Miles Halter, or ‘Pudge’ as he comes to be known, is headed to boarding school. Culver Creek, the school his father attended before him, is where Miles hopes to find… something. He isn’t entirely sure what. What he ends up finding, or who he ends up finding, is Alaska Young. She’s gorgeous, funny, terrifyingly smart and clearly kind of a mess, and so Miles falls swiftly and irrevocably in love. But when tragedy strikes, Miles will be forced to reckon with what it means to love unconditionally.
I first read Looking for Alaska at university, after reading The Fault in Our Stars, falling in love with John Green’s writing and promptly buying every other book he’d written. For those who aren’t as familiar with his catalogue: Looking for Alaska is his first book, originally published in 2005, and it draws pretty extensively on his own time at boarding school as a teenager. I wanted to review it now because, with the Looking for Alaska miniseries out now on Hulu/BBC, I decided it was about time to revisit the book.
As established, I have a lot of love for Green’s writing. Sometimes it veers into the overwrought or excessively self-conscious, but more often than not I find it a joy to read, and Looking for Alaska is an eminently quotable book. An overwhelming majority of the most carefully constructed writing in this story is dedicated to Miles’s observations of and feelings for Alaska. From the first moment he meets here, he’s awestruck, and he never really recovers from that.
“She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavour.”
Miles is an interesting main character. He’s relatable; intelligent, but not necessarily the smartest person in the room. Witty, but prone to social awkwardness. Utterly obsessed with the unattainable girl he has a crush on. His overwhelming attraction to Alaska, while understandable, makes him irritating at times. In that way that I’m sure most of us are familiar with, he can somehow turn any situation around in his head to being about her, and he centres his decision-making around her and her approval in a way that clearly isn’t good for him.
“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.”
And let’s talk about Alaska. Despite the story being told from Miles’s point of view, it’s so inherently about her that she almost feels like the main character at times. Looking at the way Miles approaches his friendships, he seems prone to casting himself in a supporting role in his own life, and Alaska’s wild mood swings and big schemes make her a prime candidate for the centre of Miles’s own personal universe. He struggles with the fact that she seems to blow hot and cold; one minute confiding deeply personal thoughts to him and the next treating him like a child, or switching from shameless flirting to abject misery from one day to the next. Seen from Miles’s perspective, Alaska’s unpredictable nature by turns fascinates and frustrates him, it’s a puzzle. A mystery.
“I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
The thing he never really considers is that it’s a symptom, or a collection of symptoms, of something deeply wrong. I’m no kind of expert, and am decidedly not in the business of diagnosing fictional characters, but reading the book without Miles’s lust-clouded judgement and with a greater awareness of mental and emotional health it seems evident that Alaska is mentally ill. Maybe it’s because of the trauma from her childhood that she reveals towards the middle of the book, an event which would devastate a child and which could easily have an unbalancing effect on a person’s whole life. Maybe it’s a mental illness that would have existed in her anyway, an issue of brain chemistry or genetics. Maybe (probably?) it’s a combination of factors. None of that is really explored though, and while Miles, and the rest of their group of friends, is clearly aware that Alaska is unstable, they never question whether there might be more to it.
There’s an argument to be made that Alaska and her mental illness are objectified in this book, that she’s treated primarily as “the hot girl” and not written with nuance or complexity, but the counter-argument is: that’s the point. The story is told from Miles’s point of view, and he’s too young, too inexperienced and too fixated on how much he wants to make out with Alaska to see beyond the limited role she plays in his life. Her every action is interpreted through the lens of how it makes him feel, about himself or about her, and never given any thought beyond that. When Alaska, drinking copiously as she often does, reveals to her friends the tragedy that rocked her childhood, it’s the first time Miles seems to really appreciate that her hot/cold behaviour might have a root cause—prior to this he’s looked at it as somewhere between a mysterious natural phenomenon and a device intended to torture him.
“She didn’t even glance at me. She just smiled towards the television and said, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.’”
The book is written in two halves; ‘before’ and ‘after’, the former functioning like a countdown. Each section is headed up with the number of days. One Hundred and Thirty-Six Days Before, and so on, until the event that splits the story in two. Avoiding spoilers means not telling you what that event is, but the entirety of the After is spent trying to work out the why and how of what happened, and centres in many ways around the inherent unknowability of other people.
It’s an interesting device and, every time I read the book, I tend to lose track of the ‘before’ days a little until suddenly I’m in the final stretch. Eight days before. Four days before. Three days, two days, one… it creates a definite tension, knowing that something is coming, even if you haven’t read it before and don’t know what, while the characters remain blissfully unaware. And then there’s the counting back up afterwards, the marking of time as characters process the aftermath and come to terms with a new reality. It’s a simultaneously hopeful and sad reminder that, no matter what, time goes on.
Looking for Alaska is thoughtful, moving and intelligently constructed, an exploration of the way we all objectify and fail to understand each other to one extent or another almost constantly. It tackles themes of love, loss and identity with humour and sensitivity. While it does have some explicit sex references and swearing, I think it’s a great example of young adult literature and would recommend it for teens and up.
This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info