Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

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I’ve heard of John Green from The Fault in Our Stars, but I’ve never read the book. I’ve seen the movie, but I could hardly give a proper judgement from it. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from any John Green novels so I had a hard time choosing what to read first. In the end I chose Looking for Alaska — I don’t know the exact reason myself, but I guess I fancied the dark cover and the interesting title (yeah it’s a bit shallow, but… oh well). So I started reading without knowing what exactly to expect — is it a sad story? Is it an adventure? Is it just another sappy, cliche teenage love story? Well…

There are those types of books that, after reading, leaves you that heavy impression of something.  Looking for Alaska did exactly just that to me. There was something: some thoughts left to mull over, to rethink, something worth writing about. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly those thoughts were — so I reread the whole book right after finishing it, but I was left with even more thoughts to ponder about.

*Caution: spoilers ahead!*

The story centers around Miles “Pudge” Halter; a teenager sick of his non-eventful life in Florida. He was somewhat obsessed with knowing famous last words, and one from Francois Rabelais made a particular impact on him: I go to seek a Great Perhaps. He craved a Great Perhaps for his own; and in seeking that, he decided to head to Culver Creek Boarding School. Here, he meets roommate Chip “The Colonel” Martin who introduced him to Alaska Young down the hall. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who pulls him into her world and launches him into his own Great Perhaps — stealing his heart along the way.

Together with The Colonel, Alaska, and Takumi (who, by the way, is a self-accomplished rapper and quite the opposite of the Asian student stereotype himself) Miles launches into a world of crazy, rebellious, possibly dangerous events — one that includes wild pranks, a lot of booze and mischief, the occasional smoke, and awkward sexual encounters. As time progresses Miles grew more and more attached to Alaska — but Alaska was always ever the unpredictable, moody Alaska.

Alaska herself had said that she is, deeply an unhappy person. She smokes to die young, oddly, and is incredibly witty — after all, she’s the one who plans their grand pranks. To Miles, she talks about escaping the mysterious labyrinth of suffering — one concept she gathered from her favourite book, The General in His Labyrinth. And to poor Miles, she pulls him more into her world but still keeps him at a distance; being crazy fun one moment and falls into a sudden halt the other. From a hundred miles an hour to asleep in a nanosecond.

Yep, Alaska sure sounds intriguing. She is the person you would never be able to understand fully; like a screen of smoke: you can see it but you cannot catch hold of it. There’s this particular metaphor in the book that I like — if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane. Alaska was a hurricane, and just like a hurricane she came and wreaked havoc. And just like a hurricane, she left — leaving confusion and devastation behind.

To be honest, the turn in the story caught me off-guard. I never really thought a teenage-fiction would go in deep topics such as death and grief. But the story beautifully covers the progression of emotions in grief — from disbelief, to confusion, to desolation, to guilt, to anger… Miles, The Colonel, and Takumi were all caught up in their own grief and guilt. They tried to look for answers to Alaska’s death. Was it suicide? Or was it purely a car accident? Straight and fast. Was that her answer to the way out of the labyrinth?

Eventually, they gave up chasing after a ghost that did not want to be found. They learned to accept her death; accept not knowing the exact truth behind her death. Alaska was, as always, the unpredictable, self-destructive, mysterious Alaska. Miles learned to forgive Alaska for forgetting him and the others in that last moment between her death just as he knows she will forgive him for forgetting her, too. For that which came together will fall apart imperceptibly slowly.

*

I do, honestly, love this book. I would have loved it more if I had read it as a teen, but nonetheless I still love it. It is an honest story, it doesn’t try to hide anything with tacky romanticism or with teenage dreams. The impression of the realness of the feelings in the story was what caught me, I guess. There’s this one part which caught me in the guts;

You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that the future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present. (p.54)

It felt like a truth bomb to me, because I had always thought of the future but never had the courage to step up. At least Miles made the move to Culver Creek for his Great Perhaps. And that was another concept that intrigued me, the Great Perhaps. What exactly was the Great Perhaps? To Miles, his Great Perhaps was what he could do and experience in life. Maybe not an exact life goal, but the mere possibility of adventure and thrill of life, I guess. And maybe that is what the Great Perhaps is; the idea of what could possibly be.

Seeking for a Great Perhaps and the way out of the labyrinth is quite daunting. Leaving safety and comfort is truthfully the toughest and scariest task; for I’ve never braved myself outside my safe-zone. I crave adventure and thrill; but I am too afraid. Maybe I’ve lost that teenage flair; the feeling of invincibility that they have:

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. (p.220-221)

And so it cannot fail. Maybe I just need to keep that in mind.

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