Saturday, April 5, 2014

Looking For Alaska by John Green


Title: Looking For Alaska
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WARTY!

Audio novel almost acceptably read by Jeff Woodman.

I wasn't impressed by John Green's debut novel and more than I was with his novel Paper Towns. It's living testimony to the fact that people who hand out book awards, hand them out from their ass, where their head is. But take my advice: if you want to write 'great literature' and win such awards, the secret is to include multiple quotes from dead people, preferably men, and you're almost half-way there. Make them foreign dead people and you are half-way there. Include some bone-headed words about nature conjoined with spiritualism, and you're three-quarters the way there. Don’t worry at all about your writing style. That's irrelevant in great (perhaps) literature.

And Green is quite obviously trying oh-so hard to write literature, isn’t he? Given that what’s classed as such is all-too-often anachronistic, irrelevant, tedious, pedantic, and boring, Green succeeds admirably. In this one, he sets up his template for all his novels (at least the two I've suffered through). You need a smug, spoiled, self-centered, clueless, uninteresting guy, a quirky side-kick, and a female bitch, and you're there. In this case the tedious male lead is Miles Halter tells his story in first person PoV which is all-too-typically horrible in any novel, and which seems to be the trope du jour in YA fiction these days. To be fair, in this novel it’s not completely cringe-worthy, just annoyingly smug.

Halter's life is so utterly devoid of anything of utility that he spends it memorizing the last words of the rich and famous. He's never actually read anything by those purported 'greats' of literature, just their biographies, and all he remembers of those are their dying words. With this more than ample qualification, he decides he's ready to launch himself upon life, and he goes off to boarding school at the age of 16. His parents evidently have no objection to this, not even financially, yet somehow he's classed not with the well-to-do students, but with the riff-raff.

On his first day there he meets all the riff-raff he will ever need to know. No new people need apply. His roommate, Chip(!), is known as "The Colonel". Because Halter is so skinny, he's named 'Pudge'. Oh how hilarious is the irony! Halter immediately falls head-in-ass in "love" with a girl. Alaska Young isn’t; that is to say she doesn’t come across as a sixteen-year-old, but as an idealized Mary Sue, wise way-beyond her years, so you know this is going to be tragic. It couldn’t possibly be 'literature' otherwise, now could it?

Seriously, Juliet and Romeo live happily ever after? Teens who don’t stupidly kill themselves but go on to make a real contribution to life and to their society? Who wants to read that trash? So you know it's going to be tragic, and since the narrator is named Halter, and his "love" interest is young, who’s going to die? Do the math. The give-away is in the last name, and it’s not a word that's related to 'stopping', it’s a word that's too often and all-too-sadly associated with 'die'.

The problem is that Halter's infatuation is never about who Alaska is as a person, it's entirely about how hot she looks on the surface. Adolescent love, superficial is thy name. Halter's view of her never improves, nor does her behavior. She's entirely unappealing. I don’t care how beautiful a woman is supposed to be; if she smokes like a chimney (not that chimneys smoke so much these days) then she's ugly, period. She's apparently trying to smoke herself to death, how wonderfully deep and literate. I'm impressed. Impressed by how self-destructive these losers are. But of course, if she didn’t chain-smoke, then how could she possibly be an artist, sculpting Halter's rough-hewn adolescent rock into a masterpiece worthy of some dusty corner of a museum. Shall we muse?

Halter doesn’t get how pointless young Alaska is. On the contrary, like a male spider to a potential mate, he enters her web with great, perhaps, abandon, completely embracing her lifestyle of shallow rebelliousness, cutting classes, smoking, drinking, and generally wasting his time. Yes, I get that the claim is that he wants to idiotically pursue the last dying words of Rabelais (the great perhaps), as though the delusional ranting of someone at death's door is magically philosophical, deep, and sacred (but only if they're famous). You definitely have to slap a medal on that or die trying - or try dying. Moreover, if the person is foreign, then his words (no female who dies is worth remembering apparently) are to be hallowed for eternity!

But here's the rub: if that's the case, then why does Halter go to school at all? Why not drop out completely and run away from home? Great Perhaps because that's where the lie lies in his life? Halter isn't actually interested in exploring any great perhaps; he's just interested in geek mishaps. He "explores" the unknown by doing the staid, tried-and-tested, and very-well known: going to school! Yet even then, he's paradoxically not getting an education in anything that's important. Instead, he's hanging with his peers, his attention drifting even in his favorite class. Great perhaps he's learning nothing at all? He sure doesn't appear to be.

On his first night there, he's bullied, but this is never reported, because 'ratting out' the bullies would be the wrong thing to do, don't you know? The fact that he could have been killed is completely irrelevant; it's much better to let them get away with their recklessness and cruelty so they're encouraged to do it again and again until someone does die; then everyone can adopt a pained expression and whine, "How could this happen here?" The joke here is that he fails to come up with anything interesting in the way of last words.

Despite my sarcasm, I guess I really don’t get how a novel larded with trope and cliché manages to even get considered for an award, let alone win one. The Printz Award? Really? Is there an out-of-Printz award? Probably not, but I made one up and awarded it my own Dire Virgins novel! Every main character, and there are really only three, let's face it, is a trope. Chip is the 'seasoned pro' - the one who knows every trick and angle, who becomes the mentor to the new guy. His one feature is that he knows the names of capitals. Honestly? Character Tukumi's only real feature is his name.

We already met Halter, arguably the most trope-ish since he's the tediously stereotypical skinny geek - like geek and physique are inalienably alien bed-fellows, oh, and did I mention that he knows the last words of some dead dudes? Presage much, Green? Next thing you know he'll be writing a novel where he has a count-down to the tragedy to make sure that we don't miss it. Oh, wait a minute, he did count down to the tragedy in this novel!

Oh, and Halter failed to halt her. How awful for him. Boy! You gotta carry that weight, carry that weight a long time…. Maybe if Halter had actually learned about life instead of philosophically jerking-off to the 'great perhaps' he might have learned enough to see what was coming and been prepared to do something to prevent it, but from an awards PoV, it's a far, far better thing that he doesn’t than he ever did, and it’s a far, far better ending that he goes through than he's ever gone….

Even I saw that ending coming, and that was at the same moment that I saw the cover and read the title of this novel. A candle gone out? Seriously? I'll bet the cover artist got whiplash trying to pat their self on the back after that one. The Sylvia Plath Award for most tragically tragic tragedy goes, of course, to Alaska, a teenager who was in an ice-cold state even before she died.

But what really died here was a chance at a readable and entertaining novel. I rate this novel warty, but do take form it a timeless moral: never, ever read a novel with a person's name in the title - unless it's a children's novel. They don't seem to suffer from the acute lethargy and lack of inventiveness which is the stone from which John Green is hewn..

I Have to add that I can't help but wonder why Green insists upon making his female characters jerks. I've read two of his novels (all I am ever going to read, rest assured) and in both the female is a loser and a jerk. Is he a misogynist that he does this? Or is it simply that he doesn't know any better? Actually, the question which interests me more is why John Green went out of his way to call me a liar? Indeed, he called every one of us self-publishing/indie authors liars. In a speech which he made to the Association of American Booksellers in 2013 (of which I was unaware until very recently), he stated:

We must strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul laboring in isolation. We must strike it down because it threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature...without an editor my first novel, Looking for Alaska, would have been unreadably self-indulgent.
From Brit newspaper The Guardian

In short, John Green thinks we're liars if we say we did it all ourselves (not that your typical indie author ever does this in my experience). Guess what, Green behind the ears? I did it all myself and I know other people did too, and no, I am not lying. The question is why are you so insecure that you need an entourage to write your books? And yes, Looking for Alaska was self-indulgent so you failed. Deal with it.


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