John Green’s 2005 debut challenges young adult readers to find a way out of the labyrinth of suffering.
‘I go to seek a Great Perhaps.’ Those were the last words of French author François Rabelais, but they’re also the mantra embraced by Miles Halter, the 16-year-old protagonist of Looking for Alaska, when he leaves his home in Florida to attend an Alabama boarding school. Miles is an ordinary boy who collects famous last words and doesn’t have many friends, but he’s also looking for that Great Perhaps, the bigger something just over the horizon.
At Culver Creek, he meets Alaska Young. She’s beautiful, and intelligent, and charming, and Miles is instantly smitten. Sometimes she’s also angry, and reckless, and selfish. She’s human, and thus imperfect, but Miles prefers to ignore her flaws or else romanticise them. It’s a theme Green returns to in his third novel, Paper Towns, which takes as its central concern the difficulty of imagining people complexly, but here he nonetheless makes a start on deconstructing the pervasive ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope. Alaska is a well-drawn character, and even though we see her from Miles’ limited perspective it’s possible to read between the lines for a clearer perspective.
The novel is divided into two sections, ‘Before’ and ‘After’, and each chapter is titled with the number of days separating it from the event that marks the transition from one to the other. It’s a simple but effective device that creates tension on the first approach to ‘the last day’, and on subsequent readings the experience is intensified by the knowledge of what is to come. By the end of the novel, Alaska’s question to Miles, ‘how will I ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?’, has taken on a much more immediate significance.
Like all of John Green’s novels, Looking for Alaska is eminently quotable, and you’ll find aphorisms from its pages all over blogging sites like Tumblr. Metaphors like ‘I was drizzle and she was a hurricane’ have been separated from their original context just like the last words quoted by Miles, but it’s definitely worth following them back to their source if you want to understand them fully. At its heart this is a coming-of-age story about survival and strength that is still a classic of its genre eight years on, but even adults may be able to learn something from Miles’ journey towards enlightenment.