I’ve always found one of the most prominent challenges when it comes to finding entertainment for a young man like myself who’s so in touch with his feminine side that it’s practically the only one there, is that romance doesn’t seem to often be marketed with a male demographic in mind. When it comes to interactions with the opposite sex from the male perspective, sex seems to be the most heavy theme, with emotions coming second, and I think this is a shame. People often underestimate how emotional and sentimental guys can be too, and this goes without mentioning the under-representation of same-sex romances.
As it was, I had to contend myself with your standard female-oriented romances, which I find has less of an effect when I can’t find the object of affection remotely attractive. Perhaps this was why I didn’t take to Levi when I read Fangirl. Or maybe he was just a poorly-written archetype. Perhaps both. The point is, you can probably imagine my intrigue when I happened to stumble across John Green’s debut novel on TV Tropes when looking him up. Avoiding as many spoilers as I could, the summary sounded like something I’d be waiting for for a long time – a YA romantic storyline from the perspective of a guy pursuing a girl…? I suppose it’s a sign of not much else going on that I became pretty hyped before I even got my hands on this book.
Of course it turned out that this was an oversimplification. I knew there would be more to this book, but this was the primary motivator, because I felt that I could connect with the protagonist far more than I was used to. Ironically, the main motivator and storyline wasn’t even there, at least not in it’s expected format, but that isn’t to say I didn’t end up impressed by it or that there wasn’t anything I found both relevant and relatable. A good, important chunk of the plot is kind of crossing into spoiler territory given an event that takes place about halfway through. People who’ve read the book will know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, I’ll try and explain the impact this had without actually giving it away, but I can’t be sure I won’t be too obvious, so proceed at your own risk.
The story concerns a young man named Miles (I say young man, he’s 16, and sometimes I still feel that age) who has the habit of memorizing famous figures’ last words. Inspired by the last words of Francois Rabelais, he decides to attend a boarding school called Culver Creek to seek his own Great Perhaps – essentially opening up himself to potential life experiences. He’s given the nickname Pudge (because he’s really skinny, get it?) by his roommate who goes by the name of The Colonel, and he meets a whole host of interesting characters including the eponymous Alaska. Alaska is a stunning, erratic and extroverted girl whom Pudge falls for pretty much instantly. The many activities the students get up to at Culver Creek include a potentially dangerous prank war, occasionally skipping class, a lot of smoking, and much of this is spearheaded by Alaska, who drinks hard, plays hard and certainly gives reason for Pudge to consider her the key to his Great Perhaps. Does this description of her seem uncomfortably familiar? Well, it should, because this time it’s deliberate.
John Green has gone on record to say that virtually all of his books attempt to deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype to some degree, including a gender-flipped example in The Fault in Our Stars. He’s the first to admit he’s not always successful, and in fact one of the reasons he wrote Paper Towns is because he didn’t feel he did a good enough job in this one of taking the archetype down. Given that this is his debut novel, I think it’s quite interesting to see the beginning of his own take on it. Because one of the things I think Green does best is capture the joys, crossroads and particularly in this case, the sheer naivety of youth.
Pudge himself is not the strongest protagonist I’ve seen, but I feel that part of that may well be just how much of an avatar for the reader I find him. He’s not physically adept or overly confident, and he rightly feels awkward due to the socially awkward habits he has. Now, I never used to memorize people’s last words, but believe me I memorized some other weird things. And just like Pudge, the geeky side I had which led some people to believing I was wise beyond my years didn’t stop me from being a slave to my emotions and naively hold people in the highest regard, and this is exactly what Pudge does to Alaska. And this is where the deconstruction comes into play. Pudge begins to view her almost as this angel sent from heaven who’s only role is to guide him to his Great Perhaps, and whilst Alaska is a perfectly friendly and playful individual, being a real person, she of course has her own agenda too, her own history and priorities that don’t seem to register with Pudge straight away. This is so similar to the kind of crushes I’ve had in my past that it’s almost laughable. I too have idealized those who have seemed to have the perfect combination of personality and physical traits, practically creating my own Manic Pixie Dream Girls as I did so. I don’t know whether my inability to see things from their perspectives contributed to how this didn’t always end well for me, but I can see how it would be a factor.
Because despite her being a drinking, smoking, loud-mouthed party girl who decides to steal porn just because and waltz around the campus and play matchmaker and tell a teacher they’re full of shit to their face, Alaska shows plenty of signs that she’s not quite as clear-cut as this. And for the most part, Pudge and the others pretty much ignore these things.
For one thing, she has a boyfriend. Obviously false romantic leads are a huge trope in this kind of genre, but I feel it shows already that there are different priorities to be had here. She’s also quite open about the sex she has, which for female supporting characters, particularly stock ones, is usually considered taboo by people who have this weird idea that women should be prudes or something. In fact, this book was quite often challenged due to the level of sexual references, swearing and drinking that came from it’s teenage characters. This is quite funny to me, because firstly, apparently these moral guardians don’t know anything about teenagers, and secondly, the book I read after this one made Looking for Alaska seem about as profane and sexually explicit as the Mr Men.
But more than this, Alaska’s moods swing quite dramatically. Sometimes she’s her usual MPDG self, other times she’s crying her eyes out over something far beyond Pudge’s control. These are further advanced by rather morbid comments she makes or references to certain things about herself that I won’t go into too much detail about here, which again, is mostly just brushed off by the main cast. They have no reason to concern themselves with the mental well-being of her too much, they seem to decide, because she’s the life and soul of the party. As it happens, Takumi, a friend of Pudge, Alaska and the Colonel’s, is revealed at the end to have a similar kind of crush to the one Pudge nurtures throughout this story, so it’s understandable that he’d have a similar reaction. Now I’m sure those who haven’t read the book among you have probably worked out by now that this neglect is going to come back to bite them later. And…yeah…
Perhaps more curious than that though is that (slight spoiler incoming) Pudge and Alaska don’t actually get together. They closest they get is constant flirting and a make-out session when they were drunk. And, given that Alaska is still with her boyfriend at this point, this raises a few questions…but more on that later. The point is, this again showcases another reality of teen life. If you got together with the very first person you were attracted to and are still happy with them now then…you’re one of a very rare minority and I’m trying my best not to resent you.
Alaska does in fact hook Pudge up with a girl named Lara and there’s a scene where they try oral sex…and haven’t got a clue what to do, which Alaska finds absolutely hilarious, of course. I don’t know, it’s little touches like that which I really appreciate.
I guess I should talk about the other characters too. The Colonel, Pudge’s roommate is good, because it again showcases an understanding of inter-personal relationships. Him and Pudge naturally become very close friends. There’s not really much to elaborate on there, it just feels very real. He’s given a background and a family, and perhaps most importantly serves as something of a voice of reason later on, given that he shares a close, entirely platonic relationship with Alaska and is therefore is the character that sees her as most like a human being. He even has a go at Pudge later for not treating her like a human being. It’s played a little obviously, but I’d argue it’s cause is just.
There are plenty of other more minor characters in the students and staff and Culver Creek, and they’re all pretty distinctive so I don’t really have any complaints there.
Were there issues? Well, yes…perhaps.
See, after finishing this, I found myself thinking that this felt a bit like half a story. But then again, I’m not sure whether or not that was the point. By the end, a great deal doesn’t feel resolved. Whatever Pudge and Alaska had going on certainly wasn’t, and nor was a great deal of Alaska’s character arc. But these all had very good reasons, and like I say, it’s arguable that was all very deliberate. Real life, again, isn’t all about resolution or answers, or even getting to know people you don’t know all that well, because it’s complicated and uncertain and sometimes you’ve just got to work it out as best you can. Maybe what threw me off-guard the most is how a little essay by Pudge at the end tries to resolve certain themes that the novel had, and honestly, sometimes it does feel a little half-arsed. Looking back, I do get what it was going for, talking about people being greater than the sum of their parts, but I dunno, maybe it just didn’t fit the tone as well as it could have done, because it doesn’t resolve as much as maybe you’d want it to. It’s not a very long essay, and I don’t he said as much as he could have. Again, the line between intentional and not is a little blurry. Perhaps it could have benefited from one more rewrite? It’s all a little unclear, because if Green’s intention was to tell half a story based on the limited perspective our inward-focused protagonist had, or if it was to tell a complete story, I’m not sure he did either one perfectly.
All the same, the ideas behind it is all still there, and they are good ideas. But perhaps we should look at this as Green finding his writing style, in terms of structure, character and theme. Given what he has written since, I think he has certainly honed his style, or at least exploited it’s many uses. As debut novels go, it certainly could have been a lot worse. I personally enjoyed it, and may well reread it at some point if I’ve got nothing better to do. At some points it feels like half a story, but given all that he could have written, maybe we could look at that and everything he planned on writing afterwards as another Great Perhaps…?
GOD, I’m so witty. Look at me lazily trying to make a connection to the topic. Yeah, I’ll shut up now…feel free to like and comment and I’ll post…something at some point. Yes, it’s vague, but that’s how my schedule operates…