Why’s Alaska’s Death Made Me Feel Nothing but Some Over-Exaggerated Lines Did: John Green’s Looking for Alaska

Am I the only one who‘s not in complete awe of John Green’s Looking for Alaska?

Young Adult literature has always been a spiteful subject for me. I understand Children’s Literature, and their importance in society in forming the cognitive mind of children and in the construction of their moral sense of reality, so I have no qualms about it. But Young Adult literature? Ack. I know its purpose, but somehow, it never made much sense to me. Maybe this stems from the fact that I never had the opportunity to read Young Adult literature, having jumped head-on to canonical novels, to authors like Jules Vernes, J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain. Maybe it’s because I never saw the need to do all the silly dilly-dally with the entire hullabaloo about what kids should read or what they should stay away from. Apart from Harry Potter (which is a questionable piece of Young Adult fiction), I’ve never really enjoyed any Young Adult novels. They always end up rather short, shallow and uninteresting.  Moreover, from a bookselling perspective, man, you should see the loads of young adult crap the US publishers are publishing to continue the ridiculous and cursed tradition established by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Seeing the catalogs makes one lose faith in the whole genre. But then came Looking for Alaska. Its publication brought with it a whole cadre of positive reviews and an acclaim. Some hailed the book as this generation’s Catcher in the Rye, similar to how Perks of Being a Wallflower became our cultural lowlife manifesto. Moreover, the book was highly recommended. So I thought to myself: Why not try the genre once more?

Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles Halter, a young man who recently started attending a prestigious boarding school in Alabama. In the first few minutes as a new student, both elated and terrified at the thought that finally he has the opportunity to mold his own identity the way he saw fit it should be, he befriends the Colonel, who then introduces him to Alaska. Alaska, of course, is the poster hipster who all the boys fall for. During a cigarette break in their first at the school, Miles expresses her attraction towards Alaska through a short discourse on her beauty:

“And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light, But even in the dark, I could see her eyes—fierce emeralds. She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to support her every endeavour. And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her 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, between when I asked about the labyrinth and when she answered me, 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 notice curves before, of course, but I have never quite apprehended their significance (19).”

Clearly, it shows the ramblings of a boy enslaved by his hormones. Eventually, as with any story of this nature, Pudge falls in love, and quite predictably, Alaska doesn’t reciprocate his emotions (the standard equation for all gen-x and post gen-x romance [Chuck Klosterman would agree with me, im sure]). Despite that, Alaska and Pudge continue to hang out, and their friendship develops between shared cigarettes, the hours they spent planning their pranks and the gratuitous amount of time they spent hiding and drinking cheap wine. He falls further, despite Alaska’s promiscuity, her penchant for mystery and secrets, her issues with her family, the trauma from her mother’s death and her need to fall on this dwindling narrow hole towards her own death.  On a night of drunken stupor, they kiss, and Alaska plunges into a bout of anxiety, proclaiming, in tears, that she forgot something and that she has to leave. Pudge, along with Colonel, allows her to leave, leading to her horrible death. The last hundred pages are dedicated to Miles’ and the Colonel’s search for the motives behind her flight and the ordeal they went though as they tried to come to grips with a reality without Alaska.

I felt a severe disappointment during the reading of the novel and most of it comes from the narration. It’s actually the same problem I have with Jonathan Safran Foer’s works. The prose tends to become too emotional, too involved, too “in your face.” Distance and heavy-handedness is not a concern for the narrator in this piece. It, in fact, revels in the pool of hormonal rage brought about by Alaska’s existence and death. It prefers to be hyperbolic, even when it doesn’t need to. Most of the initiation stories that I adore employed the 1st person POV. Examples of these are Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. However, in those works, they kept their narration in check. They knew when to stop and when to explode. John Green overdid the POV. There was no restraint whatsoever and there were moments where I just felt righteously irritated at the deep cesspool of emotions that desperately needed an elegant and eloquent handling. Everything was designed to be excruciatingly painful that when Alaska died, I felt nothing. I felt no sympathy, even though I was crushing on her a little bit. This is the danger of being too loud in prose. The narrative becomes too muddled up in the narration. The story gets buried deep in the fancy and cool, hipster-like prose.

I admit that there were moments when I liked this book. John Green’s rendering of Pudge’s self-flagellating adoration is spot on. The author’s portrayal of Alaska is excellent, conveying why she is desirable, despite the dozen of issues she has. And there are beautiful lines, god damn lines that just blow you away with its extreme poignancy, saving the novel entirely from crashing and burning, like this one below (which I swiped from some website I can no longer remember):


Problematizing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Having read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom twice already, a novel which I obsessed about even before I have read it, it is easy to know why, despite the critical acclaim, it has been shunned by most of the award-giving bodies, like the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards.  Freedom, to heretically paraphrase the whole narrative, is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a middle-class suburban family trying to come to grips with mediocrity, infidelity, politics, economic decline and the threat of climate change in post 9/11 America.  Patty (who I am slightly attracted to) is a bipolar overachiever who, in a twist of fate, settled for the geeky and population-obsessed boy, after her knee injury which forced her out of a bright basketball career. Walter, on the other hand, is a responsible man and an awkward father, eager to change the world for the better by preserving the natural world and saving what’s left of the Cerulean Warbler. Their kids, Jessica and Joey, are emotional train wrecks, immensely traumatized by their mother’s need to be overtly-maternal and their father’s sternness and self-righteous outlook in life. With an amusing and riveting cast of characters, including the crass and sex-craved Richard Katz, the eager-to-please Connie and the lovely and intelligent Lalitha, Freedom is a precise and beautiful rendering of contemporary American life.

So why didn’t it win any awards?  Certainly, Franzen has the knack for language. His narration is evocative, beautiful, oddly poignant most of the time, but intelligent. He’s does not have the incredible vitality and the poetic bravado that Updike has, but his prose can give David Foster Wallace a run for his money (ironically, he did, as they both admit to being rivals, as well as good friends). The novel also  tackled all the great themes of present American life: marital strain, the condition of the middle-class, the economic regression,  the great republican and democrat debate, the war on terrorism, the post generation-X funk of today’s youth and, of course, the Jewish-American experience. He explored issues of striking relevance, lingered on the issues, and attempted to cover the most important aspects of these social concerns, and he did it eloquently, with interest, so as not to bore any reader. Finally, as with any Franzen novel, his characters spring out the page. I for one, cannot help but fall in love with Patty and all her complexities and faults. I am unable to do nothing but be seduced by Connie’s charm, her alluring personality and unwavering, sometimes foolish, loyalty towards Joey. And I wholeheartedly understand Joey for the hatred he harbored for his family. Freedom is a great novel, worthy of being read over and over again. But the things is, it’s simply too traditional. Besides telling one hell of a story, it is a traditional narrative. It’s incredibly linear, the manner of narration simple, consistent and rooted in the traditional  American novel. There are no playful exercises in form and language here. To be quite honest, it actually reminds me of the modern novel, the works of Mark Twain, Gustav Flaubert, and most of the novels before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  It resembles the “grand narrative,” the narrative which earnestly tries to encompass the entirety of the human condition. The only new thing which Franzen offers is its willingness to address the eschatological subject of climate change, via Walter’s attempts to save the Cerulean Warbler and his other concerns regarding the environment, echoing Frank Kermode’s sentiments in The Sense of An Ending.

With that, is it possible to conclude that Freedom is actually a devolved form of the novel? Maybe it is. Comparing it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one gets the sense that Freedom is a bit too safe, a bit too straightedge. With Egan’s chapter made up of PowerPoint slides, its disjointed narrative, its odd sequencing, its erratic point of views and its ever-shifting tone, not to mention its speculative look on music twenty years from now, Freedom looks a bit boring, too comfortable and too unoriginal.

In terms of profundity though, I think Freedom still has it in the bag, but that is my problem. Is fiction at that state now that it’s giving up content for form? Is it giving up the depth and grandeur for the gimmick of form?   Are we now wired to think that a good story is simply not enough?