Monday, February 13, 2012

Looking for Alaska by John Green

In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Miles Halter decides to leave his family, friends, and school in Florida to attend Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama, in search of what the poet Francois Rabelais called “The Great Perhaps.” As soon as he arrives, he is thrown into a completely new world, boarding with The Colonel, eating bufriedos (deep-fried burritos), and hanging out with cool, funny, and crazy Alaska Young. Miles’ obsession with the last words of famous (and ordinary) people is turned in a new direction when Alaska introduces him to the last words of Simon Bolivar: “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” This question follows Alaska and Miles through the rest of the novel, a philosophical meandering that winds through the chapters to conjoin the beginning with the end. Miles’ own last words in the novel underscore how Bolivar’s question (through Alaska) has shaped his own understanding of the world: “Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home.”

But in between is Miles’ (nicknamed “Pudge” at boarding school) first taste of freedom away from home and his parents, where he discovers friends can become family. Miles participates in a series of pranks between him and his friends and the Weekday Warriors, the rich kids who only board at the school during the week (which begins with Miles being duct taped like a mummy and dropped in the lake on his first night at Culver Creek).

Miles is also fascinated by Alaska, and notes pretty early on, “And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light.” Alaska helps with Calculus homework at McDonald’s at lunchtime, reads Kurt Vonnegut books with Miles, has a Life Library full of books that she has recused from garage sales to read throughout her life, and remains just slightly unattainable.

Looking for Alaska also creates a structure that I don’t think I’ve seen in a book before. In most books, a big event important to the book seems to take place before the story begins (to show how characters deal with the event) or near the end (as a leading up to point). But Green’s book places this at the very center of the book, so that the chapters on one side count down from “One hundred and thirty-six days before,” and then, like an accordion, to end on the chapter “One hundred and thirty-six days after.” Still, Green keeps the second half from feeling like an extended denouement, but instead creates a self-enclosed story that is still unable to exist without the first half of the novel. It’s a beautiful book about friendship and independence and love, and shows off Green’s ability to write a story that readers connect with. 

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