Separating the Author from Looking for Alaska

Look how quickly I’ve returned, and I’ll tell you why. It’s all due to the remarkable readability of John Green’s Looking for Alaska.

But first, if you don’t like spoilers, I’m going to throw out a fatty. That “back” button on the left hand corner of your browser–click it. I’ve buffered the discussion of the spoiler with a decent amount of text, so just don’t scroll down. Hit “back.” If you don’t mind spoilers, then onward, undeterred soldier!

I’ve adored John Green as a person for awhile now.  He’s a general humanities nerd who doesn’t care an iota about his hair, and his analytic thinking and open-minded takes on history, literature, and politics makes him an awesome resource for anyone looking to gain new insights or learn to think in broader terms. He talks a mile a minute, like a spiral firework of wit and cleverness, and he’s got so much charisma. Listen to him talk about The Great Gatsby. NoI’m serious.

So after watching him via YouTube and following him on Twitter for a year or two, I realized I am kind of awful for liking his brain so much and not checking out anything he’s written. (It actually took me awhile to figure out that’s what he was–an author–because I just assumed his skill at teaching me things meant he was a teacher.) But, ug, YA! Am I really going to join the ranks of the Harry Potter/Twilight group? Do I want to join teenagers (and horrible adults) in reading about teenagers? Ug, YA! But it’s John Green, so I had to at least give it a go.

Everyone is all atwitter about The Fault in Our Stars these days, but I heard it’s pretty much the saddest thing on earth. Also, the only thing worse than YA is romance YA. And I heard Looking for Alaska was being taught/banned in schools (a promising combo).  So that’s what I went for.

I had some difficulty right off the start due to my familiarity with the author. I hadn’t anticipated this.  I’d watched so many of his videos that he was practically narrating in my head as I read. And, stumbling upon the first f-bomb, I was like, “John Green is not a f-bomb dropper any more than your 7th grade English teacher was an f-bomb dropper.  This can’t be right.” So I was in trouble quickly. There was no reconciling.

Then, it just seemed that all these teenagers were entirely too clever. Like, John Green clever. They were all little versions of John Green–too witty, too quick, too wise, too snarky to be teenagers. The character called “The Colonel” especially was like this.  They were super smart, thought on their feet, were interesting troublemakers, everyone had some kind of nickname…I don’t know. I had trouble with it. They were all different bizzaro versions of John Green.

But at some point pretty early on, that all drifted away. It drifted away because John Green is an excellent storyteller. He will get you lost. The book is so readable and so accessible that, unlike a lot of the books I read, I can pretty uniformly say that everyone on earth could read and would like, if not love, this book.  The only caveat is that it’s immensely sad, and if you don’t feel like crying over some pages, you can keep this one off your list. Actually, if someone would have told me how sad it would be, I probably wouldn’t have read it. (The girl who told me The Fault in Our Stars is sadder gave me sufficient reason not to read it, no matter how much I like Green’s writing.)

So remember that spoiler alert? Coming up.

The book is divided into “before” and “after,” which tells you that there’s something significant to the story is going to happen in the middle.  The “before” section, on the surface, just describes antics, developing friendships, and high school life. As I said, in the beginning, I had trouble. But it didn’t last long. The interactions between the kids became real, and it wasn’t long before the social dynamics mirrored the complexities of real life interactions. Their displays of affection, awkward moments, unexplainable and impulsive choices, along with a fair share of fights–it all did justice to the complications of real human connections and disconnections. I thought Miles a bit of a milquetoast, but I loved Alaska. She was jaded, impulsive, and delightfully warm-blooded. She did terrible things some times, but, again–how like real life.

So, like I said, there is a “before” and an “after,” signifying an event in the middle. I only knew what that thing was going to be on the very last page of the “before” section, despite so many warnings. The title is a warning. Alaska talking about smoking so she can die is a warning. The fact that Alaska seems to be on a collision course, of at least a psychological nature, is a warning. Yet, I didn’t see it. All the warnings were so well-disguised as real life.  The main character, Miles, could have easily been looking for Alaska as much in the first half as in the second half.  And some teenagers are pretty well adjusted, but many are as melodramatic and tortured as Alaska is. Many are risk-takers, like Alaska. They don’t die.  But Alaska does. And I didn’t realize it until Miles mentioned the fact that Alaska was too drunk, too upset to drive, but no one wanted to stop her. That’s when I knew what event would be significant enough to warrant a “before” and an “after” section. I had thought that they were building toward a school prank gone wrong, or perhaps a change in the relationship between Miles and Alaska. I didn’t think she would die.

The “after” section describes this struggle to come to terms with her death. It’s awful. It’s so very, very believable. And that makes it awful. And it also qualifies this as excellent writing.

By the “after” section, the danger of tripping in the narrative (because I know John Green–in an internet-followy way, anyway) was far past. My level of absorption into the story was proven by how horrified I was that Alaska could just be gone: there, alive, warm and passionate one second, and then a just a body, an unliving object the next. I don’t know if it’s a compliment to say this book does death really well, but, oh my, it does death really well.  I felt like I lost her.  She seemed so real to me, and her sudden disappearance from the book left a terrible emptiness, such confusion. There was a hole in the book where she used to be. When I got to the end, I wanted to re-read the entire “before” piece in a new light and appreciate her while I had her. I think I actually loved and idealized her more when she was gone than in the “before” section. And if that doesn’t sound like the kind of grief that would accompany death in real life–wishing you could do it over, wishing you had appreciated the time you spent together more, imagining someone who is gone was a little better than they actually were, feeling that gaping emptiness–I don’t know what does sound like real grief.

Looking for Alaska is a haunting book. It’s very real, and it stays with you.  Was Alaska really that great? If she hadn’t died in the book, would I love her this much? I don’t know. But I miss her, as weird as that is to say.

Since John Green is such an analytic reader and thinker, I expected there to be more thinking involved with this book. It was kind of what I was hoping to get from it, frankly. As you probably see, it was much more of an emotional read than I’d normally choose–not so much a journey of the mind. But this isn’t necessarily a knock. I read to think about things in a new way, but I also read to experience. This book is a beautiful experience.

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