Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Looking for Answers

It is with a somber heart that I'm reviewing John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005) this week.  From the beginning of the novel, the ominous chapter titles -  titles such as "one hundred thirty-six days before," and "nine days after" --  imply that tragedy will strike at some point.  Unfortunately, the book's tragedy is very much like one my community has lived through this week, and has dealt with twice in less than a year.

Looking for Alaska was actually Green's debut novel, one that marked him as an important voice in young adult literature.  He won a Printz Award for the book, the highest award given by the Young Adult Library Services Association for quality YA literature. Since Alaska, Green has written five more, including his much-anticipated The Fault in Our Stars, released last month. Be aware that his novels are written for an older teenage audience; both the content and the language are at times "R"-rated.

In Looking for Alaska, we meet Miles Halter as he is about to embark on an adventure that will propel him, in his words, into "the Great Perhaps."  Miles is a student of last words; he reads biographies only to find out what, at the moment of death, were the utterances of people from all walks of life.  And when he read the last words of Francois Rabelais - "I go to seek the Great Perhaps." - Miles adopts this philosophy as a reason to leave behind his milque-toast life in Florida and attend Cutter Creek Academy, a boarding school in Alabama.

At Cutter Creek, Miles experiences both the academic challenge and the lack of parental supervision that boarding school offers.  For the first time in his life, he makes friends:  Takumi; Lara; his roommate, Chip - better known as the Colonel; and Alaska.  Alaska, a clever, funny, messed-up girl with a penchant for pranks and other illicit teen pleasures, also loves books.  Her entire dorm room is filled with them - what she calls her "Life Library." As far as last words go, Alaska knows only those of one person, and she's not even sure if they're historically accurate: according to a famous novel about Simon Bolivar, the general's dying expression was "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?"  Alaska takes this to mean the labyrinth of suffering that is a part of human life, and Alaska has had plenty of suffering in her own.

At Culver Creek, besides the regular academic subjects offered at most high schools, students also take a comparative religion class. This turns out to be Miles' favorite, partly because it lets him think about the Great Perhaps. For their midterm paper, the aging professor requires the students to compose what they think is the most important question human beings have to answer, and then to consider how the three major world religions have answered that question. Miles centers his paper on what happens after life, the ultimate Great Perhaps.

When the time comes to assign the end-of-year paper, the religion professor has a new question for the students to answer.  The question was both the thesis of Alaska's midterm paper; and probably Alaska's last question:  "How will I ever get out of the labyrinth of suffering?"

For Alaska Young, the answer seems to have been "straight and fast."  Her friends spend most of the second semester of school trying to determine whether Alaska's end was intentional or accidental -- a "suident or accicide."  In the end, however, they determine that it doesn't really matter.  What matters more is that they had a friend named Alaska, that she made some terrible mistakes, and that they forgive her - and one another.

As Miles writes his final paper, he thinks of Alaska:  ". . . if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself -- those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.  . . . We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken." At least for Miles, the labyrinth comes to represent not only the condition of human suffering, but also the conditions of friendship, adventure, and love.

In the end, it seems, there are no right answers for the question Alaska poses.  There is instead just a choice to go on living. The Colonel sums it up best when he says, "After all this time, it still seems to be that 'straight and fast' is the only way out -- but I choose the labyrinth.  The labyrinth blows, but I still choose it."

For all the Alaskas in our world --  we want you to choose the labyrinth.