Sunday, June 24, 2012

John Green, Meet John Knowles

It's a good day when you read a book that makes you say, Damn, now I have to read every other book this person has written.

The book in this case was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It belongs to one of my favorite YA subgenres, which I call TIT -- terminally ill teenagers. (TIT includes books such as Going Bovine by Libba Bray and May I Cross Your Golden River? by Paige Dixon, a pseudonym of Barbara Corcoran.) The Fault in Our Stars is a winning combination of sharp humor, strong characters, and dexterous pathos, with a good helping of rumination about writers' responsibility to their readers.

I picked up all of Green's other books soon after, and, being a completist, plan to read them in order to see what can be seen of his development as writer. That means beginning with his 2005 novel Looking for Alaska.

Green wrote Alaska in his mid-20s while working for Booklist, where he read a lot of YA books and wrote hundreds of reviews. (I wonder what his writing was like before that?) The book is clearly based on his own experience attending a boarding school in Alabama, but I assume the action is fictional. Or at least I hope so, for the sake of his classmates.

Looking for Alaska's characters share a similar sharp quality with the ones in Fault, but still stand out. The novel is well constructed, even suspenseful. But what I think I liked best about it are its open-ended gender politics and nuanced adults.

Contrast that with another boarding school classic, A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which I read in ninth or tenth grade and just reread as a response to Looking for Alaska. Why did my high school English department have us read it, circa 1974? Was it supposed to be relevant to us because the characters were close to our age?

Because in so many ways they had no relevance -- they are all male and very upper class, living in 1942, during a war that was 30 years before my time, ancient history to me and my classmates. They're stiff and mostly unrealistic, limited in odd ways. They don't appear to have parents or to care about them if they do. Their teachers are stick figures. They don't think about girls. They don't have inner lives, generally, just class work, athletics, school genuflection, and the war.

What is the fascination with boarding school stories anyway? At least Holden Caufield ran away from his school early in the action of The Catcher in the Rye, so the book isn't really about that. But A Separate Peace is very much about the school.

I have to say, it mostly annoyed me upon rereading. Without the assumption I had in high school that this was surely a meaningful text, I was free to dislike it, and not only for its many "which"-when-it-should-be-"that" uses and overly self-conscious attempts at literary imagery.

There is some nice language, yes, especially when Knowles describes the school environment, but at other times there is so much detail that it undermines the framing as a recollection of events 15 years earlier. (The narrator, Gene, reports on every item he ate at dinner one day. I'm not kidding.)

Compared to Looking for Alaska, A Separate Peace is wooden and false. Its characters are unmoving, at least to me, a now-middle-aged woman, while Alaska's are resonant, even though I'm not a cigarette-smoking, cheap-wine-drinking merry prankster. A Separate Peace's famous character Phineas, subject of so many high school English papers, reads most of the time as flat and almost bullying, not heroic.

Usually when I go back and examine a text I read as a teen, I find more there than I remembered. But not in this case. I think schools stopped assigning A Separate Peace to students not long after my era, and that's a good thing, in my opinion. Its only redeeming value is as a glimpse of U.S. life during wartime, which doesn't seem enough to make it an iconic text of the teen years.

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