Beginning John Green’s Looking for Alaska, we know two things: the entire novel exists in a “before” and an “after.” Reading this from page one, I was immediately filled with a sense of foreboding — everything was leading up to the “after,” and I was terrified of what that would mean. When the shoe eventually dropped, so to speak, I was prepared for it — but, then again, I wasn’t. This isn’t a book that hits you all at once . . . Alaska, this enigma, washes over you in waves.
Our hero here is Miles “Pudge” Halter, a young man who leaves his family for Alabama, where he enrolls in Culver Creek Boarding School. Pudge — a nickname devised by Chip, or “the Colonel,” his new roommate and eventual best friend — leaves the general ordinariness of his adolescence in Florida seeking “the Great Perhaps,” and brings his penchant for memorizing the famous last words with him. Despite his parents’ warnings, Pudge immediately worries he’s fallen in with “the bad crowd” at Culver Creek — the kids dashing down to the Smoking Hole with contraband cigarettes, sipping on Strawberry Hill wine and generally getting up to mischief.
But any of those fears melt away when he meets Alaska Young, a brilliantly beautiful but mysteriously moody young woman who rooms just a few doors down from the Colonel and Pudge. With Takumi and Lara, the five friends spend the first semester of Pudge’s life at Culver Creek reading, loving, learning and attempting to get back at the Weekend Warriors — the crew of rich kids who attend the school during the week, but are free to return home to their mansions and extravagant lifestyles on the weekends. The regular students hate them — particularly Alaska and the Colonel. And all signs seem to point to making them pay for the slights the Warriors have committed against Pudge and the others . . . until things fall apart.
I’ve heard so much about this novel in the past year or so, it was really hard for me to actually sit down and read it. I knew that my expectations were really high, and I was worried that I was dooming myself to not enjoy it from the start. Still, after reading Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, I was interested in his unique storytelling and awesome descriptions — I had to read Alaska. And I’m so glad I did. It’s for moments like this one:
If only we could see the string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing is useless.
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 are never irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they are old. They get scared of losing and failing.
What really holds Looking For Alaska together, for me, was Green’s way with words — and the way in which everything at Culver Creek seems to operate under strict, serious edicts. Until the “after,” life is black and white. Pudge loves Alaska completely, unreservedly, despite his inability to understand her. The Colonel cautions Pudge to “never rat” out the other kids at the school, no matter what offense the other side has committed, and they regard that as a law. Pudge knows that his friends’ incessant drinking and smoking is wrong, but he can’t justify not participating. Unlike in Florida, Pudge needs to be accepted here. He needs to fit in. He chokes on the cigarette the first few times, sure, but then he gets the hang of it. Easy. Black and white.
Of course, in the “after,” nothing is easy. Everything is a mystery. Life continues on for the friends, but none of it is making sense. The pieces don’t fit together — and things fall apart. It’s up to them to make sense of it all — to understand, as Alaska states, the way out of the labyrinth. Even if it takes them, perhaps, their whole lives to determine it.
This novel is powerful — powerful, serious and enveloping. While I never really felt like I was a part of the pranks and adventures, I was definitely content with going along for the ride, though it made my stomach hurt. The structure of this novel — every section serving as a countdown to the “after” — really put me on edge, unable to calm myself down. Everything I read seemed a clue pointing me to the after, where I knew the gravity of whatever happened would be extreme. As the days trickled down and the after approached in earnest, I actually flipped ahead twenty or so pages to see what was going to happen. I really, really had to know. The waiting was the worst — and I figured that the knowing couldn’t be any more terrible.
I don’t know if I was right. But I do know that Looking For Alaska is one of those books that will return to me for quite some time — the tendrils of smoke rings rising up unexpectedly, pulling me back toward them. It raises questions of death and dying, of survival, of loving and of loss. Of how to figure out the things which seem maze-like — impossible. How to move forward. How to seek our own “Great Perhaps.”
And, because I love poetry (and so does Alaska), I’ll leave you with the lines running through my head the entire time I was reading Green’s novel:
“The Second Coming” (1921)
By William Butler Yeats
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
4.5 out of 5!