"I go to seek a Great Perhaps." - Francois Rabelais (last words)
"How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" - Simón Bolívar (last words)
John Green's slow-to-the-punch yet devastatingly arresting debut novel is a prime example of what happens when a writer intertwines seemingly ordinary characters with a storyline that is ripe with philosophical musings, hard-hitting life issues, and a shocking plot twist that will compel readers to reexamine their previous conceptions about the book and its characters, and give them ample space to think --- really think --- about what it means to be alive and present in the world.
Separated into two distinct sections entitled "Before" and "After," LOOKING FOR ALASKA is a compelling bird's-eye view of the ineffaceable effects of love and death on both the collective and the individual psyche.
Before. The first half of LOOKING FOR ALASKA is understandably sluggish as Green takes his time introducing the book's major characters. Miles Halter (Pudge), the novel's protagonist, is fifteen years old and what parents and teachers would call a good kid. He's chicken-legged skinny, undeniably bright, and a bit of an idealist at heart. In addition to having a penchant for remembering famous figures' last words, Miles gets wrapped up in the significance of those words enough to leave his sheltered home in Florida in order to seek out Rabelais's Great Perhaps --- which oddly enough, translates into going to boarding school in rural Alabama.
There, he befriends a ragtag group of early teens, including his boisterous roommate, appropriately nicknamed the Colonel; Takumi, the soft-spoken and musically inclined Japanese whiz kid; Lara, the gorgeous and mild-mannered Romanian; and Alaska, the sexy, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants leader of the group. For a while, not much happens to push the plot along aside from these characters' occasional mischief, i.e. getting busted for smoking cigarettes on campus, drinking liquor in their dorm rooms, sneaking out after curfew, and the like --- harmless behavior with harmless consequences.
After. In the second half of the novel, Green discloses what he's been building up to in previous chapters (with headings suitably titled "one hundred and thirty-six days before," "one hundred twenty-seven days before," and so on): Alaska Young's death. In an up-close and personal manner, the details of Alaska's last moments are chronicled through the eyes of Miles and his pals as they struggle to understand how something so unthinkable could have happened in their intimate community. Was it an accident, or did she kill herself in a selfish attempt to plow her way out of the labyrinth? Could her friends have stopped her, knowing what they knew about her past? Would life ever be the same, now that Alaska was dead?
Sadness, guilt, anger, trust, renewal --- the signature signs of grief and healing are all delicately unpacked in John Green's coming-of-age novel. Full of quiet incidents with larger than life lessons, LOOKING FOR ALASKA is a poignant novel that teens should not overlook.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on March 3, 2005
Looking for Alaska
by John Green
- Publication Date: March 3, 2005
- Hardcover: 160 pages
- Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
- ISBN-10: 0525475060
- ISBN-13: 9780525475064
"How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" (128before.120)
These are Alaska's favorite last words, and they're from one of her favorite books, The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez, which is a biography of Simon Bolivar. We never really know what the labyrinth is—that's one of the enduring mysteries of the novel—but Alaska thinks that it's about suffering.
"It's not life or death, the labyrinth."
"Um, okay. So what is it?"
"Suffering," she said. "Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That's the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?" (52before.9-11)
And in some ways, her thinking directs how the rest of the characters view the labyrinth. But for the Colonel, the labyrinth is something different. Or at least he thinks of it differently, because whereas Alaska wanted to escape the labyrinth, he chooses it.
"After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out—but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it." (122after.12)
For Miles, it's not that he chooses the labyrinth, but he's found a personal way to escape it.
He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. (136after.9)
So what is the labyrinth? Life? The end of life? Suffering? We don't know, and in the end we have to define it for ourselves in the same way the characters each struggle with their own definition of the labyrinth. And just as each character's navigation of this question shows us something about their character, it just might do the same for each of us.