Publish Our Love: John Green

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 5:25pm


Design by Kathryn Halverson

“You can never publish my love,” Rogue Wave chants, in the song that the title of this series riffs on. Maybe that’s true, and we can never quite account for our love on paper or in print, but we sure can try. That’s what this series is devoted to: publishing our love. Us, the Arts section of The Michigan Daily, talking about artists, some of the people we love the most. Perhaps these are futile approximations of love for the poet who told us we deserve to be heard, the director who changed the way we see the world, the singer we see as an old friend. But who ever said futile can’t still be beautiful?

In John Green’s 2012 novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster thinks to herself: “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like ‘An Imperial Affliction,’ which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like betrayal.”

Like Hazel Grace with “An Imperial Affliction,” John Green’s work feels intensely personal to me. It’s evangelical-zeal-inducing and formative in every sense of the word, not only emotionally or intellectually, but also in terms of real relationships Green’s work has impacted my life. I’m pretty sure I can credit his YouTube channel, “Vlogbrothers,” as the catalyst for one of my very closest friendships from high school. He’s inspired, frustrated and taught me endlessly. I think I would have turned out a lot differently if his books had never been in my life, for better or for worse. 

Let’s go back to the start. John Green, for the three people still uninitiated, is the massively famous author of young adult books like “Looking for Alaska,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” and many more. He’s also one of the original YouTube stars, beginning with “Vlogbrothers” in 2007, which he shares with his brother Hank. His online success has since expanded to developing and hosting the educational series “Crash Course,” as well as several popular podcasts.

John Green has been a public figure for almost two decades now, but I found him about 7 years ago. My big sister Eden pressed a library copy of “Looking for Alaska” into my hands and told me, “This book is really important, you should read it.” Eden had just graduated high school and I was a few weeks away from starting my freshman year, so it felt less like a recommendation and more like an induction. Welcome to adolescence, the book seemed to tell me. Good luck. 

It caught hold almost immediately. There’s something raw and exposed about “Looking for Alaska”, nearly intrusive in how intimate reading it feels. It tells the story of 15-year-old Miles Halter as he attends boarding school in Alabama and encounters his first friendships, first teenage hijinks, first love, first tragedy. “Looking For Alaska” centers on the relationship between Miles and the mysterious Alaska, a troubled teenage girl who seems equally interested in soaking in as much joy and excitement as she can as she is in destroying herself.

The book is split into two parts, simply titled “Before” and “After,” but throughout both sections, Alaska as a character never quite makes sense. One minute, she’s warm and thrilling, the next she’s withdrawn and acerbic. We see her in fragments, never learn her full backstory and very rarely hear what she actually wants and needs from her life. As a result, she never feels quite like a real person, which is a point on which a lot of critics have taken issue with the novel. But to me, that’s always felt exactly right, because the way we see her is decidedly a product of Miles’ perceptions and imaginations. From their very first moments together, Miles is too busy marveling at the shape of her lips to listen to the words she’s actually saying. Alaska dies horrifically midway through the book, leaving Miles and the rest of the friends around her to muddle through trying to understand why. (Spoiler: They never do. Prediction: They never will.) 

No matter how many times I read it, the book leaves me with a sort of hollow feeling in my stomach. Not only because of the precision with which love, obsession, grief and trauma are rendered by Green’s prose, but because “Looking For Alaska,” and really all his work, always immediately rips me back to who I was when I first read it. Each character in his novels is unique and specific, and yet I can’t help but think of my group of friends in high school and see each of them in the Colonel, Takumi, Miles and Alaska. I start remembering some of the awful things that happened when we were 15, our version of the “Before” and “After,” and the hollow feeling in my gut expands, twists into hurt. 

When I’m thinking about why this is, why Green’s work hits me so hard, I like to imagine he treats memory as if it’s a coin. Flip it to one face and you get nostalgia; flip it to the other and you get a darker, mournful side. Green’s writing registers emotionally like a series of those coin tosses, equal parts regretful and wistful. Sometimes he writes stories like a rosy memory of a better time, and it’s only because of how sharply and precisely he renders those memories that he can use them like a weapon. In Green’s hands, something joyful like a first love, or a happy road trip between friends, can take a sharp turn into tragedy and heartbreak as quickly as it does in real life. The sweet side of the coin has flipped without the reader even realizing, and it leaves you breathless. 

If “Looking for Alaska” were the only book Green had ever written, I’d probably still count him as one of the most important authors in my life, but Green has written six books. Even though I don’t think he’s ever been quite as raw as “Alaska,” that sense of longing permeates through all of his books. Even the cringier parts of his books resonate — I find that actually, their imperfection is exactly what makes them feel so real to me. 

Green has gained a bit of a reputation in recent years for tending toward the overwrought. He uses a lot of extended metaphors and often gives his characters long soliloquies about the meaning of life. He (like many other YA authors) also likes picking a classic piece of literature to weave admittedly pretty heavy-handedly throughout his novels as a motif. But none of that has ever bothered me, mostly because none of it ever registers as false or insincere, but rather an earnest expression of the story he’s trying to tell and the way his teenage characters feel. Teenagers tend to get a little overwrought sometimes. They mix their metaphors. They latch really hard onto classic literature they at times don’t fully understand. Sometimes I read the emails my friends and I would send each other in high school and I cringe so hard I actually feel my soul exit my body for a minute because it’s so eager to distance itself from the kind of pretentious buffoon who would write that shit. 

But John Green never attempts any kind of distance between 16-year-old buffoonery and the narrative writ large — instead, he leans into it. He captures so accurately the way everything feels epic and cinematic, almost embarrassingly so, when you’re that age. When I was in high school, a fight with a friend was absolutely apocalyptic, while a drive with the windows down meant we had just been crowned queens of our hometown streets. It didn’t just feel that way; it was that way in my eyes. Green knows that, he gets it and most importantly, he respects it. 

Green also crucially understands that a lot of the things that happen to teenagers aren’t small and overblown. Teenagers deal with heartbreak, death, grief, betrayal and awful pain the same exact way everyone else does. I went through some really real shit in high school. My friends did too, often way worse. Sometimes we were there for each other and sometimes we weren’t. Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes we fundamentally misimagined each other. Through every moment, though, I had a reference to understand what was happening to me, because I had John Green’s books. I knew I was never alone. It’s like Miles says in “Looking for Alaska”: “It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.” 

Green’s books often finish on an open-ended note, with his protagonists pondering all the life they have left to live and accepting the ambiguity of whatever conflict they’ve been struggling with. As a teenager, that was always the one part I wasn’t fully able to relate to. I didn’t know how to zoom out, so to speak, to see anything beyond my very singular experience and think about possibility as something more than an abstract concept.

I think I’m a little better at that now. Maybe it’s time, maybe it’s growing up, maybe it’s years of training kicking in after so much time spent reading John Green books about kids exploring all the possibilities in their futures. But either way, I can contemplate that a little better now. Not fully or perfectly, mind you, but I’m at least starting to wrap my head around how young I actually am and how many choices I have.

It’s weird, looking back on John Green’s books, because in a sense I’ve come full circle. I’m about to start my last year of college, and I’m 20 now, just barely out of adolescence and just barely an adult. I’m at another inflection point in my life, right at the cusp of something new, same as I was at 13 when my sister gave me “Looking For Alaska” to read. Welcome to adulthood, it seems to say to me now. Good luck. So many strange and awful things I don’t even know exist yet to look forward to, but I’ll be ready. I’ve been studying how to come of age for years.