Looking for Alaska: A Reflection

How appropriate it was that I found the novel Looking for Alaska by John Green just 10 days before my own adventure with the largest state in the US would come to an end?  My reasons for looking in the direction of Alaska were not that much different from the main character of the novel, Miles Halter: a Great Perhaps.

Mundane life, the same faces, endless routine, and predictability that dulls the senses.  Throw it all in a burlap sack, toss it in the nearest river and never look back.  “Adventure,” our hearts cry!  I’m too chicken shit to rollerblade anymore, so the only other option for fearlessness is moving 4,000 miles away from everything from which I am familiar.  For Miles Halter, his journey would be from central Florida to Culver Creek Preparatory School.  No matter the route or destination, we were both seeking something grander than ourselves.  Unable to provide the “more than,” too plain and ordinary for our minds to be at ease, one foot in front of the other, one untried sense of distinction from tradition and a journey begun.

Am I too old for my own “coming of age” story to be set in Alaska?  Probably.  That’s suppose to happen when we still have the baby weight and people aren’t sure if we’ll grow out of our awkward phase.  That’s where Miles is at when his tale begins at Culver Creek, minus the pudge that ironically becomes his nickname.  Upon his arrival at his new life, he becomes keenly aware that the experiences he’s about to embark upon will be like nothing he’s experienced before.  His limited experience with friendship is quickly replaced because of an instant connection between himself and his roommate known by all as “the Colonel.”   His inaugural night features being duct taped and thrown into the campus pond, and many more firsts lay before him: from first drinks, cigarettes and crushes.  Cue our leading lady: Alaska Young.

Her curves are the inspiration for young men’s fantasies, and she immediately captures the heart of Miles.  She has a way about her that intoxicates those around her, and her mood swings leave those hexed unable to remember why they bother, but with one hint of her smile and they are instantly reminded.  A damaged soul worth seeking out; a magnet to naive young men whose yearning for adventure blinds them to the underlying layers of complication.

Miles is drawn to Alaska for the vibrancy that her personality possesses, her “throw caution to the wind” attitude toward school rules, and the ease and familiarity that she approaches the opposite sex with.  A moth to a candle.  What is not to fall in love with when you’re looking for anything that will break the vanilla mold?  And perhaps it is his sustainability that returns the favor for Alaska.  But as it happens, the feelings are not mutual, but a friendship is crafted in infatuation’s place.

So many times throughout the novel, Miles is distracted by the calculation of how many layers were between his flesh and Alaska’s; skin, corduroy, blanket, jeans, skin.  Five mere layers.  The layers between he and Alaska, though seemingly a sexualized concept is more intimate upon further reflection.  While some may be more enticed by the direct description of adult-type novels, this awareness runs far deeper than what is on the surface.  A few millimeters of fabric may keep Miles and Alaska separated, but appropriate named, he is further away than he might be aware.  What keeps the distance between the layers  that Alaska creates to keep people at bay is unfolded for the reader, and it is only too late for Miles.

The abstract of Looking for Alaska provides an insight to the ending of the novel before the first page is read: Alaska does not survive the tale of Miles’ first year at Culver Creek.  The tension is immediately created by Green’s decision to break the novel into two parts, “Before” and “After,” but even more so as the chapter titles are named after the number of days preceding and proceeding the event that takes Alaska’s life.  The reader begins to piece together possible causes behind the death in a less cartoonish version of “Clue.”  This is entirely seductive for the reader in that the last night of Alaska’s life, her puzzling affectionate behavior towards Miles and subsequent reckless response to an unnamed phone call throw off all surmised reasoning for the climax of the novel.

The second half of the novel leaves an obsessed Colonel and Miles to find some reasoning, some meaning behind the death of their friend.  The night of the car crash that took Alaska’s life, the whirlwind that was Alaska left little for the boys to go on, and the idea that perhaps her death was not accident.  The Colonel is obsessed with determining the why of her death, and Miles totally consumed with answering the questions that she left him with.

Reflecting back to my first sense of loss, the first time my heart had been broken and let down, so much anger was directed toward the one who built me up to believe that I was special and when that was taken away, I was angry and felt betrayed.  Conclusion: it was all bullshit.  You. Lied.  I believe that Miles was caught in this same trap of self doubt now that Alaska was gone.  What Alaska left Miles with was a questioning.  This uncertainty is best described in Miles’ reflection, “She had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes, and now she was gone and with her my faith in perhaps…you {Alaska} left me Perhapsless” (172-3).

I feel that John Green was able to capture the emotions, uncertainties, and fumbling relationships that young people go through during this foundational period in their lives with authentic accuracy.  The Colonel turns out to be my favorite character in this novel, and the development of all layers of his personality make him come to life.  We’ve all known people like him, charismatic enough to sell you cream of broccoli soup on a humid August afternoon, or glamorize abandonment of the rules of the strictest of squares.  I believe that it’s his friendship to Miles that makes the greatest impact, not the infatuation with Alaska.  While Miles becomes obsessed with the What and Why of her death, it is still self-serving: how does it impact him?  The Colonel is able to demonstrate to Miles what it means to be a true friend, to be there, and make amends for the times you simply fuck up.

Looking for Alaska is aptly named, but it is in the journey of  discovery of who she is that Miles is able to finally find a place where he can define himself.  Alaska, a rugged and expansive test of oneself that leaves you never the same.  Both Miles and I can say that once experiencing such an escapade, we shall never view the mundane in the same way again; we are forever changed in our exploration of Perhaps.

4 thoughts on “Looking for Alaska: A Reflection

  1. Pingback: Weekend Wrap Up | Fancy Oatmeal

  2. All I can say is WOW! You are a superb writer!! Maybe John Green needs to hire you to write book reviews for him. 🙂 I do good just to tell people if I liked it or not after I finish it-sometimes I might throw in a few descriptive phrases. 🙂

    This has been on my radar for awhile-had seen people recommending it on twitter. Now I’ll read it this summer for sure!

    Shannon
    http://www.irunreadteach.wordpress.com

    • THANK YOU! I am really loving John Green’s writing style, as you can tell from my review. If I could figure out how to make a living from reading books and writing reviews, you’d find me a under the title of Worlds Happiest Gal.

      • I think the job you might be looking for is a book critic. At least that’s the closest you could get 🙂

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