Review of Looking for Alaska by John Green
Looking for Alaska
by John Green
First John Green book I’ve read despite enjoying various of his videos and other productions sporadically. (Also, I watched the Paper Towns movie a while back and liked that.) My experience with Looking for Alaska was mixed. At the time I was reading it, I had a lot of trouble getting into it—especially the first part. Looking back now while pondering this review, and after talking it over with a friend (who hasn’t read it but was able to answer my Questions about things), I’m inclined to be a little more charitable.
Looking for Alaska concerns Miles “Pudge” Halter’s junior year at Culver Creek Boarding School. Bookish and not-popular at his old public school, Miles enters Culver Creek, his dad’s alma mater, with the hopes of turning over a new leaf. Not of becoming popular, per se, but maybe of becoming someone interesting. And he seems to get off to a good start: he befriends his roommate, “the Colonel”; as well as the free-spirited Alaska Young, for whom he feels an irresistible attraction. As Green counts down the days to an incident that divides the book asymmetrically into “before” and “after”, we watch Pudge slide into the social dynamic of this private school. When “before” becomes “after”, Pudge and his friends have to pick up the pieces of a tragedy that, to them, doesn’t make any sense.
So, my issues with this book started early and are mostly about Pudge’s narration/Green’s style. Basically, Pudge, who is a 16- or 17-year-old boy, is horny and focuses a lot on pretty girls. In particular, he’s rather focused on assessing Alaska’s attractiveness. Here’s an example, coming at the end of a very long paragraph that ruminates upon her beauty:
And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her tight tank top, her curved legs swinging back and forth beneath the swing, flip-flops dangling from her electric-blue-painted toes. It was right then … that I realized the importance of curves, of the thousand places where girls’ bodies ease from one place to another, from arc of the foot to ankle to calf, from calf to hip to waist to breast to neck to ski-slope nose to forehead to shoulder to the concave arch of the back to the butt to the etc. I’d noticed curves before, of course, but I had never quite apprehended their significance.
Pudge recapitulates such thoughts throughout the book; I stickied a few other times, such as scene where Alaska shimmies out a window and says, “Don’t look at my ass” and he’s all, “Reader, I totally looked at her ass.”
As an asexual person, I don’t get it. I don’t identify with Pudge’s 16-year-old obsession with the hotness of girls, and so his entire narration on the hotness of Alaska Young was very distracting. I found myself constantly yelling, “Get on with it!” in that very Monty Python-esque voice.
I’m not sure what it is about this novel in particular, because obviously I’ve read descriptions like this before. A case in point is Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, wherein Johanna constantly describes how horny and DTF she is and how hot all her conquests are. Maybe it’s their frequency, or just Green’s particular style, but they really pulled me out of the story. Or it’s possible that, while other characters often describe their attraction in metaphorical terms (“so and so is so scrumptious”), the specificity with which Pudge lists off all the physical things that make him attracted to Alaska distracted me.
I took some time to talk to a friend of mine (she hasn’t read this book, though she has read How to Build a Girl) who is always down to endure these kinds of Questions from me. Mainly I was wondering when she first noticed she had power, of a kind, over boys in school, etc., based on her body and what she wore or how she presented herself. It’s not something I ever paid my attention to (in any sense). Although Looking for Alaska is from the POV of a (presumably) straight male, I was curious because Pudge portrays Alaska as someone who is obviously aware of her attractiveness and happy to flaunt it—though to her own ends.
There’s also a hilarious scene about blow jobs (… which is a sentence I never thought I would write), so I asked some questions about that, but we won’t get into that here….
So, anyway, I couldn’t identify very well with Pudge in these moments. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for every reader, of course, but it is a significant component of the book and the characterization of our narrator, particularly after the climax that upends the entire story.
I like what Green does here with an unreliable narrator and the deconstruction of what it means to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Pudge himself acknowledges that he is unreliable, that his interpretation of Alaska and Alaska’s behaviour is flawed, particularly After. And that’s where Looking for Alaska transforms from a merely mediocre story about teenagers doing drugs and drinking and having parties into a moving look at how adolescents try to figure out who they are. When After strikes, Pudge and his friends have to pick up the pieces. They try fitting them together, try figuring out why the tragedy that happened actually happened—and find that it doesn’t make sense. And while they discover enough for Green to give us a little bit of closure, he also leaves enough room for doubt in there, echoing the real world, where tragedy doesn’t always make sense and answers aren’t always available.
So in terms of how this book portrays the way teens react to tragedy, it’s pretty good. I am somewhat dissatisfied, however, that for a book trying so hard to be progressive, it doesn’t seem to pass the Bechdel test. Alaska and Lara are the only two named women of note, and I’m struggling to recall if they ever really talked about anything not related to boys … Lara essentially exists only as a foil to Alaska, and part of Pudge’s big realization in the last act of the book is that, hey, she’s a human being too and is having all these feelings about the tragedy and maybe he shouldn’t just ignore her because he’s not in the mood for nooky at the moment. Pudge does come to this realization, but all I’m saying is that Green sets the bar really low here.
I’ll conclude with a line that I absolutely love. At one point, Alaska says, “Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” I had recently watched the Doctor Who Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time”, which once again deals with the Doctor not wanting to regenerate. This line resonated with me, and made me think of Doctor Who, and how the Doctor is never eager to discuss or think about or revisit (sometimes literally) his past or his past selves. He isn’t one for nostalgia—and he doesn’t like seeing his future, either. He is always running towards the present. Alaska does the same thing here.
Looking for Alaska is a somewhat messy, not entirely satisfactory, but still enjoyable YA novel about being young, getting up to mischief, and dealing with life-changing events. Despite having a hard time with the beginning part of the story, I’m glad I stuck with it, and it really improved towards the end.