A series in which I read books on required reading lists and discuss their merits.
John Green’s Looking for Alaska appeared on the most required reading lists of any other contemporary YA. I was familiar with both John Green and his books before starting this series.
Like most people my age, I’ve seen Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars.
I even read Turtles All the Way Down. But Looking for Alaska was John Green’s first book, and it shows.
We’ll get to that later.
Miles Halter is from Florida, and he goes away to a boarding school in Alabama. There he develops some new friends.
Alaska, strangely, is one of them. She is like a goddess to Miles. She’s beautiful and mysterious.
Miles and his new friends do standard boarding school stuff like go to class, hang out, and play pranks on rival cliques.
I can’t really give any more of the plot away without spoiling the whole point of the novel.
Let’s just say that the novel is a bit light on plot elements. There’s a lot of talking, drinking, smoking, lusting after a girl that doesn’t want you back, and so on.
In fact, I’d say at least 30 pages of the first 150 could be trimmed by cutting out scenes that don’t develop the plot or characters in any way.
Looking for Alaska Characters
The characters are everything in this book. The novel is all character and very little plot. This sometimes works, but in this case, I think it’s the book’s main downfall.
There are some inconsistencies I can’t get over.
Miles is John Green. Green even says this in videos and interviews. It would be obvious anyway. He’s nerdy and his main quirk is learning people’s last words.
I wrote an article on the difference between character and caricature, and I think this quirk is a good way to introduce a unique identifiable trait without losing character depth. It also serves as a motif to enhance the thematic elements of the novel.
This type of characterization is the strongest aspect of the book to me.
His other quirk is stating things in lists. I found this a bit irritating, but it doesn’t happen all that often.
Miles is a bit of a follower. He wants to be liked. Green shows this by having Miles takes up smoking to fit in with his roommate and Alaska on the first day at the new school.
Alaska is originally portrayed as perfection. She’s edgy and cool. She loves books and poetry. Miles is in love with her from the moment he sees her.
Honestly, some of the descriptions from Miles’s point of view made me a bit uncomfortable.
She’s quickly shown to be erratic. One moment she’s the nicest person to Miles, talking to him alone on the swings to make his first night away from home less lonely. The next moment she’s cruel to him.
Alaska’s self-destructive behavior is implied to come from her tragic backstory.
Green created a much less believable character in Alaska. It’s quite reductive to have her be an alcoholic in her mid teens due to a sad thing that happened to her as a kid.
He’s kind of the leader of the group. His quirky trait is that he gives people ironic nicknames. Miles is scrawny, but he’s given the name Pudge.
This quirk is a quite a bit less interesting than Miles’s, and when we learn of it, my heart sank. I realized that John Green was the type of author to give every character some random quirk.
It doesn’t matter if it made sense. He just wants to make his characters seem more interesting and memorable than they are with a writing trick.
I only bring this up in this segment, because it’s hard to think of anything else memorable about the Colonel. He’s yet another kid who’s smart and reads way more than any kid his age should admit and is also somehow cool and smokes and drinks.
Miles’s group baffles me a bit. They don’t make sense from my understanding of high school cliques, but it’s been a while.
They are clearly the nerdy/geeky type. They read Moby-Dick and quote poems to each other. They actually reference Auden like it will give them social capital.
I was a book nerd and my friends were, too. Yet, we never would do these things to each other. Even among peers, there are things you just don’t do in front of other kids your age.
I think this is John Green getting in the way of his characters. He knows he was geeky as a kid, and he has projected what it’s like to be an adult onto Miles. As an adult, it’s not embarrassing to be well-read and to quote books and poems.
On the other hand, is this group really even the nerd/geek crowd? They smoke and drink and rebel and get in trouble frequently.
I have to imagine this is a bit of a “Mary Sue” scenario.
John Green tries to make his characters have every trait he wished he had. They’re smart and nerdy but also edgy and hip and cool and rebellious. They’re followers but also have independence and bravery.
I just don’t have a good understanding of where these kids fit in.
Unfortunately, I attribute this to “first book syndrome.” He wanted his characters to be all things to all people, and it ends up being very confusing.
Certain character traits lead to certain personalities. It’s not impossible for a character to have some of these trait/personality combinations, but it’s quite unrealistic for all of them to be like this.
The writing is perfectly adequate. It has a lot of annoyances that one would never find in general fiction, but it works okay as voice in this novel.
With his hand cupped over his mouth, the Colonel started to make absurd noises that sounded more like farting than bass beats, and I, uh, rapped.
The tone of the prose gets a bit muddled. Sometimes we get poetic segments of deep thought. Other times, we get paragraphs of Miles lusting over Alaska crudely.
I can somewhat write this off as intentional. A smart teenage boy probably does alternate between these modes, though I think a great writer can use a more consistent tone while indicating this.
You’re in for a bit of prose style whiplash during this book.
The main writing issue I had is how little Green trusted the reader to pick up on things, but I think this is partly a YA thing.
He frequently sets up a subtle clue about something, and I think it’s finally going to be a great reveal. Then, over the next several pages, he’ll have the characters say it over and over again to make sure you didn’t miss it.
It creates boring, unrealistic dialogue and ruins the clever setup.
Looking for Alaska Themes
I’ll warn you to skip this section if you want to read this book and get its real effect. I must spoil the major plot twist to talk about the themes.
I’ll also say upfront that most of the themes I took away from the book are close to the opposite of the intended ones.
Carpe Diem…or Something
Looking for Alaska reads like John Green trying to nostalgically upgrade his boring schooling to something like Dead Poets Society.
That movie is famous for popularizing the notion of “carpe diem,” or seizing the day.
Miles states it very clearly in the opening pages as Rabelais’s last words, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
The Great Perhaps comes up many times in the novel as Miles’s justification for seeking adventure and doing dumb stuff.
Kids have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that life is short. You don’t have forever to do what you want. It could all end tomorrow, so maybe think about doing those things now, today.
This is clearly an intended theme for the book, but it fails in some respects. When Miles seizes the day, it’s to do something silly and meaningless like a prank.
The prank is fun and exciting and feels meaningful to the kids. But as the reader, we see how meaningless and trivial such a thing is.
The theme that comes across to me is that it’s actually very hard to seize the day. Even when we think we’re doing it, we can look back in hindsight and realize we didn’t do as much as we thought we did.
There’s a depressing nihilism that pervades this book. Most of us go through life thinking we’re doing something important, but we often don’t and we look back with regret.
Guilt and Regret
Let’s rip the band-aid off. It’s seriously your last chance to not spoil the book. Alaska dies. That’s what the countdown has been for this whole time.
Obviously, the Colonel and Miles feel guilty. They were with her the night she got in her car drunk. They regret not stopping her.
The way the book is written, it feels like the theme should be: death comes swiftly; one cannot prepare for it; one cannot stop it.
Do not live your life feeling guilty and regretting your choices. Alaska was the one that decided to get into the car. It isn’t their fault.
But honestly, it was their fault. She was their friend, and they let her drive drunk.
Alaska, herself, carried this same guilt, because her mother died in front of her. She was a child, but she also didn’t call for help. She blamed herself like Miles blamed himself.
This loops us back to the nihilism theme. Otherwise good people sometimes do things that lead to disastrous moments. Sometimes people die because of inaction.
I’m not going to lie. This book is quite boring. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that I’m not the intended audience.
So, while this is probably more relatable to students than something like The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not clear to me that kids would find this less boring.
The first 150 pages are kids hanging out, talking about nothing, staring out the window of their religion class, bored.
Miles is searching for excitement in his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s finding it.
These scenes were probably exciting to John Green when he was Miles, but to a casual reader, it looks like normal school. And no one wants to read about a normal kid at a normal school.
The book does pick up and become something real in the second half. But I’m not sure how anyone will make it that far.
If I wasn’t reading it for this post, I would have stopped less than a hundred pages in and never finished it.
Green uses some devices to “build tension,” like having a countdown starting on page one: One-hundred Thirty Six Days Before.
The first few times it happened, I was genuinely excited to find out what the countdown led to.
But by the thirtieth time it had gotten old. It was like watching the clock in a boring class, wondering why it was ticking so slowly toward the ending. We have no idea the danger or magnitude at the end of the countdown, which ruins any tension it tried to build.
This book probably would not have gotten the popularity it had if John Green wasn’t already an internet superstar with millions of followers at the time it was published (check out vlogbrothers, it’s actually pretty good).
I think it’s fine to be on required reading lists.
I don’t feel strongly one way or the other. If kids are eating this up and getting excited that books are actually about them and their lives, then keep it on the list.
My guess is that there are a lot more gripping YA books that can do this better.
In fact, The Fault in Our Stars is probably better for the mere fact that girls won’t be forced to read the internal lusting of a boy over the “curves” of a teenage girl, which I imagine could make some quite uncomfortable.
P.S. A Note on the Controversy
This book has been banned in some schools because there is a blowjob. I don’t think any book should be banned. Ever. The scene is awkward, but definitely not graphic enough to warrant banning.
I don’t even think that scene is enough to keep it off required reading lists.
That being said, one of the main things in this book that makes me think it shouldn’t be on any required reading list is the smoking.
Oh, goodness, the smoking.
Can John Green make such a terrible habit seem any cooler?
If I were more conspiracy theory minded, I’d think that tobacco companies paid him large sums of money to wrap up an advertisement directed at kids as a novel.
That’s how prominent the smoking is.
It’s literally the cover art for my edition.
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