John Green’s Looking For Alaska is a lovely book and was a delightful a quick read. At its core it is a simple coming of age story; the tale of a skinny geek from Florida moving out to Alabama to attend a moderately elite boarding school.
It is also the story of a cabal of friends, their clandestine cigarette and liquor binges, the pranks pulled both by and on them, and the tragedy that tears the group apart. And it is this tragedy that is the central specter haunting this book. Looking For Alaska is split down the middle into two parts, “Before” and “After”. Each chapter is titled “X Number Of Days Before”, or “X Number Of Days After” spread out across the school term. The effect is that the first half of the book reads like a steadily ticking clock counting down toward some sort of cataclysm.
But that is where the problems with the book begin. This incessant countdown to doom, combined with the light and Jovial timbre of the text leads one to feel early on that the tragedy, when it finally occurs, just wont be that tragic. And what that tragedy is going to be is easy to figure out long before it occurs. That is not necessarily a problem. To some extent it even adds a sense of inevitability to the events. The problem is that the stories that are told leading up to the climax tend to be fairly repetitive.
John Green lost an opportunity to use the “Before” section of the book to hang a greater variety of short stories on. If the book was shorter the repetition wouldn’t be so obvious, or detract as much from the text. Much like Stephen King’s wonderful novella “The Body”, the setup of Looking For Alaska gives the author a perfect opportunity to interpolate a series of short stories and vignettes into the text. The book is obviously based upon things that happened to the author in his youth, but John Green seems to be a very capable storyteller and it is a shame that he didn’t use his talent to add some more and varied scenes into the book. With just a bit more thought put into it, the “Before” section could have been an exceptional bit of writing. As it stands, I ended up wishing that the first part of the book was at least half as long as it was.
I also had a few problems with the “After” sections length. And though I thought that some of the reactions to the central tragedy of the book were a bit melodramatic and over blown, I have to realize that I am not necessarily the intended audience and am reading this book from an older, more jaded place in my life. In some ways I no longer have any connection with the part of myself that was a school-aged boy and cannot interface fully with the level of innocence and naïvety that is represented in the central characters. I a sense, as an adult, I have seen too much and been where these children are heading towards far too often to be able to do more than roll my eyes at some of their actions. But there are many moments in Looking For Alaska that read so right, so true that for just a moment I was back in school tasting those first tastes of independence.
John Green is clearly a talented author with a great ability to write in a simple and clear manner. His prose reads like it was transcribed directly from his protagonist’s spoken account, even if it might come off as a bit overwrought to an adult reader. As young adult fiction though, it is a solid read and an impressive piece of work to be the author’s first novel. I feel that the book just would have been better if it was half as long as it is, or if what was there was more varied. As it is, Looking For Alaska is an elegant and easy to read book that deals with subject matter that is (unfortunately) rarely tackled in young adult fiction.