Looking for Alaska – John Green
The last of John Green’s novels that I’ll read this year (Edinburgh City Libraries don’t stock An Abundance of Katherines or Will Grayson, Will Grayson) is coincidentally his first published work, Looking for Alaska, which yet again fails to live up to The Fault in Our Stars.
If I were inclined to be mean, I’d say that if you wanted to read a review of Looking for Alaska, you should just head on over to my review of Paper Towns, because they’re essentially the same story. In both, a boy who is something of an outsider falls in love with a rebellious girl who has gone off the rails leaving only emotional turmoil and mystery in her wake. In attempting to solve the mystery, the protagonist is accompanied by his two joker friends (one of whom is basically a token non-white character more intelligent than his friends) and another, less free-spirited, girl. There are pranks, and high-school hi-jinks, alcohol abuse and everyone comes of age together.
All that said, Looking for Alaska outclasses Paper Towns for a number of reasons. Firstly there’s the fact that while Alaska is just as flawed as Margo Roth Spiegelman, she has a rather forgveavble justification rather than simple existential angst. Secondly, Miles (also known as Pudge) is far more interesting than Quentin, because he does have some semblance of a character outside of his relationship with Alaska. Yes, this character is “a boy who wants to be more than he is, but does a fairly poor job of actually enacting it”, but at least it’s more interesting than “boy who has only missed one day of school in during his entire career and wants to go to college”. The setting of the book, a boarding school in Alabama is also more compelling than Q’s suburban high-school in Florida. However, I think that it’s worth pointing out that the basic framework of Miles’ life mirrors Green’s own quite closely, and from watching various Vlogbrothers videos, reading interviews and so on, it’s quite clear that a lot of the less meaningful plot points of Looking for Alaska are based on his personal experience. This doesn’t devalue the plot as such, but it does perhaps explain why the setting of his first book feels so much more engaging than the later work’s.
That said, Looking for Alaska is still pretty flawed. I get that people tend to have a “thing” that they are interested in, but Miles’s predilection for collecting Last Words falls a little flat, and his lack of context or understanding for most of the statements undermines the meaning of most of them. Most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional, and those that aren’t still feel a bit flat. In truth the only characters that do feel like a well-rounded person, rather than a literary or philosophical concept are Miles’ roommate Chip (the Colonel), and Alaska herself, who not only have clearly defined personalities, but back stories that explains it, rather than just being tagged onto it. The contrast between Chip and Alaska is by far one of the more interesting parts of the book, because it demonstrates the different ways people react to their troubled upbringings. Both were miserable for different reasons, but Chip grew into a functional teenager with drive and goals, while Alaska was much more dysfunctional.
While I don’t feel this as strongly as I did with Paper Towns, I think that I would probably have liked Looking for Alaska a lot more if I’d read it when I was teenager. However, I struggled to enjoy it when reading it as an adult, and while that may be as much a comment on me as on the book, I think that it could also be a mark against Green’s vision of storytelling. He has publicly said that he finds writing for and about adults boring because they pay taxes, so I guess he’s kind of achieved what he set out to do but at the same time, it does feel as though all he’s done is do the same thing, but aimed at teenagers. Most of what happens in Looking for Alaska is, when it boils down to it, people sitting around talking about religion, their emotions, and dead authors and revolutionaries. This can be compelling, but Looking for Alaska doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.