John Green’s debut novel, Looking for Alaska, garnered attention and praise by critics when it was released in 2005. Since its release, Green has written and published several books, including his most recent bestselling book, The Fault in Our Stars, which is considered by many as his crowning achievement thus far. Although his books and recent film adaptation are commercial successes, mostly thanks to the Nerdfighter community and his media plateform, Looking for Alaska captures what his other novels overlook: the tangled threads of human existence. It’s messy, complicated, and it does so without using restraint or clichés in telling the story. Alaska is uncomfortably honest, padded with deadpan humor, and it philosophizes without becoming preachy.
When Miles Halter, otherwise known as Pudge, is enrolled into Culver Creek Prepatory High School/Boarding School at Birmingham, Alabama, he hopes to find a “Great Perhaps.” He meets his roommate, Chip Martin, also known as The Colonel, who introduces Miles/Pudge to the beautiful, witty, seemingly worldly girl Alaska Young. Miles/Pudge is instantly enamored by Alaska, and maybe she is his Great Perhaps. After one night, his life completely changes, and there’s no going back.
The plot is like a slow crawl. It’s divided into parts: Before and After. Before the terrible event, Green invests time introducing the humid, clothes-sticking heat of Alabama. The first half is a massive built up to the main event of the novel. Green almost convinces us that this novel is devoted to shenanigans at its best: teens playing pranks, smoking in the woods, cornucopia of fried food, and yes, oral sex. Green also has a way of seamlessly peppering literary allusions into the narrative. He skillfully incorporates these allusions and references that are thematic and at the story’s central meaning; he also does this without losing the novel’s idiodynamics. The novel, however, is aimless for the first half and does not gain momentum until the second half, which is a shame as it takes this terrible, awful event to move the story forward. It’s the shock value that reboots the novel and creates this mythos around Alaska Young, which brings us to the novel’s themes: if we see people for whom they are or if we look at them like extensions of ourselves.
Green writes his characters like they’re young adults, as in, someone in their early years of adulthood. Calling these characters simple teenagers is misleading. They deal with loss, guilt, an estrangement from normalcy. Green doesn’t overstep when he writes his characters drinking and delivering awkward, first-time blows jobs. He shows them as being invincible and vulnerable. They’re explorative, emotionally shrewd, and pensive. They shower the story with amusement, profound thoughts, and brokenness that belong in any coming-of-age novel. In comparison with Green’s future works, these characters are better developed and more existential versus his other characters in his other books that are oversaturated with snarky humor and pretentiousness.
But Green’s writing isn’t a jewel. Although it’s simple and flows across the page, it stumbles during the book’s awkward moments and fluffs it with self-deprecating dialogue like it’s trying to ease the tension and apologize. Please don’t. This doesn’t hinder the entirety of the novel, however. It’s only until the second half of the novel that we start to notice the style evolve into something more crudely honest and mature.
Green’s ending is a quick tumble down the mountain. The prose picks up and ends with a touching farewell. There’s a lot of puzzlement and turmoil between the second half and the ending. It seems too simple for a book full of complexities. It’s beautiful and perhaps a fitting goodbye, but with how much Miles/Pudge and The Colonel were wrought with guilt, guilt that clings to you like a ghost, the thoughts and feelings just drop off in favor of a more sentimental ending. Green chooses to leave certain events unexplained. He doesn’t even disclose or tie up intimate relationships. He merely gives suggestions. It’s very open-ended. The ending focuses on grief and closure to the point of simplifying these tumultuous and tangled emotions. With a novel so complex, it’s fair to say that these characters will have an ongoing inner monologue for years to come. Even the slightest suggestion of this would have been more believable than concluding with a prank in her honor.
Rating: 4 out 5
P.S. – Yes, I reached 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo!!! Thank you all for indulging me while I took a hiatus from book reviewing.