The danger of reading multiple books from a similar genre in a short span of time is saturation. And when many of those books are by the same author, it isn’t surprising when certain patterns start to emerge. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when the writer is hyperly self-aware about utilising those patterns in all his books (whether to subvert them or not), it gets really overwhelming. That is probably my biggest takeaway from my “YA month” (though granted, I only read the YA books that were already lying on my shelves/Kindle, and didn’t make any sort of careful list after curation).
John Green is not a bad writer by any stretch of imagination. I’ve read three of his books so far (currently in the middle of An Abundance of Katherines, but I have a feeling I will need to come back to it at a later point because I’m just not enjoying it or wanting to read more). But there is no denying that he favours certain tropes – the geeky, shy male protagonist who idolises one of the popular girls from afar, the popular girl who isn’t just hot, but also intelligent and misunderstood, and inspires said boy to an appreciation of life and brings him out of his shell, the best friend who is either obnoxious and well-meaning, or a good, stable influence for the most part, a life-changing road-trip among others. In The Fault In Our Stars, he switches the male and female characters so that Augustus Waters is the enabler to Hazel’s transformative journey, but the rest isn’t all that different.
Looking for Alaska is his debut book, and I’d heard really good things about it (some even saying that they thought it was much better than The Fault In Our Stars, which was my first John Green book, and one that I had surprisingly quite enjoyed, despite its faults). Did it live up to those expectations? Not really, and I had so many deja-vu moments having read Paper Towns just a few weeks ago.
Just like in Paper Towns, Miles, the quiet, shy, skinny guy who moves to the Culver Creek boarding school in search of his “Great Perhaps”, idolises Alaska Young, damaged, self-destructive, moody, free-spirited, hot. She forms part of his group of friends at school along with “Colonel”, Takumi and Lara, and there are plenty of pranks, underage drinking, smoking, sex, swearing, and other actions that amount to reckless abandon. This has been a point of concern in terms of age-appropriateness, but for me, that was a realistic portrayal of teens who are away from home and in a boarding school environment. This book may seem to romanticise these actions, and even condone them as “rites of passage”, but the second part of the book (it is divided into a “Before” and “After”, the inciting incident a tragedy that will forever change all their lives) deals with Miles’ coming-of-age, and touches upon some very insightful issues about the more controversial first part.
Through the course of the narrative, Miles comes to realise that there is much he doesn’t know about the “real” Alaska, and how putting someone on a pedestal means that we rarely get to know their true self and blind ourselves to their obvious issues. Or that sometimes they aren’t the person we imagine them to be at all. One thing I like about John Green is that he writes intelligent teenage characters. Okay, many of them do also appear pretentious in parts and it seems like we are supposed to believe something about them just because they have said it, even though their actions contradict it, but the literary references or the wider questions about life, purpose, identity raised and discussed by these characters make for a refreshing change from the view that teens are monosyllabic, materialistic and shallow. There again is a pitfall. By trying to make them different and have unique quirks, not enough is done (for me at least) to make them seem real and rounded. It almost feels like the writer is focused more on what they say, what they do and how they appear to each other, rather that showing us how they really are.
Similarly, my feelings about Alaska Young mirrored my feelings about Paper Town’s Margo Roth Spiegelman. It felt like the writer was going out of his way to make her deliberately mysterious, and that the reasons for her behaviour weren’t strong enough to justify it. I understand that teen years are all about confusion, contradiction and experimentation, but I failed to understand the pull of Alaska, or the almost magnetic effect she has on those around her, who tolerate all manner of stuff from her. She was neither a very likeable character, nor someone who you feel sorry for, despite the dislike.
This is where my main point of detachment with Green’s books starts to manifest. None of the characters truly stand out or linger in your mind.All his characters meld into one after a point and you can remember only facts—Miles likes to memorise last lines by famous people, Colonel knows all the world’s capitals, Radar is obsessed with Omnictionary, Augustus likes to keep cigarettes in his mouth without lighting them—rather than fully realised people. Which in itself is ironically part of the same thing the Green is trying to tell us not to do with the people we come across in our lives. Add that to a lack of coherent plot, and there is a feeling of wasted potential and an aspiration to depth and a sense of meaning that falls short.
And yet, it is the ideas these characters propagate, the philosophy infused in the narratives by the writer, and the feelings they create in you as you read those musings that are hard to shake. Instead of the people, it is the thoughts that stay with you.
Things I particularly loved? The symbolism (another thing he does really well), the philosophical and religious discussions in Miles’ religion class, and the ending where Miles tries to answer their final exam question regarding hope and life’s “labyrinth of suffering” (I would have enjoyed a teacher like Mr. Hyde despite his tendency to drone on). Green always leave us with a considerable amount of thinking to do, and that is probably one of the things I have enjoyed most about his works.