Friday, May 4, 2012

Every John Green Book: A Review of themes

Well if you don't like spoilers then it goes without saying you shouldn't read this. So in case you accidentally don't pay too much attention I'll put it in bold caps: SPOILER WARNING FOR JOHN GREEN BOOKS.

John Green is the best selling author of nearly half a dozen young adult novels. I haven't read Will Grayson, will grayson, co-authored by David Levithan yet so I'm going to stick to ones he's the sole author of (they are in order, Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars).

There are some recurring themes and kinds of characters that you can see in pretty much every John Green book. The protagonist and narrator is (usually male except in The Fault in Our Stars) introverted, socially awkward, and has limited friends. Their main source of interaction or desire stems from someone they percieve to be cooler and more interesting than them, which becomes a romantic love interest for the protagonist. This character can be present from the start but the friendship they have has to have a large change in the beginning as the catalyst for this desire (in Paper Towns Q already knows Margo, but it is not until years later, after they haven't talked in ages, that his interest in her is reinvigorated and the story revolves around it). Also, the love interest must be in a relationship doomed to fail, or have had a doomed relationship in the past.

The protagonist is not allowed to be enthusiastic about running. Despite this disdain and aversion to exercise they'll end up doing something physical (in Hazel's case it's just climbing up stairs). They are by default terrible at sports. I don't think there is a single protagonist that excels at sports in his books, that is generally left for the people the protagonist dislikes.

SOMEONE. MUST. DIE. There is not a single book where death does not play a part. An Abundance of Katherines involves a death but it happens years beforehand and is not vital to the main action in the story but in the end you realise it's significance to the town that they drive to. Heck, he wrote a short story where a vast majority of the population dies and becomes zombies (well what kind of zombie story doesn't involve lots of death?)

The future plays a minor role as this thing of uncertainty, source of fear, and its consideration is abandoned by at least one of the protagonists for sometimes reckless spontaneity. Alaska doesn't care for the future, Margo is disgusted by everyone's need to plan for the future, Hassan avoids planning for his future and only at the end agrees to go to college, and Augustus and Hazel both realise they don't have a future due to cancer.

Travel features in each book as a journey that changes the protagonist. Pudge travels to his boarding school where his life changes, Colin goes on a road trip that changes his outlook on life, Q goes on a road trip looking for Margo that allows him to see Margo for who she is, and Hazel travels to Amsterdam only to realise her favourite author is nothing but a drunkard.

Another recurring theme is identity and how people perceive and construct the identities of those around them. Each book involves the protagonist trying to examine clues or events to come to a conclusion about an individual. In Looking for Alaska the narrator Pudge realises he didn't understand Alaska as he searches for clues to whether or not her death was accident or deliberate. In An Abundance of Katherines, we have Colin trying to examine his past relationships to understand Katherine III, meanwhile, Lindsey is coping with a struggle to understand her own identity that she has constructed as a front so she can be popular and accepted by her superficial friends. Paper Towns doesn't have this as a background theme, this idea about identity is the entire novel. Margo Roth Spieglman has left cryptic clues to her location when she runs away, and as they search for her the narrator, Q, realises that people construct their own ideas about people and each has a different idea of who Margo is. Only in the very end does he realise who she is. The Fault in Our Stars isn't so much about understanding the identity of the love interest as Hazel isn't fighting to find a way into Augustus's heart, she's there and he's in hers, and it's adorable (I love their romance, it is amazing), but Hazel is confronted with the harsh reality that her construction of Peter Van Houten's personality in her mind has been gravely wrong. Her expectations are shattered.

So when you examine his books you can see recurring ideas and themes, some playing minor roles in one book only to be the major theme in another. So why read them? They might sound repetitive when you simplify them down like I did...

But why watch horror movies? You see you know what happens in most horror films: people die. Teens do dumb things. The blonde one dies. Black guy never lives. Etc. You see, those are recognisable things that allow you to classify it as part of a genre. They share things in common, but each one is different (well horror movies can get pretty cliche and similar, but there are tons of horror movies and only a few John Green books). Each story John Green writes is different in a way. They may involve romance, but each romances outcome is different and so is the journey to this outcome. You can see the similarities between how Hazel has few friends in The Fault in Our Stars and Colin being similarly introverted in An Abundance of Katherines, but The Fault in Our Stars is about a cancer sufferer who is pursuing a romantic ideal whereas An Abundance of Katherines is about Colin's need to make a difference and break free of what he sees as a stigma of being a child prodigy - which is very different from being a genius, and usually amounts to nothing. You can see how they both have travel in them, but both serve different purposes.

The point is that although they have similarities, they are not the same story. So that's why you should read them. Because they are each awesome. They will make you laugh, some will make you cry, and they will entertain you. You will fall in love with the characters, and if you're like me, you can relate to some of them, and you'd really wish they were real so you could hang out with them.

In short, the works of John Green are incredible.

Note: I kept writing "Looking for Alaska" every time I wanted to say "The Fault in Our Stars" so if you see any examples where I talk about cancer in Looking for Alaska you know it's just a typo. I'd proofread but...

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