Following the release of the Looking for Alaska Hulu series, Jonathan Compo reflects on the book Looking for Alaska.
John Green—author, philanthropist, self-identified nerd and YouTube mogul—is afraid of women. This isn’t apparent from his vlogbrothers videos, his Anthropocene Reviewed podcast, his two most recent novels, or in his charitable ventures, but it is the central fault in the book that made his name, Looking for Alaska, and in Paper Towns, a book which, if Green were an Updike disciple instead of Wallace’s, would have been called Alaska Redux.
This essay will focus on Paper Towns. Looking for Alaska, as most debuts are, is disfigured by its desire to exist, too disfigured for it to be doing anything or about anything in the way an author’s later work may be. The inherent struggle of any first book is am I to write? And this question almost always poisons the thematic unity of that first book. In this way, though, first novels are freed from the considerations that haunt mature artists, and may therefore approach something like truth, irreducible and impossible to parse. Maybe Alaska is not beyond criticism, but it’s beyond the abilities of this critic.
Paper Towns smell of fear
Paper Towns, though, I can criticize. Towns, an explicit response to Alaska, attempts to rectify the charges against the former novel, is so concerned with this rectification it risks becoming about redeeming the author from his past sins rather than about its characters, is entombed in ideological and pragmatic considerations that threaten its existence as a work of art and make tenuous its connection to anything like truth. Paper Towns smells of fear. Smells of a fear, specifically, of misrepresenting its female lead, Margo Roth Spiegalman.
To criticize Towns though, we must circle back to Alaska. John Green views his early novels as engaged in the work of ‘deromanticization.’ In Alaska, he makes gross those teenage firsts meant to be rosy: first love, first kiss, first blowjob. He in that book, however, in the eyes of some critics and for reasons suggested above, fails and ends up romanticizing the character Alaska. She is, some argue, idealized and idealized specifically for her flaws and her mental illness (mental illness is often listed as a subcategory of flaw; let’s be very clear that’s not true).
Margo Roth Spiegalman exists to deromanticize the Alaska archetype, the Depressed Damsel. This contemporary revision of the Damsel in Distress exists for the same purpose: to be found. John Green, in an attempt to take apart this idea, creates in Margo someone who exists only to not be found. Taking apart this idea is a good goal, and Paper Towns is a good attempt at achieving it. But, for guilt or for fear, Green falls short. To make a point soundly, one must give the most charitable possible picture of the other side, and, for guilt of for fear, Green does not. Paper Towns refuses to acknowledge in Margo the universal desire to be located, and by doing so undermines its point and Margo’s humanity. Paper Towns doesn’t fully acknowledge that sometimes we all want to be found.