Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places
THE DEFENDANT: Looking for Alaska, John Green
THE VERDICT: Challenged in US schools and libraries. Cover censored due to bookseller concerns.
THE CHARGES: According to Penguin Group, Looking For Alaska has been challenged due to “booze and mischief.” High schools in New York and Tennessee faced an outcry, largely from parents, in response to the book’s presence as required or recommended reading. The outrage and controversy surrounding the book is largely due to sexual content and drug use. SafeLibraries.org uses Looking For Alaska as an example of “how the ALA pushes porn on children.”
According to John Green’s own vlog, the book cover of one edition was censored. It originally featured a great deal of smoke. However, bookstores expressed concern that the smoke might be construed as cigarette smoke (it was). The top of a candle was added, much to Green’s chagrin.
THE REVIEW: Let me start with this. I first encountered John Green on Youtube’s Brotherhood 2.0 and have loved him ever since. I am a fan of Vlogbrothers and admire the great, if unorthodox, work of Nerdfighters and all they do to prevent WorldSuck. And really, anyone who posts a video about goat sex after writing a book about cancer is someone I want to have a beer with (or would if I drank).
I love the man and was excited to finally read one of his books. I’ve been meaning to forever, but senior theses, internships, job-hunting, and procrastination always seemed to get in the way. Unfortunately (and I’m sure this will invoke some Nerdfighter rage, please have mercy), the book was a huge let down for me.
I will concede that part of this may be my inbred hatred of two all too common tropes: the spurned, friendzoned boy and the manic pixie dream girl. For those out there unfamiliar with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, please consult tvtropes.org or any Zooey Deschanel movie ever. My problems with the manic pixie are two-fold:
1) Manic pixies are stock characters. “The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young” (blurb on back cover of my edition) could be easily replaced with any other similarly self-destructive male fantasy, whether Marvel’s Mary Jane Watson, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Clementine, or any number of girls I met in college, without the book really changing at all. In fact, for the majority of the book, I pictured her as Mary Jane at her most 60s dysfunctional. It made her slightly more tolerable to be honest.
This trope can be done well and even (gasp) with a great deal of depth, but Alaska falls desperately short. She is a male fantasy, doused in perfume and swathed in cigarette smoke, complete with a bunch of cliched soundbites that attempt feminism (badly) and only serve to make the character look more ridiculous (and far less likable as she goes back and forth between complaining that she can’t have sex with the main character and yelling at the other characters for sexualizing or objectifying women).
Alaska just falls flat for me. I don’t care about her. Given that her tragic life and death is at the center of the book’s emotional punch, it makes the book fall flat too. Yes, she has a tragic past, one that should have made me bawl my eyes out, but she is not well-written enough to make me feel anything other than annoyance.
2) Manic pixies, as they often appear, are not people, they are ideals that people love to fantasize about, but, in reality, would never want to date. I wouldn’t mind this trope so much if it was not constantly being romanticized. Let’s be clear: this girl is entirely self-destructive, incredibly manipulative, probably has borderline personality disorder, and may or may not be suicidal. She is not deep and meaningful just because she reads depressing books. She is a troubled girl with a desperate need for attention. She needs help, not a bunch of lusting fanboys.
This character does exist in real life, so I’m hardly saying she should be stricken from literature. However, the fact that Alaska is idolized and, though she pays dearly for her mistakes, receives far less judgement or blame than the other characters, is a really unhealthy message. See Disney haters, boys can be screwed up by the media too.
Yes, Miles gets mad at her for snapping at him and the self-destructive aspect is driven home (and then weirdly ignored). Yet her willingness to humiliate her friend (don’t even get me started on how the book just drops Lara, who gets screwed over more than any other character), cheat on her boyfriend, and kill herself while endangering the lives of others are never really addressed. The book ends with a celebration of Alaska, not a critical look at her choices or even a hope for future intervention. Which is really the only way it could end.
Dead, Alaska can be remembered as a beautiful, sad, unique, damaged little snowflake for all time. If she survived, Miles would have had to either remain sexually frustrated or grow a pair and realize that this girl is a terrible romantic option. For more on the struggles of dating a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, please enjoy this informative documentary.
Similarly, I have no sympathy for the friendzoned. Its an unhealthy trope that quickly goes from recounting unrequited love to fetishizing sexual harassment and one that I cannot stand seeing romanticized in everything from books to TV to movies. I’m not saying all media must have characters that are healthy role models. Far from it. I absolutely loved and devoured every book by Alex Flinn simply because she writes people you should hate (abusive boyfriends, school bombers, and all manner of angry young men) so well that you end up feeling for them. All I ask of those who write manic pixies or the friendzoned is that these characters be critiqued just a little rather than held up on a pedestal as a romantic ideal.
Hank Green, brother to the author, did a great video on friendzoning that sums up my feelings on the matter quite succinctly: you are not a romantic, self-sacrificing figure, you are a selfish, creepy stalker. Thus, though Miles is far more fleshed out than Alaska, I quickly grew impatient with him and no longer cared about his problems. The Colonel, Takumi, and Lara are all far more interesting, as is The Eagle for that matter. His relationship with Miles and The Colonel was one of the most interesting parts of the book, until Alaska’s posthumous failures at feminism ruined that too.
This book confuses me, given what I know about the author. John Green has long insisted he’s trying to deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but that just does not appear to be the case, at least in this book. He has also done several excellent videos on stalking, dating, relationship dynamics, and other related issues. Thus, I have a hard time reconciling his thoughts in said videos and his thoughts in this book, as they seem totally at odds. Perhaps John Green is a reformed MPDG chaser or former resident of the friendzone who has since seen the error of those ways. Who knows?
Alright, rant over. Hate me if you wish, but I cannot stand those tropes and it really ruined the book for me. However, I do have some praise for Looking For Alaska. Despite its reliance on stock characters and tropes, the overall quality of the writing is quite good. I read the book very quickly because of said writing quality and would be more than willing to give another John Green book a shot, though the fact that he has his own section on the manic pixie tvtropes page gives me pause.
The feel of the book is rather similar to The Chocolate War, which was actually a plus because it painted such a vivid picture of boarding school life. Clearly, John Green is a talented writer, he just needs better characters. Last but not least, the set-up of the book as a countdown to one moment and then chronicle of the aftermath is brilliant. It adds a sense of foreboding and anxiety to the book that frankly had more of an emotional impact on me than any of the characters. I also loved his explanation for why he chose this format in the interview in the back of the book. We all have an event, whether personal or global, that is a defining moment of our lives. It is that notion that I choose to take from this book.
THE DEFENSE: Here’s the thing. This is a book about teenagers living largely unsupervised in a setting rife with conformity, non-conformity that looks suspiciously like conformity, and peer pressure. There will be sex. There will be drugs. There will be those awkward teenagers who don’t know the mechanics of a blow job and still want to give/receive one.
While I’ve never been to boarding school, I have been to college and many aspects of this book took me right back. Yes, there is enough smoke in this book to preserve a cellar of meat, but any book that desires any kind of emotional impact needs to be an uncensored, genuine experience. In that respect, this book is a success.
This book may not be appropriate for all age groups. Everyone has their own maturity and comfort level. However, if you pick up a book about horny teens in boarding school, you should not be in any way shocked by drug use or sexual content.
Instead of being outraged, the concerned parents who protested this book should use it as an opportunity to have an honest, open discussion with their children about peer pressure, independence, and choices/consequences. For example, Lara may well regret her sexual involvement with Miles and alcohol at least had a part in Alaska’s death. Talk about sex, talk about drugs, and what they think of the characters’ choices.
Alas, that would involve actually parenting. No wonder so many chose to scream at the teachers instead. I, for one, plan on handing my future child “The Miller’s Tale” and having a scandalous chat.