The story in Looking for Alaska is set in a time when everyone is building their self-image, identity, dreams, and love lives – high school. John Green introduces us to Miles Halter, who is the unreliable narrator of this story (But, as you know, the story revolves around our heroine, Alaska) He remembers the last words of famous people – that is his ‘thing’. And unlike Francois Rabelais, whose last words are ‘I go to seek a Great Perhaps‘, he does not want to wait till the end of his life to see his Great Perhaps.
So he goes to Culver Creek – a boarding school like every other boarding school. There is cigarettes, truth & dare, pranks, parents who are cool, parents who don’t get it, the warden (The Eagle, as we know him), and the students in two rival groups (Weekday Warriors and those who stay 24*7 in the school).
One particular line that I loved about the Weekday Warriors: “They love their hair because they’re not smart enough to love something more interesting.” The pleasures of hating in teenage envy are apparent.
The relatability is why the story works.
At Culver Creek, our narrator, Miles, turns into Pudge, a nickname his roommate, Chip (or as he is called, The Colonel) gives him. Pudge quickly becomes a part of Colonel’s group consisting of Takumi, a Japanese kid with a Southern accent, and Alaska, who is the “hottest girl in all of human history”. Miles is new to the Alabama sun, the hostel, and the women.
The reader is introduced to the heroine of our story, Alaska Young. As a character, she is predictable. I would go as far as to say that she is typical. She is moody, spontaneous, secretive, bookish, feminist, has a tough past. She is flirty, dreamy, and unavailable. The only detail that I absolutely adored about her was the fact that she had named herself when she was young.
As it is clear, I wasn’t particularly fond of Alaska. Like Miles himself, I only saw parts of her, liked only certain aspects of her personality, and did not seem to “get” the whole package. But I like unlikeable characters in a book. I like being made uncomfortable about still empathizing with them, still understanding them. That is exactly what Looking for Alaska does. In her own words, “You never get me, that’s the whole point.”
‘Looking for Alaska’ becomes more than just a teen drama when Alaska dies. I was a fan of the narrative when the big story-turn happens in the middle (The separation of Before and After) because, usually, these big turns are safely taken either at the end of the novel or right upfront at the beginning.
Everyone ponders Alaska’s death, including the readers. Everyone ponders about her assignment topic question about what truly is the labyrinth and what is the way out: “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape- the world or the end of it?” These words of Simon Bolivar are Alaska’s final questions to Pudge and to us.
And Pudge answers it. All the readers get a Crash Course (see what I did there?) on Eastern Religion and the answers it provides. He gets an epiphany at Takumi’s confession, which is as truthful as it is heartbreaking, “If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless“. They could not know better. They wish they did. The irony is consistent and sits well. Pudge will never know Alaska’s last words. He will never know if she chose to end her life or if it was an accident that they could’ve avoided. He will have to sit with these questions and the uncertainty of everything all his life.
But the only way out of the labyrinth is to forgive. And Alaska would’ve forgiven them.
But the Easter Religion epiphany, although impactful, was quick, shallow, and exotic. Another thing that never added up was why Jake, Alaska’s boyfriend, wasn’t at her funeral. It doesn’t make sense.
Looking for Alaska has also been criticized for only being made for a teen mind – when everything is big, everyone wants to seem smart & worldly, all decisions are impulsive & irrational. It can come off as many years far behind to someone older. But that is what literature is supposed to do: make you feel like a teenager again, make you nostalgic for all of your dumb decisions, make you remember all of the things that seemed big then (and maybe they were big, you know?).
For me, John Green entices that feeling perfectly. His literature (and videos) stay with me for days on end. I forget the plot, the characters, the narrative, but the emotions stay with me. The meaning stays with me. The questions stay with me. On sudden random cloudy Wednesday afternoons, I dwell on the sentences of John Green. Take one, for instance, “Imagining the future is kind of like living in a nostalgia” – actually spoken by Green’s wife.
In Looking For Alaska, I felt the angst, the frustration, the joys, the worries, the amusements, and the being of being a teenager. By the end, I felt as if someone (someone being John Green’s writing) had poked a hole in my heart.
I usually hate books and movies that end with questions. I detest unreliable narrators like Miles Halter. But this book has made me sit with the big questions, taught me to be comfortable with having them with me all along.
Because I still don’t know my way out of the labyrinth.
Find this book on Amazon here.
PS: Big thanks to Prakhar for gifting me this book.