Looking for Alaska: Highly recommended
Author: John Green
Category: Teen fiction (novel)
“How will I ever escape this Labyrinth?”
A simple question that could lead to a million answers, possibilities, and never ending confusion. What is the Labyrinth, and how to escape it is exactly what Miles, Chip, and Alaska spend much of their time wondering, and one of the few constant ideas through a story line packed with mischief, friendship, unrequited love, and life changing plot twists. When Miles transfers to a boarding school, it’s not long before he meets his roommate Chip, and his best friend Alaska. Together they act like your average reckless teenagers: drinking, swearing, pulling pranks, and breaking almost every rule in the book. This is possibly why the characters are so easily relatable and hilarious to read about, because they are based off the stereotypes of today’s generation of teenagers. “The nice thing about the constant threat of expulsion at Culver Creek is that it lends excitement to every moment of illicit pleasure. The bad thing, of course, is that there is always the possibility of actual expulsion”. By taking every opportunity to do something reckless, dangerous, daring, or just plain stupid, the characters in the book are exactly what we want to be, and do the very things that we’ve never quite had the guts to attempt. As the book is written mainly about their everyday experiences, people who don’t generally read books will find this particularly entertaining, and can follow it easily. It also has underlying themes and twisted sections of text, which you have to read between the lines to figure out. It takes the time to explain the thought process behind many activities performed by teenagers, and as a result produces many different lessons that that age group can learn from.
The main question that comes from the characters in the story, is what does it mean to be alive? For Miles, it’s being able to form meaningful relationships (for example, good friendships) that helped him grow into the amazing character he became. For Chip, it’s living a life of adventure – taking risks and following his crazy plans, as he finds that what makes him feel alive is what it means to be alive. Or maybe, like Alaska thinks, it’s to love and to loose. That to be alive, we must fall in love with people and loose them, and understand that when you suffer a loss, it means you had something worth loosing. From these perspectives given by the characters, I personally found that the meaning of being alive is a mix of all of these. The meaning of life is to create the meaningful relationships that Miles looks for, and to share the daring adventures with them that Chip looks for, while you grow attached to them. Eventually you will loose both them and your adventures, just like Alaska, teaching you that the meaning of life is to enjoy what you have while you have it. These lessons are developed and grown throughout the story line with the authors plan to write about ordinary, simple teenage lives, mixed in with illustrious philosophical introspection, that go hand in hand with the hard-hitting life issues, and shocking plot twists that would make almost every reader question who the characters really are. The novel allows you to question, if not for the first time, what it means to be alive, and what we can do with it. It teaches you life lessons that are important for teenagers to learn, but, as it is written in a book, is a way they can learn and understand without actual doing the dangerous and stupid things that are discussed. John Green knew this, and he even added the quote “Teenagers think they’re invincible” to solidify this connection between the teenagers in the story, and teenagers in today’s society. It is both a simple read, yet completely and utterly complicated, meaning that it would suit all kinds of readers and all kinds of people. This is exactly why it is a perfect recommendation for a year 12 book club.
The most significant turning point of the book is Alaska’s death. It brings an urgency to Miles and Chip figuring out the Labyrinth, as they believe it will help them understand what Alaska was going through the night that she died. This will draw the readers in to conclude their own ideas on what happened to her, and how to figure out their own Labyrinths. I think that for young people, the Labyrinth is an important idea that represents this never ending maze of long school days, and what happens when we are no longer teenagers. The characters in the book link it to what happens after you die, but for a teenage audience, this can easily be related to what happens after you leave home – because in some ways, it’s almost like you’re loosing one life to start on another. You spend each day searching this maze, learning new paths and occasionally getting a grasp on where you are, where you’re going, and what you’re doing, just as the maze changes, turns, or flips upside down. It represents the idea that we are not able to leave home and go find our way in the world, we’re too young. But we’re also too old to be shown around and told what to do and how to act. Instead we are stuck in this middle ground, the Labyrinth, where nothing is ever as it seems, and the only constant is change and confusion. Looking for Alaska taught me that there is no escape to the Labyrinth, you just have to keep on going, and take every piece of advice and information you can. To escape, you have to try, to get out of your comfort zone, to make new friends, loose old friends, do stupid and reckless activities. But the only way to escape, is to enjoy and value you the time that you have there, because once you escape you’re all on your own – you don’t even have the high walls and shelter from the real world to keep you company. For the readers to better grasp the sudden urgency in discovering the Labyrinth, the book is visibly split into two sections. The first is before her death, and the second is after, helping the reader to really see the impact of her death on the characters and their relationships with each other. We learn that Miles is the kind of person who bases his perceptions on fact, and not knowing exactly what happened to Alaska greatly affects him. “So we gave up. I’d finally had enough of chasing after a ghost who did not want to be discovered. We’d failed, maybe, but some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved”. He wants to understand, but it takes a while for him to come to terms with the fact that we won’t always know the answer to everything, and that sometimes it’s better to leave mysteries as mysteries.
Personally, I found that this part of the book had the biggest impact on my views. It teaches you that sometimes ignorance is bliss, and that it’s better to live with this mystery that we can create our own fantasies on, rather than knowing the actual truth. People don’t like the idea that when we die, we go into a huge black space of nothing. Religions are based around this idea that we go somewhere after we die, but what if we don’t? It taught me that the reason people believe in religions, the reason they come up with different views on what happens after we die, is because we, as people, can’t bear not knowing the answer to such a controversial question. Yet if we ever did find the answer, somewhere, somehow, it would destroy the world. “I still think that, sometimes. I still think that, sometimes, think that maybe “the afterlife” is just something we made up to ease the pain of loss, to make our time in the labyrinth bearable”. Therefore, it helped me understand that sometimes mysteries are supposed to be just that: something with an unobtainable answer. This is one part of the book that we can relate to society the most. As today’s society is shaped by this idea of what happens after you die, it creates a unique connection between the story and the real life world that the reader can’t help but see. This connection again makes it easier to understand, but will also make the reader think about what the author is trying to portray. This idea eventually leads to Miles discovering that for him, the way out of the Labyrinth is to forgive. That for us to survive this idea of not knowing, we must forgive those who leave without giving us the answers to the mysteries we so desperately want to solve. “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 the back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home”. This shows how Miles’ views change over the course of the book, as after Alaska’s death, he finally decides “… that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we have to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day. Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless”. Once again, the story covers philosophical questions that few authors of teen fiction manage to grasp. This book is such a good recommendation for a year 12 book club because gives subtle insight into a deeper meaning for our own lives. It is a book directed at teens, yet has challenging content that has been portrayed in an easy to understand way by involving them into such ordinary lives.
John Green has managed to pull off a writing style that is both an easy and challenging read, but accurately defines how teenagers act and think through how we communicate best: our actions, arguments, conversations, and confusing mixed signals. He has used witty comments, and quick comebacks, items taken from everyday dialogue, most commonly seen in the vocabulary of teenagers. It’s just a book that’s fun to read. You create a connection with the characters. They make you laugh, cry, worry, and feel like you’re almost as much as part of the story as they are. He describes the characters through conversations between themselves, and is able to express their feelings and perspectives without it being heavy and hard to read. This relates well to society because when we meet new people, we find out who they are through conversations both with the person and with other people about them. He has described and portrayed the characters in a way that we would meet others in real life, rather than just writing down exactly who they were, what they looked like, and how they thought. This connection not only allows us to contrast it with today’s society, but also be introduced to the characters as if we were meeting them on the street, as if they’re actual people. Depending on the topic of conversation, Green is able to alter his style of writing depending on what he wants the reader to understand. For example, the bits of arguments and action between the characters and their relationships are often fast paced dialogue to allow him to fit more into the story, whereas the parts where he wants you to understand deeper meanings and philosophical concepts, he uses long paragraphs with detailed descriptions that are easy to follow, just to ensure the reader doesn’t get too confused. By stretching out these parts of the story, he allows the reader time to absorb the information he’s feeding, and to revitalise the story before speeding off into the next fast paced section of the book. I have found that this makes the story easier to read, and means that you are always able to understand what’s going on in the book. All of the reasons here means it makes Looking for Alaska a good recommendation for a year 12 book club.
By Dharma Bratley