Thursday, March 31, 2011

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words and tired of his safe life at home. He leaves for boarding school to seek what the dying poet Francois Rabelais called the "Great Perhaps." Much awaits Miles at Culver Creek, including Alaska Young. Clever, funny, screwed-up, and dead sexy, Alaska will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapult him into the Great Perhaps. 

Looking for Alaska brilliantly chronicles the indelible impact one life can have on another. A stunning debut, it marks John Green's arrival as an important new voice in contemporary fiction.(Publisher's summary from Goodreads)

“There are 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. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless.”

Hindsight is always twenty/twenty one of many insights that John Green’s protagonist, Miles Halter, in Looking for Alaska learns all too well.  Told in past tense as if Miles is actually looking backwards, the reader follows Miles on his quest to seek his “Great Perhaps” and ends up being a part of something that is miles above (pardon the pun) most YA contemporary fiction.

To say Green has a rare knack for getting inside the head of teenage boys, and an even rarer ability to articulate what makes them tick is a gross understatement. I first came to admire this aspect of Green's writing when I read Paper Town. Now after reading Looking for Alaska, I feel as if Green has the ability to channel his own unique personae. He creates characters so normal and yet so special that my emotional investment transcends the page leaving me feeling real loss when I read the last sentence of the last page.

So, why such an emotional investment? For me it is always about character and In Looking for Alaska, Green introduces us to Miles, a lonely young man with a propensity for remembering the dying words of famous people. Miles decides to ditch his nonexistent life at his Florida high school to attend his father’s alma mater in Alabama. At Culver Creek academy he becomes friends with Chip, aka the Colonel, a scholarship student who loves pulling pranks on the rich kids. Miles immediately feels a part of something outside himself and comes alive not only socially, but academically too especially in his religion class, where he gets to ponder more than famous last words.

Chip also introduces Miles to Alaska, the most beautiful girl Miles has ever seen. Being a typical boy he fantasizes about her almost to the point of obsession. At the same time, he also admires her for the smart, cocky, free spirited person she is. Alaska gives Miles much to think about including the dying words of Simon Bolivar … “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”  These words end up resonating deeply with all the characters as they cope with a tragedy that is incomprehensible.

In addition to being emotionally attached to the characters, Green’s plot becomes a philosophical journey not only for Miles, but for the reader. Divided into two parts, before and after, I went into my reading of the book completely unaware of the reason for the division. Originally as I read the chapter headings that chronicles each day: “one-hundred twenty-seven days before,” I thought the lead up was towards the prank of all pranks the Colonel and Alaska were planning against the rich kids.  The twist of the “after” rocked Miles, his friends, and me and leaves everyone grappling with issues of guilt, anger, sadness, denial and the ultimate question about what happens when we die?

Looking for Alaska is one of the finest examples of writing I have read. The complexity of the plot is so understated and the themes so deeply embedded in Green’s ordinary characters and their day to day actions I am still reeling from the impact this story had on me. As far as coming of age stories are concerned, I will be measuring future read against Looking for Alaska.

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