Well, of course I love Looking for Alaska- it’s a John Green novel that deals with existentialism, the teenage experience and exactly why we continue to trudge through life even though ultimately, there is no beating it. In fact the only real question is which of the above factors I’m most suckered by!
It is this quality of the story- it’s being replete with moments that are recognizably true– that makes it so endlessly fascinating. There is also that quick, unexexpected humour that is uniquely John Green’s that peppers the book and makes you realize simultaneously that this could so easily have been your story and that you could never have quite thought up that turn of phrase.
During my very cursory review of the book’s cover ( I really couldn’t wait to plunge in!), I noticed a comparison to the Catcher in the Rye (which, as you can guess, made me want to really stop looking at the damn cover and READITALREADY!). I see elements of similarity, thematically, but the lead characters and their specific grievances are different, and the writing styles are nothing alike.* Also, while Salinger does not seem to welcome too much probing of his work,(In his dedication: “If there is an amateur reader still left in the world–or anybody who just reads and runs–I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude…”), I can tell that this book is clearly drawn from John (who is one half of the Youtube sensation Vlogbrothers)’s own past and he seems to appreciate the extent to which an author’s experiences colours his choices for subject matter. Authorial influence is not always so apparent in books and lots of people seem to look upon this picking apart of books to get at the author’s own driving beliefs with distaste, but I really enjoyed drawing conclusions from this book and also having them coincide with what I know of the author from his videos.
As for the story itself, it revolves around young teenage misfit and collector of famous last words, Miles ‘Pudgy’ Halter, who moves to a boarding school in hopes of a second chance for happiness through reinventing himself. Culver Creek becomes a place of many firsts, for Pudgy. He makes friends with incredibly funny, larger-than-life characters who are, on first impression, exactly ‘the wrong sort’. In particular, he fancies himself in love with the intriguing, the elusive, the shrouded-in-mystery and lover-of-drama, Alaska Young. Even through the tragedy of her life, Pudgy finds with new conviction, that despite very real obstacles in the very real labyrinth of life, that the Great Perhaps he seeks is undiminished in its allure .
En fin, I find myself making an unlikely comparison with another book I read recently, which is Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse. The latter is much more convoluted, but all the same, seeks an explanation for man’s desire to keep living despite life’s lack of nice, formulaic guarantees. And surprisingly, both authors find comfort in biblically rooted ideas of redemption and hope.
If I haven’t made a convincing argument for reading the book already, I’ll leave his brilliant words the job:
“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. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget 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.”
[Rap by Alaska]: “Oh shit did you just diss the feminine gender / I’ll pummel your ass then stick you in a blender / You think I like Tori and Ani so I can’t rhyme / but I got glow like Ghostbusters got slime / objectify women and it’s fuckin’ on / you’ll be dead and gone like ancient Babylon.”
But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane.
(Cheering at a basketball game)The Colonel led all the cheers.
Cornbread!” he screamed.
CHICKEN!” the crowd responded.
And then, all together: “WE GOT HIGHER SATs.”
Hip Hip Hip Hooray!” the Colonel cried.
YOU’LL BE WORKIN’ FOR US SOMEDAY!”
“Have you really read all those books in your room?” Alaska, laughing- “Oh God no. I’ve maybe read a third of ‘em. But I’m going to read them all. I call it my Life’s Library. Every summer since I was little, I’ve gone to garage sales and bought all the books that looked interesting. So I always have something to read.”
“I hated cranberry sauce, but for some reason my mom persisted in her lifelong belief that it was my very favorite food, even though every single Thanksgiving I politely declined to include it on my plate.”
“Suffering is universal. it’s the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are all worried about.”
“I am concussed.”
“But why Alaska?”, I asked her. She smiled with the right side of her mouth.”Well, later, I found out what it means. It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska. It means ‘that which the sea breaks against’, and I love that. But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there. And it was big, just like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, just like I wanted to be.”
*Edit: I do think the fox hat may have been a sort of wink at the reader (reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s red hunting hat), if in fact the book was inspired by Catcher in the Rye, which (for the record) the author makes no mention of.