Thursday, December 3, 2009

Varian: Reading Like a Writer: Looking for Alaska

Note: This post contains SPOILERS.

Like many other readers, I’m a huge fan of John Green’s work—especially Looking for Alaska, which was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award in 2006. Looking for Alaska is funny, sad, and powerful, and most importantly, it makes you think long after you’ve put the novel down. But as much as I enjoy the book from a reader’s perspective, I actually enjoy it more from a writer’s perspective.

For this post, I’d like to talk about two of the more famous scenes from the novel—the oral sex scene and Pudge and Alaska’s make-out scene. The first scene involves the main character, Pudge, receiving oral sex from his new Romanian girlfriend, Lara.

And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.

And waited.

We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure what.

She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes…she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there, waiting.

And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.

“Should I do something? … Should I, like, bite it?”

“Don’t bite! I mean, I don’t think. I think—I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don’t know if there’s something else.”

“I mean, but you deedn’t—”

“Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.” (Green 127)

Pudge and Lara ask Alaska, their sexually advanced friend—and the girl that Pudge secretly loves—for advice. After laughing at them, Alaska shows them exactly how it is supposed to happen with a tube of toothpaste. Afterward, Pudge and Lara return to Lara’s room, to try again.

Lara and I went back to her room, where she did exactly what Alaska told her to do, and I did exactly what Alaska said I would do, which was to die a hundred little ecstatic deaths, my fists clenched, my body shaking. It was my first orgasm with a girl, and afterward, I was embarrassed and nervous, and so, clearly, was Lara, who finally broke the silence by asking, “So, want to do some homework?” (Green 128)

The passage is beautifully written and painfully funny, but at first glance, the passage seems to serve no real purpose in the novel. It’s plausible that by having Pudge and Lara ask Alaska for advice, Green is establishing the close-knit friendship of the main characters; yet one could argue that this is already depicted in the prank scene from earlier in the novel. Also, this scene does not need to reinforce that Pudge is a novice at relationships, as the reader sees this in tamer scenes involving Pudge’s first date and first make-out session with Lara.

While it appears that the oral sex scene may be unnecessary, the next sexual scene is a needed—if not pivotal—part of the novel. Not twenty-four hours after his first oral sex experience, Pudge and Alaska make out. Pudge has pined after Alaska for months, and on a whim, he is able to have her, if only for a few moments.

I laughed, looked nervous, and she leaned in and tilted her head to the side, and we were kissing. Zero layers between us. Our tongues danced back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw. We lay down as we kissed, she on top of me, and I began to move beneath her. … A hand grabbed one of mine and she placed it on her stomach. I moved slowly on top of her and felt her arching her back fluidly beneath me.

… She moved my hand from her waist to her breast, and I felt cautiously, my fingers moving slowly under her shirt but over her bra, tracing the outline of her breasts and then cupping one in my hand, squeezing softly. “You’re good at that,” she whispered. Her lips never left mine as she spoke. We moved together, my body between her legs.

“This is so fun,” she whispered, “but I’m so sleepy. To be continued?” She kissed me for another moment, my mouth straining to stay near hers, and then she moved from beneath me, placed her head on my chest, and fell asleep instantly.

We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.” (Green 130-131)

Like the oral sex scene with Pudge and Lara, this passage is also beautifully written. Green’s language pulls the reader into the scene, and while the scene is not explicit, the reader experiences all of the wants and yearnings of the main character. This scene firmly establishes Pudge’s desire for Alaska, with his mouth “straining to stay near hers” as she pulls away. This act also haunts Pudge throughout the rest of the novel, as Alaska dies the next day, leaving her promise of “to be continued” unfulfilled.

It isn’t until comparing both scenes that the main purpose of the oral sex passage is revealed. Pudge has a girlfriend—a girlfriend willing to have sex with him—but what he wants is a relationship with Alaska—the beautiful, mysterious girl that floats just outside of reach. This is further established later in the novel, as Pudge is unable to continue his relationship with Lara after Alaska’s death.

Although Pudge orgasms in the scene with Lara, Green does not use romantic and lush words when describing the act. Instead of fully fleshing out the scene, Green summarizes the act for the reader, opting not to have the reader experience Pudge’s physical reaction. The scene creates a distance between the reader and Pudge, similar to the physical and emotional distance between Pudge and Lara.

However, in the make-out scene with Alaska, Green’s words paint a much more romantic picture. Pudge focuses of the fluidity of her body, the way her hands feel against his face, the way his hands feel against her body. Pudge is active in the scene; his desire for Alaska paramount. As Pudge relives the scene after Alaska falls asleep, he is content with not taking any of her clothes off; he is content with just kissing and touching. Pudge likes Lara, but he loves Alaska.

When comparing both scenes, it is clear that the oral sex scene serves a greater purpose than just providing humor or “shock value.” By including the scene, Green provides an interesting dynamic between what Pudge has with Lara, and what Pudge wants with Alaska. The scene successfully serves its main purpose—to support and reinforce character development.

(Works Cited: Green John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton. 2005)

FYI: Most of this post came from an essay I wrote in the Fall of 2007 during my first semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the author discussing this same topic a few months later. In a blog posted on January 30, 2008, Green talks about why he crafted the scenes as such, stating, “I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene (the oral sex scene) when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s untimely very emotionally empty and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection.” Green goes on to say that he’s trying to show that, “…physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas it inevitably fails.”

Of course, Green doesn’t tell us this in the novel; rather he gets this point across with the juxtaposition of the two “sex” scenes (in other words: Show, Don’t Tell). This not only allows the author to get his point across in a non-didactic manner, but it also allows the reader to be an active participant in the process, which is what I think all literary author’s should strive for.

93 comments:

  1. Great post, Varian. LOOKING FOR ALASKA is one of my favorite YAs. Funny, I remember the make-out scene (and often think of how deftly Green drew out the emotion), but the oral sex scene was gone from memory until reading your post. If it were just extraneous for the shock value, I would probably remember it. Just goes to show that it served its purpose as intended, at least with me anyway.

    By the way, your grad lecture was about sex too. Hmmm...

    Kelly Barson

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  2. Wow this is a great post. It's always important when a writer puts two similar scenes together like that, you know they are trying to show you something important and he did that so well. I love John Green!

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  3. That was very well put. I tend to be a passive reader of books - I don't think through the symbolism of things, or what the author was trying to do (For which I blame GCSE English, where we were taught to tear books to shreds in search of meaning - it puts you off looking at other books deeply thereafter, and has forever ruined Lord of the Fliues for me - the unfortunate book we we set upon!) But I do like reading thoughtful analyses of my favourite books (Of which LFA is certainly one!) Thank you :)

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  4. When I met you at Southern Festival of Books, we had a slightly abridged conversation about this exact scene in the book. It is nice to see your idea fleshed out...

    Bryan

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Great post! (I found it via twitter, where John himself tweeted about this article). I thoroughly enjoyed Looking for Alaska and was sincerely flabbergasted when so many people tried to ban it from schools/etc. Too often, such people haven't read the novel in its entirety- or even that "offending" passage; they've just heard about it.

    However, as you wrote and John emphasized in his video response to the controversy, the scene makes sense in the book's overall context.

    Well written.

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  7. The link to your site is posted on John Green's Twitter (realjohngreen). Looks like you were totally right after all. Really enjoyed the analysis!

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  8. This is a great post. I've saved it in my bookmarks because it says very clearly what I've tried with only moderate success to explain to several people. I plan to share it the next time I'm asked about the scenes in question. (And because I am an educator who loves John Green and his books, I assure you I will be asked.) Thank you for writing and for sharing it.

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  9. Great post, Varian. I love Looking for Alaska and all of John Green's books. I have to say that when I first read Alaska, I thought the oral sex scene was brilliant. Upon later reflection, though, I found it to be very unrealistic. Whether there is an emotional connection between the characters (or not, as in this case), I can't imagine that the big P gets in the mouth and NOTHING HAPPENS! Yes, I believe they didn't know what to do, but I think they'd try SOMETHING once you get into that particular situation. I think this might have been a case where it would have been better for John G. to "kill his darlings" and try another approach to make his point. Reading as a writer, this scene seems designed more to serve the author's purposes than it is being true to the characters. Just my take. I've never posted anonymously anywhere before, and I don't plan to make a habit of it. But I don't want this comment to be misinterpreted as me "slamming John Green." I've read all of his work and consider myself a big fan.

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  10. Beautiful, thoughtful post.
    Looking for Alaska remains one of my all time favorite YA novels for the very reasons you mention above.
    Pudge doesn't love Lara, he loves Alaska.
    Sex isn't love.
    Sometimes simply holding the hand of someone you love is a zillion times more electric than a full on sexual experience with someone you don't.
    So glad the difference is pointed out in such a lyrical, lovely way for his teen (and adult) readers.

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  11. Nicely said, Varian. Great analysis. And Green clearly thought this one through, too.

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  12. Thanks, V, for this analysis. I just knew John Green would not insert a scene at random, but didn't fully appreciate how it was handled (no pun intended) until now.

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  13. I'm so glad John Green featured your post on his blog (sparksflyup.blogspot.com), otherwise I would've never been able to read your thoughtful and insightful analysis! This added so much more to what I originally gathered from these two scenes in Looking For Alaska. Honestly, thanks for this post!!!

    ~Nerdette Ari

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  14. Such a good post. A great point well made. Bravo.

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  15. urrrrg! i can't stand that "to be continued" never happens. its soooo sad!

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  16. I'm glad so many of you enjoyed the post!

    When I first started this essay, I actually planned to write about how unnecessary (and even gratuitous) the scene was. Looking at it in isolation, it made absolutely no sense--it told us nothing new about Pudge, Lara, or Alaska. But then I read the second scene, and really noticed John’s word choices—the scene with Alaska was much more vivid--more romantic--than the scene with Lara. And that’s when I started to realize that maybe there was more to the scene than I originally thought. Which just proves what Maggie alluded to in an earlier comment--you can't take scenes out of context. You’ve got to look at the totality of the work.

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  17. Excellent analysis--thanks so much for sharing it! It's a perfect illustration for my students, too, of how writers subtly shape our impressions and interpretations.

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  18. This is an excellent anaylsis, Varian. I really enjoyed reading it. I have to say, though, that I feel bad because while I love to read, I would never have picked up on any of this. I can't seem to read that critically into a book unless I'm in English and am forced to think and analyze. I enjoyed Looking For Alaska because the story was interesting and the characters were enthralling, but I can't connect two scenes that are so in depth. After reading your essay, I now feel like it's my duty to the author, perhaps, to look deeply into all these scenes and figure out what's going on.

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  19. An excellent and thoughtful post, Varian.

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  20. I think the oral sex scene is, in fact, true to character, for Pudge and Lara. And I think it serves the purpose of establishing a marked difference between the way Pudge interacts physically with Lara (whom he likes, as you pointed out) and the way he interacts physically with Alaska (whom he loves). Basically, it shows he's willing to test out various sexual trials and errors with Lara (to whom he's not as emotionally connected) while his interaction with Alaska is more emotionally based. That interpretation makes the oral sex scene quite meaningful because it says something about how we relate to each other emotionally and physically, and how those two things are connected.

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  21. Hi Varian! You might have guessed I'd like this post, and I do! Excellent points made.

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  22. Super analysis. But I'm perfectly cool with gratuitous oral sex scenes anyway, and since the scene is also funny it deserved to stay regardless of significance. I mean, how often do you read a funny fellatio scene in YA?

    That said, perhaps you can enlighten us on the significance of the boar hunt in An Abundance of Katherines. Because I'm pretty sure there's significance, but I can't figure out what it is. My guess is it's a metaphor. And metaphors confuse me.

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