Sunday, September 03, 2006

Wading Through Time

Looking for Alaska, John Green’s ambitious first novel, is a lyrical and moving homage to youth and time's inevitable passage, a stunning reminder that no one--no matter how young, smart, or beautiful--can escape the end waiting for us all

Green has perfect pitch, and it's his remarkable ability to craft the interior voice of the story's fifteen-year-old narrator, Miles “Pudge” Halter, that draws the reader deeply into this novel.

Mile's voice contains many of the conflicting emotions of a young boy on his own for the first time as he begins a new school year at the Culver Creek Preparatory School, on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama.

Unsure of where life will take him as he leaves Florida for Alabama, Miles sets off in search of the Great Perhaps (Franciois Rebelais’ last words: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”), hoping to find answers to the mysteries of the universe and his place in it

Miles is a collector of last words, statements that famous and not-so-famous figures utter before passing into the darkness of death. And it’s a quote made by Simon Bolivar on his death-bed that becomes a compelling metaphor and guide for how Miles looks at life after arriving at school.

Here’s the quote, which Miles discovers when his new friend, Alaska Young, shares a passage from her favorite book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth :

“He [Simon Bolivar] was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortune and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. 'Damn it,' he sighed. 'How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?'”

Even on their first meeting, it’s clear that Miles and Alaska--the mysterious, impulsive, and vastly alluring girl who lives on campus, too--share a common desire to explore and understand the labyrinth, to unravel its mysteries as if the universe and life were some grand puzzle.

“That’s the mystery, isn’t it?” Alaska asks him after reading the passage about Bolivar. “Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape–the world or the end of it?”

These are the kind of deep, soulful questions that haunt Miles. And though Miles discusses the questions with his new friends at Culver Creek as they settle into their routine of classes and late-night discussions and the occasional prank or sexual hook-up, the questions are ones that he must answer for himself by the end of the story.

An astute reader may sense early on, given Miles’ fascination with such utterings and the moment of finality that follows them, that Looking For Alaska might very well involve a death at some point in the plot's development.

To heighten the mystery--not that someone will die but who it might be--Green divides the novel into two parts: “Before” and “After.”

Chapter divisions are identified as the number of days before the tragic event and afterward. And as the reader turns the pages, he or she can't help feeling the plot ticking toward its apex, toward that culminating moment, wondering whose death will set off the alarm.

It’s a device that succeeds, I suspect, because Green has written not merely a compelling mystery but an intensely introspective tale of a young boy’s search for meaning and love in a world where love and meaning seem to reside just beyond his grasp.

But a good deal of the book’s success relies on Miles’ voice. The questioning, doubting, probing, searching, self-mocking voice of a boy on the cusp of adulthood. Like most fifteen-year-olds, Miles is no longer a child, but not yet a man.

It’s in the tone of his voice, as well as in his unsteady passage toward adulthood, that Miles most resembles the classic male adolescent characters in whose footsteps he follows: Jerry Renault in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Phineas in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace.

As you might expect, Looking for Alaska contains its share of adolescent pranks and humor, a contemporary sensibility regarding sex, and rivalries between the rich kids (the Weekday Warriors) and those from poorer families, like Miles’ roommate, Chip Martin, aka the Colonel, whose mother lives in a trailer park, and Alaska, who lost her mother when she was only eight years old (and whose father left shortly afterward).

What comes as a surprise is how Alaska’s despair over that loss, and the memories of her inability to save her mother, ultimately shape the dramatic core of this story.

During a night of drinking, Alaska shares her memories in a game of Best Day/Worst Day. After she finishes describing her childhood’s Worst Day, Miles observes:

“There comes a time when we realize that our parents cannot save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow--that, in short, we are all going.”

It’s not only Miles who becomes aware that we are all “going,” but the other characters in the story, too, from the Colonel and Alaska, to their friends Takumi and Lara, and, eventually, the entire school, including the Headmaster, whose nickname is, appropriately enough, The Eagle, because he's always casting an eagle-eye on the activities of his students.

Ultimately, it’s Alaska--"impulsive as a result of her inaction years ago," Green writes, "forced into a life of perpetual motion"--who sets the plot in motion toward its inevitable conclusion. By the end, everyone must confront the truth of the labyrinth. There is no escape. Everyone “wading through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow.”

The question that Miles must answer for himself is how to face the labyrinth--and what, if anything, may exist beyond it. What must he do in order to give life meaning? This is the basic question of all religions, the essential question of human existence.

Eventually, Miles begins to shape an answer for himself on his take-home final in Religion:

“Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied only by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for a Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life...”

He writes more, of course, and arrives at a solution that helps him come to terms, if only temporarily, with the recent, tragic event that is part of his first year at Culver Creek.

It’s his unflagging effort to make sense of the universe, to wrest meaning out of the labyrinth, that serves readers as a life-line.

Writer and reader alike, we struggle daily against the undertow dragging us out to sea.

And like Miles, we hope against hope to understand some small part of the mystery “before we go.”

For more about John Green’s Looking for Alaska, as well as his new book, An Abundance of Katherines, check out his website and blog at

For an interview on Booklist:

And for an interview on Publisher’s Weekly:

1 comment:

jo'r said...

This book sounds delicious. When wordswimmer has recommended something I've usually found it proved out to be a great read, and it's been enjoyable to have a link provided for looking in on the author. I've tried to skim fast over wordswimmer's description here because I knew I was hooked into reading the book after a short distance into the discussion. I've got a copy of Looking for Alaska on the way.