you read the book you'll notice that the chapters aren't labelled Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter XXX, they're a countdown. One hundred and twenty-seven days before. Forty-three days before. And then the book breaks into the second half, the after. The cataclysmic event is significant. It's destructive and I can completely understand how it would completely turn a person's world upside down. But to me it was the biggest problem in the book. I'm about to throw out some heavy spoilers, so skip down to the River Song gif if you haven't read it and don't want to know. 

In a similar way that TFioS felt manipulative, the sudden death of Alaska in a drink driving accident felt manipulative. She's there having a great time and then a sudden phone call sends her into a spiral, rushing out of the school to her inevitable death. My biggest issue is not that she died. People die and I think it's important for books to look at issues like this so that young kids can know that all kinds of grieving is okay. You can cry. You can act out. You can go numb. Whatever your grieving process is, you're not alone. But half the book is dedicated to how her shocking death rocked the student population at this boarding school and the majority of it centres around Pudge, a guy who had known her for about 5 months and was obsessively in love with her, in spite of us not really seeing any true connection between them. Sure they had that Thanksgiving week alone, but most scenes showed them in a wider group setting getting along generally or else they were of Pudge sulking because she was in a relationship and seemed to genuinely care for the guy. If they book had broken into sections and looked at how each of the remaining 4 students survived then I would have felt a lot less skeeved out. Instead we got a lot of Pudge feeling sorry for himself and going full Romeo about how special their love was and then bizarrely the book basically rounds out with the other two guys announcing that they to had been in love with her. Ugh, come on. The take away to me felt less like "she was this enigmatic soul who commanded a room, even though she was a raging bitch half the time" and more "damn I wish she'd fucked me before she blew herself up in a fiery wreck". The mystery that the group embark on to find out where she was driving to and why she was upset (was it an accident or suicide?) could have been a fascinating look at how we deal with death, but in the end Alaska just felt like an object that they'd been unfairly robbed of, not a real person. 

Which leads me into my issue with the characters. Now that I've read two of John Green's books (which incidentally are the best possible depiction of his general arc as a writer) I think I can comfortably say that he doesn't write characters well. Which is fine! There are authors I read because of their ability to make me feel something, and others for their ability to paint an entire world and all its inhabitants through some incredibly creative metaphors and descriptors. Douglas Adams comes to mind, there is a brilliant post on Tumblr that collects a lot of his turns of phrase which manage to give weight to a person or a feeling by perfectly putting the right words together. But not every author can work that particular form of magic. Some write characters, some write events, some write emotions. They're all incredibly valid and I don't think you are an inherently bad writer if you can't write well in one of those areas. When I read a John Green book I feel like he has a story he wants to tell and then he finds the characters to tell it. And because of this we end up with very cookie-cutter "nerdy" or "cool" characters who fulfil a function but don't really live on their own. Pudge is fine, but I don't think I could really describe him to you. He's tall and lanky. He studies a lot. He prefers to read biographies to novels. But who is he? *shrugs* that I can't really say. Similarly, Alaska is just this massive mystery. She's manic and collects books and likes pranks. She's super hot and has green eyes. Sure we get a fairly weak insight into her towards the middle of the book, but it's never really built on either  so does it count? Compare this to say Rainbow Rowell. A lot of Rowell's books share similar parallels to John Green. They're (mostly) about teenagers and romance blossoming where you least expect it, and troubled homes and weird kids who don't fit in. But Rowell's characters live off the page. They might technically tick off the same checkpoints as John Green, "attractive but not in a traditional sense" "silly nickname" "obsesses over book/film/TV character or world" "has an odd hobby" but the plot in a Rowell book happens because of who the characters are, rather than the other way around. To me this leads to Green's characters feeling very manic pixie-ish, they're there to help the plot along and help other characters realise some deep truth about themselves, but they have no substance of their own. Except this is true for every character. It's like a game of Sims or something, the characters just walk headlong into walls repeatedly if they don't have an active role in a particular scene.

All of that said and done, I really did enjoy the book. I know the review might not actually depict that, but in spite of not liking the way John Green constructs his narratives I do like them. He writes with an earnestness which helps me move past the fact that apparently every book is contracted to have a character say something douche-y about cigarettes**. And while I might not connect with the characters and their particular journey, but I still find myself pulling in personal experiences which connect with aspects of the novel. Maybe that's the beauty of John Green, maybe he writes his characters like this so that we can populate his books with the men and women from our own lives and question how we'd react if our version of Pudge or the Colonel did X. Or maybe I'm just desperately grasping at straws to find out why I like a book that I struggled to review positively. Maybe life is just full of mysteries, man.

*They wrapped his body in duct tape so that he couldn't move. And when the Colonel later mentions something about how he could have died Pudge just basically shrugs it off. DUDE, NO.

*Says Alaska “Y'all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.”. FARTING NOISE.


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