Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Looking for Alaska II

So I finished reading Looking for Alaska last night, and thought I'd try to unpack some thoughts to follow up on my first post about the book several days ago. I don't think that I need to issue a spoiler alert, because the events that I am going to refer to are hinted at somewhat obliquely on the cover of the book and very directly in the summary reviews on Amazon. If you are thinking about reading the book and don't want to know anything about it before you do, then you should maybe click out right here.

Still with me? Okay then. (Let my qualify what follows by reiterating that I'm more or less thinking out loud here. These are first thoughts, before they get around to becoming second thoughts, of which I'm already having some; thus the disclaimer.) Anyway, suffice it to say that the book is divided in two parts: "Before" and "After," and that the defining event separating the two sections is the death of the title character in a car crash. The decision to set the book up that way comes with a built-in problem for both the author and his readers. The first half of the book has to largely do with Alaska's intelligence and charisma and beauty and all-around awesomeness. (I'm not being facetious; she really is a great character: fun to be around, fun to read about.) She's the centerpiece, and her closest friends Miles (the narrator, known as Pudge), Chip (known as The Colonel), and Takumi, (known as Takumi) spend the first part of the book basically trying to stay close to her and derive what pleasure they can from her energy and inspiration. There's a lot of predictable mischief of a teen-angsty variety, but it's well rendered, the dialogue feels true, and the kids are all right.

So far so good. When Alaska is killed, in what may or may not be a suicide, clearly that changes everything: both for the characters and for the readers. In the "After" section, an enormous hole opens up and threatens to swallow everyone, readers included. The tonality of the book changes. It becomes less of a lark and more of a slog, trying to grok it, trying to cope with it, trying to come to terms with her absence, and with the feelings of remorse and complicity they feel.

Pudge and The Colonel are, for a while, able to sustain themselves by conducting an investigation of sorts, trying to sort out What Actually Happened That Night, and why. This is a good thing, in that it substitutes one pretty much foolproof plot engine for another. We readers also want to know what really happened, and the detective story frame helps keep us going. But for obvious reasons, it's less pure fun to read, and the book gets a little more self-consciously philosophical and pedantic, especially toward the end. The challenge, which I believe John Green clearly understood and actually succeeds at meeting — to some degree — is to take us all the way down this road and drop us off somewhere that feels good, somewhere that begins to make at least preliminary sense of what happened and why it happened. So, given that he gets us there, my first reaction was okay, I liked that. Not bad.

Not bad. That raises questions. A lot of questions actually. First of all, "not bad" is not the same as "good,"right? Where do we draw the lines between not bad and okay and good and terrific? Are the lines in so-called "YA fiction"to be drawn in different places than for Serious Adult Fiction? In this case, does the fact that the final realization turns out to be a cultural cliché (think Don Henley - "The Heart of the Matter") feel like a letdown? (Well, yes.) Random thought taking shape: Are there any other Great American Novels that feature a detached narrator telling the story, after the fact, about a highly charismatic character whose life is fatally compromised by a car crash? (Well yes, I believe there is at least one.) Is one of those novels "better" than the other. (For sure. Even though the Other Novel is not, IMHO, anywhere as good a novel as it is cracked up to be.)

There is an interesting reader review on Amazon by someone calling him/herself X October which points out that if you read enough John Green, you realize he keeps telling the same story over and over again, a story in which

1. A nerdy, slightly awkward girl/boy who believes in shutting up and staying quiet, usually with a slightly odd name meets

2. a super sexy (but nonconventionally so) girl/guy who is also really really intelligent, who usually has a weird name and weird smart-kid quirks and a spirit of adventure, who

3. Takes the protagonist on pranky fun high school adventures and forces them to be something more than an introspective shy awkward person and then

4. Runs away from home/dies leaving the protagonist to

5. Sit around coping with the loss and ultimately come up with big deep conclusions about the meaning of life so that the book can end.

Not having read all of John Green, I'm not in a position to verify (or quibble with) this characterization of Green's default formula for writing. If it's true, it makes it difficult to argue that John Green is a good writer by any standard other than that he has a clever formula that keeps kids coming back for more.

Another thing that I have observed about YA fiction titles that bothers me is that they are so often (almost always? — I don't know, I'm overgeneralizing out of ignorance; I haven't read enough YA novels to be sure that what I'm hypothesizing is correct) built around the kinds of problems that adults presume teenagers are most prone to obsessing about: suicide, cancer, self-mutilation, the new kid in town, etc.) And the behaviors teens are understood to be drawn to (smoking, drinking, drug use, sex) are often cast, as they are in Looking for Alaska, in such a light as to make them seem only to be expected, and maybe just part of the rascally charm of the protagonists. That somewhat patronizing attitude seems both superficial and false to me. I don't think many authors give young people enough credit.

So let me ask this: if there were a writer out there who could be for teenagers what Chekov was for the Russian adults or Alice Munro was for the women of her era or Andre Dubus was for working-class and middle-class men and women, someone who could sketch out the territory with some attention to nuance and the real world(s) that young adults inhabit, who would that writer be? Seventy years ago it might have been Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye is anything but condescending or formulaic, and which set a standard which is referenced today. Like this, from the cover of Looking for Alaska: "The spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on." Well, maybe. Sort of. Or not. At least not in this case.) If I had to answer my own question, I'd say Cormac McCarthy about nailed it in All the Pretty Horses, but what teenagers are reading McCarthy nowadays? So who's out there? If you have a nominee, I'm all ears.

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