John Green: Early Works

Looking for Alaska coverThe earlier works in John Green’s back catalog are interesting, and well-written, but I wouldn’t advise reading them all together, as I did.  The Fault in our Stars and Paper Towns impressed me as books which, although written for teen audiences, had messages which would satisfy adult readers. His earlier works have similar strengths, but the characters are less complex, and many of the themes are repeated.

Looking For Alaska is the first book which gained great attention, and it’s clear why. The main character, Pudge, moves to a sort of boarding school where he immediately falls in with a group who are the campus’s troublemakers. They aren’t terrible, and the pranks they get up to are, with one exception, tame in comparison to the guns convictions which some of my friends at high school had. I liked that his hero was grounded and fallible. Something terrible happens to one of the members of the group, and the novel spends that the rest of its length considering to what extent people can really know each other. Are we trapped within our own perceptions, unable to really understand other people? If that’s true, can we ever really understand their choices, and the results of the choices? Green has noted on his blog that he didn’t feel this book said everything he had to communicate, which is why it and Paper Towns seem similar.

Let it snow coverLet it snow : three holiday romances is a trio of novellas under a single cover, by three different authors. I wanted to try it to see if I’d find the works by John Green’s co-authors interesting, so that I can add their other works to my reading list. I was also drawn to it, because I’ve seen snow only twice in my life, and never up close. Australians: look at the cover to the left!  What is the red object underneath the present?  I just thought it was a crocheted heart, right up until I’d finished the book. I had no idea what that was because I know nothing about snow.

The plot is relatively simple: on Christmas Eve a train is snowbound outside a little town, and the passengers decamp to an all-night waffle house. This sets off a series of events which lead to three couples falling for each other. The first story is a simple, sweet, romance, with all of the instantaneousness and lack of plausibility that comes with it. The second is a story about growing up and taking risks, like many John Green stories. The third story didn’t quite gel for me.

I’m not sure why it didn’t come together, but it may be that I’m simply outside its core audience.  It calls back to a tradition of Christmas miracle stories which I’m only tangentially familiar with. The lead character is tremendously self-absorbed, to an Emma Woodhouse level, and she is rewarded by the universe for finally growing up enough to be passably nice to nearby people. Now, you can argue that’s a trope as old as Scrooge, and you’d be right, but for much of A Christmas Carol, we are not on Scrooge’s side. We are not called to love him while he is being curmudgeonly. In the third story in Let it Snow, we are asked to give the main character the benefit of the doubt for an awfully long time. The third author, Lauren Myracle, also gets to wrap the whole thing up, and when she’s writing the characters of the other authors, they seem a little off-key. So, not terrible, but it didn’t inspire me to add her to my “to be read” pile.

An Abundance of Katherines is about a nerdy young man, his non-Caucasian friend, and a road trip they take in which they discover that women are complicated beings. It was at this point that I noticed the formula which was running through the books. Now, by noting the formula, I’m not criticizing the author. A lot of authors have certain motifs which they repeat, because they find them symbolic, or because their genre lends itself to certain tropes. I enjoyed Katherines, if less than the other books. The sidekick character is well developed, and it was an interesting choice to make a devout but fallible Muslim the joker in the pair.  Colin, the lead, seems to have high-functioning autism. Green wrote this book in third person, which is unique in his works so far I believe, specifically so that we are never really inside Colin’s head. I presume this made writing him easier, but it works as an effective technique for making him a little more distant and difficult to interpret than the other Green narrators.

Will grayson coverWill Grayson, will grayson is a novel about a pair of teenage boys who have the same name, and who happen to meet. This meeting pushes each out of his isolation, and makes each try to be more emotionally generous with their friends. It took me a long time to warm up to will, who we meet second. He suffers depression, which washes out his emotional responses to things around him, and he is written in a sort of textspeak that has already dated, due to the predictive text on modern smartphones. The best friend of the first Will, Tiny Cooper, is a really interesting character. Green and Levithan are using him as a flamboyantly  gay character, to examine ways of being homosexual, but more broadly his character is also grappling with the performed nature of masculinity, a fact which he hammers Will over the head with in the later chapters.

So, in summary, I really enjoyed the John Green back catalog and I wish it was deeper, but I’d recommend spacing them out more than I did.