Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Looking For Alaska by John Green

"I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails."

The only way I know to start this review is to tell you that if I were an author, this is the kind of book that I would want to write. It had me laughing in the library with people looking at me like I was on drugs and it was impossible to put down in a way that made me forget it was assigned school reading. (What is it about being told to read a book that usually saps a good portion of the fun out of it?)

Looking for Alaska is a book that functions on two levels. On the first level, we are dealing with a fun loving group of pranksters living together at a boarding school in the middle of nowhere, wreaking havoc on their classmates and teachers. Green captures so many important little adolescent moments in just the right way-- the adrenaline you feel when you know you're probably going to be caught doing something you'll regret later, the cigarette you're offered that makes your lungs explode, and the first kiss where you have no clue what you're suppose to be doing with your mouth, ect. That last one is particularly funny in this book.
"I thought: This is good.
I thought: I am not bad at this kissing. Not bad at all.
I thought: I am clearly the greatest kisser in the history of the universe."
...and then the girl pulls away and asks why he's slobbering everywhere.

On the second level, the book is addressing all of the Big Scary Questions that start to matter during those years where we feel invincible but also full of confusion about what the hell is really going on. Our main character Miles is obsessed with famous people's last words and they're scattered throughout the book as he reacts to situations and tries to work out what they mean as a kind of device to make the book a bit more meaningful and literary. He ties in the things that he's learning in his world religion class so that the things he's working through become more universal and less reliant on his personal circumstances. The entire reason he leaves his boring life back home for boarding school is that he is going to find his "Great Perhaps," stolen from the last words of Rabelais. The most important last words used in the novel, though, are those of Bolivar, being "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!" The characters want to know first what the labyrinth is, if it's life or death or suffering. Then they want to know what the way out is.

Alaska, the character the book is named for, is elusive, moody, sexy, and completely histrionic. She's the girl that makes things happen. Of course, she's also the girl her circle of male friends are lusting after throughout the book, whose plot relies mainly on the interaction between Alaska and Miles. I don't want to say too much or give anything away, so moving on... The other characters are fun and different, as well. (Takumi, the free-styling Asian who refers to himself the motherfucking fox. The Colonel is from a trailer park and at the school on a scholarship and is always the one getting them into elaborately crafted schemes even though he has the most to lose. Lara's the shy girl from Romania who made me die in the library laughing at her attempts to seduce Miles.)

Lastly, I liked the way that Green set up the novel. On his website he talks about how he was working on the book during September 11th, and that made him think about how there are central moments in people's lives, how there was a Before September 11th and an After September 11th. While this book has nothing to do with what happened on 9/11, it's set up the same way, with one section titled Before and the other After. The climax of this novel is the central moment of Miles' life, and so the beginning is set up so that the chapters count down the days to the big event that shapes him, and the end counts down the days afterwards.

If you like YA fiction, I'd recommend it. The reviews all say it's reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, but I don't know that I would go that far.

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