Okay. I’m going to be upfront with myself and whoever might be reading this and say that I went into this book expecting to hate it. Prior to picking up Looking for Alaska, the only John Green book I’d read was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and I don’t think that really counts since it was co-written with David Levithan. I read it for the Levithan parts, because I love Levithan; I didn’t care all too much for the Green parts, and decided not to actively pursue his solo works.
Since I read Will Grayson, I’ve become more and more exposed to John Green and Hank Green and everything involved with them — and if I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan. There are quite a few things I like about the “vlog brothers” and the messages they present and what those messages mean to kids and young adults who are really desperately trying to find their way. But there are quite a few things that I do not like, and those things are directly related to John Green’s writing.
I don’t like this manic pixie dream girl culture that’s perpetuated in his books and I don’t like that physical and mental illness are romanticized in his books. I read Looking for Alaska having been warned that these elements were present — and I also picked it up just a few minutes after reading a response John Green had for an anonymous questioner on his Tumblr, who accused him of perpetuating these things and asked for his response. He essentially told said questioner that the people who accuse him of these things should read his books and think again, because their accusations ring false.
Having not read his books but still having believed that he perpetuated these things, I decided to take up his challenge. I read the book. And now I’m reading another one (Paper Towns). And from what I can tell after finishing Looking for Alaska, John Green absolutely perpetuates these things. And that’s not cool.
Some elements of this book were really enjoyable. I thoroughly enjoyed the Colonel and Takumi’s characterizations and I laughed out loud at the introduction of a male stripper pretending to be a professor as the end-of-the-year prank (though admittedly, it’s disturbing that the only reason this scene is so funny is because it’s a male stripper — had it been a female, it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining, and that’s a frustrating thing to consider. I’m sure John Green did this on purpose, which I can respect, because it makes a good point. But I’m still left wondering about the overall impact of the scene given the other gendered crap in this book). I also thought the writing style was, if a little dry, straightforward and fast-paced enough to keep me interested. I liked the overall premise — a boarding school for high school kids where there’s a clear divide between the rich and the poor will always excite me. Whatever.
But the core of the book? Was complete and total bullshit. Pudge, the narrator, “falls in love with” Alaska, who’s described as shrouded in mystery for the duration of the novel. Pudge goes to boarding school because he feels as though he’ll never find a “Great Perhaps” going to plain old high school in Florida… So he requests to go to his dad’s alma mater, and there meets Alaska and the Colonel and Takumi and Lara, who becomes Pudge’s girlfriend. We read him pining for Alaska and repeating the last words (famous and nonfamous) of dozens of dead authors, historical figures, and more.
Then tragedy strikes [spoilers!] when Alaska is killed in a car accident, and Pudge and his friends experience intense guilt for helping her leave campus in the middle of the night when she was really drunk — which is admittedly fair, because that was stupid. But her death reignites Pudge’s determination to find a “Great Perhaps”. Even in death, Alaska is a total mystery. It’s never determined whether her death was purposeful or accidental, but the search to “discover the real Alaska” — both in life and in death — drives the whole story.
The whole idea behind the manic pixie dream girl is that she exists to give new meaning to the hero or protagonist’s life. She’s usually wacky, mysterious, and obsessed with our leading man, usually for reasons that don’t really make sense because he’s just a normal dude. Being around or with her makes the protagonist learn how to love and live and blah, blah, blah. The point is, Alaska is absolutely a MPDG and Pudge is absolutely the boring, tragic hero whose life is turned upside-down by her presence. He even says that she is his “Great Perhaps”. Um, okay.
And on the subject of John Green romanticizing physical and mental illness, Pudge is described as anxious on more than one occasion. Alaska makes comments about dying and being depressed and drinks heavily, especially for someone in high school, but all of these things are written into the text as being interesting or quirky instead of what they actually are — sad and scary, and not things to aspire to or admire. Admittedly, this book is told in the first person, which means that a good chunk of what I’ve taken issue with is dependent upon that fact — but writers make decisions, and those decisions matter, regardless of whether the narration is first, second, or third person.
John Green claimed in his response to that anonymous questioner I mentioned earlier that Looking for Alaska features Pudge idealizing Alaska and that idealization proving disastrous for them both. While this is not necessarily untrue and I can see where this response comes from, the problem is less with John Green’s intentions and more with how readers react to his books. From what I can tell after reading his parts of Will Grayson, Looking for Alaska and now the first 50 pages or so of Paper Towns, he continuously writes the same main character with the same overall plot line — dorky guy meets incredible, idealized girl (or boy, as in the case of WG), and his life is changed forever.
I think there are a lot of issues with this construction, especially because it perpetuates ideas of girls, boys, and romantic relationships between them that are incredibly unhealthy. For readers who are picking up these books and surface-reading, as most young adults probably are, the deeper meaning and supposed inversion of these misogynistic and ridiculous concepts are not apparent. Even I had to dig to get to the interpretation that John Green talked about in his Tumblr response, and I thrive on literary analysis and discussing the patriarchy and breaking down popular conceptions of gender and romance.
Long story short, I still want to give John Green and his writing a chance — because I think he has some good ideas and I think he’s well-intentioned. But so far, what I’ve read doesn’t hold up to what he’s claiming in response to people who are accusing him of perpetuating awful bullshit. Maybe that will change, especially now that this kind of criticism seems to be reaching an all-time high. But maybe it won’t. I don’t know, but I’m interested to see how it all turns out.
To grab a copy of Looking for Alaska, click here.
Overall rating: ★★☆☆☆
Recommended for: People interested in deconstructing the MPDG narrative