There is a real pleasure in reading a book that was written by someone you know. There’s an even greater pleasure when that book turns out to be very good. That was how I (Ben) felt three years ago when I read John Green’s Looking For Alaska. A heavily autobiographical novel, Looking For Alaska was about Miles “Pudge” Halter, the prototypical John Green male protagonist: smart, witty, curious, withdrawn, insecure and über-obsessive. The object of his adoration, Alaska Young, was the prototypical John Green female: smart, beautiful, confident, unstable and charming, with the (metaphorical) ability to walk on water. Miles meets Alaska at Culver Creek Boarding School, where a traditional boy-meets-girl, coming-of-age story took on exceptional depth by tackling subjects like faith, loss and death. It was, first and foremost though, very funny. And honest. I read it in one sitting.
John and I both went to Kenyon and majored in English. We were sophomores together in P.F. Kluge’s Introduction to Fiction Writing class. During one of our first classes, we were critiquing John’s piece, which included a sex scene. Professor Kluge let us discuss every piece as a class before weighing in with his own verdict as the final word. We had finished talking about John’s story and turned to Professor Kluge, awaiting his judgment. He sat silently for a few seconds. Finally he said, “John … you’ve never had sex, have you?” There was a brief silence. Then someone — it may have been John — laughed, and pretty soon we all busted up. “No, I haven’t,” John said. Kluge smiled and nodded his head. “I know.”
Whether he remembers that exact moment or not, John heeded Kluge’s implicit advice. What he has done so well in his young writing career is to capture adolescence in all of its awkward, in-between glory. In writing workshop jargon, he writes what he knows. John’s service to the burgeoning YA genre, it seems to me, is that his teenagers are real. They are funny and hyper-literate. They are generally mature but given to bouts of occasional stupidity. They fight and reconcile. They have heads for big ideas. They have one foot still firmly planted in adolescence and another stepping into adulthood. And John is generous toward them as much as he holds them accountable for being, well, teenagers.
John’s second book, An Abundance of Katherines, took many of the same themes (quirky, obsessive teenage prodigy with a talent for anagrams falls for charming, self-assured girl) and added a road trip, mathematical theorems and a deceased Austro-Hungarian archduke, not to mention a slew of hilarious footnotes. His newest book, Paper Towns, is more like his first book than his second, but it combines parts of both. It starts with a commanding female presence in the form of Margo Roth Spiegelman, turns on her mysterious disappearance (did she run away? commit suicide?), then follows a series of clues which lead our young hero Quentin Jacobsen on a desperate, quixotic, Bluefin-guzzling road trip to Agloe, New York, a town which may not even exist. (“Paper towns” are fake towns created on maps to protect against copyright infringement.)
When I say that I think Paper Towns is John’s least successful book, I do not mean to say that it isn’t also extremely funny, inventive and well worth your time. But once Margo exits stage left around a hundred pages in, the narrative loses steam as Quentin and friends adjust to life without her. And the clues Margo leaves behind are scattershot and quite open-ended (they involve Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a Wilco/Billy Bragg album, abandoned suburban developments and a Wikipedia-like site called Omnictionary). How Quentin gets from A to B (or from Orlando to Agloe) is a bit of a blur. That said, this book has the best ending John has written yet. If you ranked all three of John’s books together, Looking For Alaska is still the British “Office,” while Paper Towns is the American spin-off, season three (which is to say, very good). (In this analogy, I suppose that makes An Abundance of Katherines “Extras.”) Anyway, I continue to be thrilled for John, who also has quite a following from his popular website and one he created with his brother called nerdfighters.com. I’ll happily read anything he writes, even if I’m no longer required to for a class participation grade.
The jealousy part is what I still have to work on. Not only have John’s books won a slew of accolades (Alaska won the Printz Award while Katherines was a runner-up, and Paper Towns has garnered numerous starred reviews already), but Alaska and Paper Towns are both slated to be films. Good for you, John. At least I can say I knew you when, in those days you were still a virgin.*
* = John is now married, so I’m assuming things have changed. John, if you ever read this, forgive me for openly speculating about your love life.