Josh’s Review: “Looking For Alaska” by John Green

So, after my last post about John Green’s Paper Towns, I immediately went out and read his other books. I wasn’t planning to do another Green review here on Genre Lasagna because, you know, we’ve already had two and we don’t want to make this a predictable, monotone thing. So, being on the YA kick that I was, I picked up Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25. I got about 35 or 40 pages in before I couldn’t take anymore. I realize it’s maybe written for a slightly younger audience than Green’s books based on the age of the protagonist–clearly the YA stamp is a bit homogenous–but I’m also in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Harry’s just about the same age as the titular Michael Vey, and Rowling’s book is so much more readable than Michael Vey. Anyway, this is all to say that I tried to branch out, I really gave it a go. But I’d rather just write about John Green’s first novel, Looking For Alaska, than read and write about Michael Vey. So.

Looking For Alaska was published in 2005; it tells the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter as he heads to Culver Creek Boarding School, falls in with the schools best pranksters, and learns to smoke like a chimney. I mean, there’s other stuff in there, but really there’s just a huge number of cigarettes smoked in this book. Like, if we could use page instead of capita, this book would have a per capita cigarette count of, like, 3 or something. Anyway, apart from the cigarettes and pranks (but not disconnected from them), Pudge meets a girl named Alaska Young who changes his world.

In a lot of ways, I’m glad that I read all of Green’s books before I did this one, because it allowed me to see how many beginnings there are in Looking For Alaska for the rest of Green’s works. For instance, you might say that Paper Towns is all about how we connect with other people through simplified ideals of who they really are, and much-if-not-all of that book is dedicated to exploring and exploding that idea. And here, in Looking For Alaska, we see the real germination of that idea, because Green doesn’t deal with it in the careful, slow-burn kind of way he does in Paper Towns. Here, Green touches on it, but Looking For Alaska is about so many things that there’s no real space in the narrative or thrust of the book to cover this idea in depth, and the result is that Green’s book feels a bit more messy than the rest of his stuff (which, hey, it’s his first book) and whole heap more raw. We still get some of the moral-of-the-story kind of gesture he likes to make at the end of his stories, but here it feels a bit less fulfilling, which I kind of liked. If anything, I think John Green absolutely excels at plunging his readers into an emotional stratum that is both painful and necessary, and I think he runs the risk of undercutting that experience with some of his final gestures in his books. This isn’t to say that I didn’t love them all, because I really, really did. And I think the overall structure of Looking For Alaska loses out a bit on the carefully constructed feel of his later books. But this one also felt a bit more jagged and fractured at the end of the day, and I have to have respect for an author who can do that.

Looking For Alaska gets five slices of lasagna from me, and I hope all of you can get a chance to read it sometime.


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