Tags: Looking for Alaska

Rebar and Writing: John Green’s Model

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: May 5, 2014
Comments: No Comments

Laying-rebar-cropFor months now, a slew of humans and machines have been constructing the Janey II, an apartment/condo building within sight of my dining room balcony. I decided to see which would be done first, the Janey II or my Book Three, and I’m tracking the progress of both on my website.

The Janey II is at the rebar (reinforcing bar) stage. This blurry photo shows a construction guy building the mesh of heavy steel wires that provide tensile strength to the concrete walls. (Yes, guy. I’ve seen no construction women on site. Sigh.) Rebar helps to support and spread the load. You don’t see rebar in the finished structure, but you’re glad it’s there.

I happened to be reading John Green’s first book, Looking for Alaska, at the same time the rebar guy was doing his thing. That’s when it hit me. John Green is a genius at enmeshing literary rebar into his work. Looking for Alaska is such a solid story in part because it’s been built to last. Here’s what I mean:

  • Time. The novel is divided into two parts, labeled “before” and “after.” The key event is almost exactly in the middle. Rather than chapter headings, the before and after parts are divided into sections leading up to, and away from, the main event. The first section is entitled “one hundred thirty-six days before.” The last section of the novel is entitled “one hundred thirty-six days after.” How’s that for a sturdy structure? Talk about a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nice.
  • Place. Most of the story is narrowly focused on Culver Creek Boarding School, giving the reader a chance to get familiar with a single (and singular) setting. You know when you are and where you are. By the time the characters go to the smoke hole for the third time, you can practically lead them there.
  • Characters. There are only a handful, and they are a handful. Each one is memorable, from Alaska Young, whose actions drive the “before” and the “after,” to Dr. Hyde, the religion teacher, who guides the main characters and the reader into an exploration of death, guilt, and grief.
  • Humor. Looking for Alaska is not what you’d call a light-hearted tale. There are layers upon layers of serious stuff crammed into 136 days before and 136 days after. That said, our trusty author/rebar guy adds enough of the funny bits to spread the emotional load. Our skin-and-bones protagonist is nicknamed Pudge. We get to see several hilarious pranks, including one involving a male stripper and another involving blue dye. We get the laugh-out-loud and relatively innocent antics of a first “blow job.” Green treats us with care. As a reader, I’m grateful. As a writer, I’m taking notes!

I don’t know whether my Book Three or the Janey II will be finished first. I do know that I’m learning a bunch about crafting a novel as I watch the construction site, not the least of which is John Green’s rebar.

 

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