Sunday, 20 May 2012

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Looking for Alaska
In Looking for Alaska, Miles leaves his cosy, parental home for an Alabama boarding school. Sixteen years old and searching for ‘The Great Perhaps’ - aka, looking for his life to begin - on his first day at Culver Creek, Miles meets the Colonel, smokes his first cigarette, and falls in love with Alaska. Troubled wild child, Alaska is a mystery waiting to be unravelled. Swinging hot and cold, she gives glimmers of her past before shutting down and heading off to the next thing. Can Miles uncover her truths? And does he really want to?

In the children’s department of Waterstones Truro, John Green has the status of something akin to a god. Staff come and go, but for as long as I can remember there have always been at least two members of the team who worship him and his writing - to the point, even, where I’m kind of surprised there isn’t an actual shrine to him. And so, as the latest anointed member of ‘team kids’, I had to wonder, is he all that he’s cracked up to be?

Truth be told, I had my first encounter with John Green about two months ago with Paper Towns. This is the story of Quentin, high school boy, following - or attempting to follow - a set of obscure clues left for him by cute-girl-next-door, Margo. She has disappeared and Quentin is determined to find her, determined that somewhere in the weird messages she left him, there is clue to what happened to her and where she has gone. There was a point about half way through Paper Towns that left me just on the edge of bored, as Quentin’s search stalled and he became just a little too obsessed with his quest, but I was definitely impressed with Green’s style and story - impressed enough to want to read more.

Paper Towns is good,” my Green-o-phile colleague Natt told me. “But Looking for Alaska is better.”

And was it? Well, much like Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska is peopled with likeable characters and a compelling story. Both books are very well written (by which I mean that nothing grated, nothing irritated me, the language and the style were consistent), and both books are set in the real world (by which I mean there is nothing supernatural going on, and no re-imaginings of society). But what struck me most about Looking for Alaska is that, in essence, it was the same as Paper Towns. Same basic premise: slightly geeky teenage boy trying to figure out (or rescue?) troubled teenage girl. This left me wondering, is this all that John Green can write about?

At first, that question, that thought, made me feel disappointed. After all the amazing things I’d heard about this guy, are all his books going to be the same? But then I realised two things.

Firstly, they are not the same. Like Natt said, Looking for Alaska is a better book than Paper Towns. The absolute basics may be the same, but Looking for Alaska is a much more mature story - not more mature as in having more mature content (ie. sex etc, although there is a sex scene), but more mature as in how Green handles and presents the issues that Miles and his friends are dealing with.

And secondly, even though there are similarities, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: John Green writes about important issues, particularly those that growing teenagers are facing, with grace and aplomb.

Ooh, I really like that word. Aplomb. “Calm self-assurance and poise; from French a plomb, straight up and down,” my dictionary tells me. This does to seem to sum up Green’s writing quite succinctly. And, what’s more, reading the reviews that teenage customers have been writing for Looking for Alaska on, shows that this is exactly the kind of book that teenagers need, both for good quality reading and to assess the realities of life.

This explains Green’s following and the spawning of the nerdfighters: a community of people around the world fighting to ‘increase awesome and decrease suck’. Plus I find myself extremely impressed by John Green’s website/blog, on which he and his brother Hank post a series of short video logs tackling subjects as varied as farts, sex, video games, intellectualism and politics. Even as a grown-up and theoretically already versed in these things (I am so not versed in these things), I couldn’t help but find the video ‘Thoughts on romance and sex in an airport’ enlightening and wise. This is just the sort of guy that kids should be looking up to.

And so I must concede and bow down at the genius of John Green. Now, about that shrine...

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