Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Looking for Alaska"

                I don’t know how I can do Looking for Alaska the justice it deserves.  As I sit to write the post, I am daunted by the task ahead of me.  It is not because I don’t like this book—I love it.  It is not because I don’t think other people should read it—I think we all should.  I am daunted because I don’t think that I could ever accurately portray in a blog post its complexity, its depth, and how freaking on-point John Green is about what it means to be a teenager.  (I don’t normally use “freaking” in a blog, but I think John Green would be okay with it.)  If you’ve ever heard John Green speak, and you really should, you can get a sense of his attitude, his intelligence, and his belief in teenagers.  I don’t think I can give this book the review it deserves, but I will give it the one that I am able to write.

                I don’t like reviews that contain spoilers, but I have decided I just can’t talk about this story without spoiling it.  So, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t read this.  There are plenty of places to go that will extol the virtues of Looking for Alaska without spoiling it.  This is not one of those places.

                In John Green’s Looking for Alaska (published 2005) Miles Halter is giving up his life in Florida—it’s not like he had a very good one anyway.  He is trading it in for Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama, where hopefully he’ll have more friends and he’ll live the kind of life that his father led while attending the same school.  Pudge’s greatest joy in life is to learn the last words of famous people, and that hasn’t exactly made him many friends in Florida.  When his parents want to know why he is leaving, he tells them, “’so this guy… Francois Rabelais.  He was this poet.  And his last words were ‘I go to seek a great Perhaps.’  That’s why I’m going.  So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.’” His first day at Culver Creek, he meets Chip, known as the Colonel, and Alaska.  After being dubbed with the name Pudge, on account of not being pudgy at all, Miles forms a friendship with Alaska, the Colonel, and Takumi.  Despite the fact that Alaska has a boyfriend, Miles finds himself falling for her—she’s clever, she’s smart, she’s moody, and he can’t help but love her.  The novel is split into “Before” and “After.” The before is where Pudge’s life changes as he acquires friends, starts to smoke, and falls in love with Alaska.  In the after, Alaska is dead.  Pudge and the Colonel have to work together to try and understand why the let her go, why she left them, and come to terms with what it means for someone to leave us for good.

                I read this book several years ago.  I’ve always said that if I were given three wishes, my very first wish would be that I would want to be able to reread any book again for the first time.  The experience of reading a book that I love for the first time is such a great one, and I want to be able to choose any book and have those same experiences all over again.  I would not want to read this book again for the first time.  I have been going around since I first read the book stating quotes like “If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”  For years, I have wanted a bookroom with the words, “’When I look at my room, I see a girl who loves books.’”  I thought I knew this book.  I thought I knew how I felt about this book.   Rereading this story, I had a completely different experience than the one I had several years ago.  Some of this experience I’ll share, some I won’t, but I am so taken aback by how different of a person I am now than the one that I was when I first read this story.

                The biggest difference for me is my attitude towards Alaska.  When I read this story for the first time, years ago, in a way I looked up to her.  I did not look up to her in the sense of I was happy that she gets drunk, gets into a car and kills herself, but I loved what she stands for.  I somehow found her moodiness justified, like when Pudge comes to her after almost getting drowned in the lake and she tells him, “’You know what? There are people with real problems.  I’ve got real problems.  Mommy ain’t here, so buck up, big guy.’”  I loved how Alaska speaks her mind to everyone, and how casual she is about everything.  I wanted to be her, just a more alive version.  I wanted people to care about me like that, simply because they had no other choice.

                I feel so completely different than I once did about Aslaka.  I don’t look up to her, but I don’t think it is fair to demonize her either.  One of John Green’s greatest triumphs is to give us teenagers that are real.  The farthest thing from reality about this story is that it takes place in a boarding school.  The characters though, with their smoking, cussing, drinking, talking, laughing, sharing, and loving of one another, is real.  Teenagers today think, talk, and act like this.  I think we are doing a disservice to our children if we do not give them books that they can seem themselves in.  I don’t think this book encourages this kind of behavior.  What it does do, is acknowledge its existence, and John Green refuses to apologize for that.

The reality of the characters is what sticks with me about Alaska, Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi.  They all make bad choices that they are forced to live with for the rest of their lives.  Furthermore, they make human choices.  When Alaska gets drunk and gets into a car, she made a choice that people make every day.  When Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi decide to let her get in that car, they make a choice that people make every day.  Were they good choices?  No, but they were human ones.  When Pudge thinks, “There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day.  Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future.  If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions.  Be we can’t know until knowing better is useless,” this is not a thought just for teenagers.  Every day, children, teenagers, and adults alike make choices.  Sometimes, we make good ones with great intentions.  Sometimes, people make bad choices with bad intentions.  I believe that all of us, at some point in our lives, make a bad choice without thinking of our intentions or the consequences.  We are not all forced to deal with the consequences that the teenagers in this book are forced to deal with, but none of us are blameless in life.

A few years ago, someone I know died young, younger than I am now.  He was very close with my boyfriend at the time, and I remember how sorry I felt for my boyfriend.  I was at a point in my life where I thought something happens to us when we die, but he didn’t believe that.  For him, it was like his friend had stopped existing.  When I read the line in Looking for Alaska that said, “The idea that Alaska didn’t exist still stunned me every time I thought about it,” that’s all I could think about.  It was like it was taken exactly from my memory of the time when my ex-boyfriend’s best friend died.  What a terrible thought to have to have, that someone doesn’t exist.  It seems like too big of a burden for anyone to have to carry.

I know that some people aren’t going to agree with what I am saying next, but I am going to say it anyway.  I always get frustrated when people look at people who don’t believe in an afterlife or god and think that they have made this horrible, unforgiveable choice.  I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t want to believe in an afterlife.  I can’t imagine there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t like the idea of living happily in a paradise forever.  I love Pudge, John Green, and this entire book because they are speaking to those people, those people who want to believe in a better life, but they just can’t get to that belief.  How do you deal with death when you believe that nothing else comes after that?  This book is about a boy who has to deal with the fact that his friend died and that there is nothing about her that exists anymore.  I love his ultimate conclusion, and it is one that I hold in my heart and think about anytime I hear that someone has died.  In the end, Pudge decides, “When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are.  We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.  We think that we are invincible because we are.  We cannot be born, and we cannot die...  They forget about that when they get old.  They get scared of losing and failing.  But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”  There is more to us than our matter, and I feel this could give comfort to so many people.

I have tried, and assuredly failed, to do my bit to convince others of the greatness that is John Green.  Looking for Alaska is not just a story about a boy, a girl, and a bad decision.  It is a testament to our reality today, and to the fact that we are all human beings that can make poor choices at any point in our lives.  Could this book stop someone from making that same poor choice?  I don’t know, but I do know that we are failing our kids if we don’t give our children books where even the good guys make some crap decisions.
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  1. This was a wonderful book and I'm looking forward to reading it again this weekend. I gave this one to my boys to read. I want them to realize that they will make mistakes and need to consider consequences.

    I had not read a book I had enjoyed this much in such a long time. I hope you keep up with your blog after the class is over so I can keep my to-read list going!

  2. I love your thoughts about this book, especially "I think we are doing a disservice to our children if we do not give them books that they can seem themselves in. I don’t think this book encourages this kind of behavior. What it does do, is acknowledge its existence, and John Green refuses to apologize for that." Most kids take part in these activities at some time during their youth and we need to acknowledge that fact and talk to our kids about it instead of ignore it.