Looking for Alaska
One warning, if you suffer from depression and/or suicidal thoughts, this book may not be a good story to read. The depth of this book, in terms of looking at depression, suicide and loss, really surprised me. I have been trying to find books to help me understand several people I have personally known well, two of whom committed suicide, and my oldest brother who drank himself to death. I have found it really difficult, but helpful, to find books that might help me get my head around the fact that no matter how well we think we know someone, or want to help them, mental health disorders, depression and suicide have sides to them that make it difficult to actually understand the depth of their problem. So, after reading other books like Thirteen Reasons Why, All the Bright Places, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and others, this book Looking For Alaska had so many poignant points that I found more helpful than the other books.
First off, John Green’s characters were well constructed in terms of the tight knit circle of freinds who were there for each other, going through many of the issues of belonging, where do I fit in, etc, of the teenage angst many go through. Much of this book made me think of the more recent pain my daughter went through in high school, which was brutal at times. But, these are timeless issues, and it was easy to think back to my own issues many years ago. Alaska Young, the main character, was very well written. She was beautiful, funny, smart, well liked (to a point), but there were moody, unpredictable sides of her that were hard to understand (which is very true of depression and mental healt issues). Our storyteller Pudge, is smitten with her, as most guys her age would be. And they become best friends. But, there is The Colonel, Pudge’s roommate, funny, smart, with a huge chip on his shoulder for rich and priveledged kids their age. He is likeable and very smart, as well. He has also known Alaska for several years and knows how moody and capricious she can be. Other members of their group take in Takumi and Lara. As the story shows the fitting in issues, Alaska is a character it’s so easy to like. She’s full of life, brightens up the room with her smile and coquettish behavior, but, what’s also likeable, she is always clear with anyone that she has a boyfriend she adores.
Two main themes throughout the narrative is that Pudge is driven by a quote he read, that is now directing his life, which states
“I go seek a Great Perhaps.” He is looking for more. Alaska is obsessed with something she read in a novel talking about the struggle of life, which states, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” As the story continues, you realize that Alaska flies off the handle, suddenly withdraws from everyone, and no one can understand this side of her. Most of all Pudge. One of Pudge’s and Alaska’s classes together is religion and philosophy. This is a great tool used by the the author to confront many of the issues unfolding.
To get to the point, as you see Alaska boldly act brazenly at times, impetuously, and take blame before a panel that caught them all smoking, and other things along these lines, her behavior seems at times self destructive. She drinks a lot and even makes a comment to her friends, when asked why she chain smokes at times, inhaling so hard, she says she does it to kill herself. Green does a great job making her complex in ways that people with mental health issues are really complex. They can be hard to understand and unpredictable. And this is Alaska.
There is a point in the book, when they are all drinking heavily, and Alaska suggest they play a drinking game and tell their best day ever, and their worst day ever. They’re all very drunk. And Alaska admits that when she was a little girl, her mother died of an aneurysm right in front of her, and she had didn’t know what to do, but just sat with her waiting for her to wake up. And when her father came home he made it clear that it was her fault her mother died. Why didn’t she call 911? And so on. We find out Alaska is a tortured person and can’t break free of it. Needless to say, later in the story, while all drinking, Alaska gets a phone call in the middle of the night from her boyfriend. No one knows what’s said, but she is horribly distraught and crying uncontrollable, and she has to leave, has to get out, and she tears off and she dies that night. And the big question is was it suicide? And of course, her friends helped her leave because she “had to” so badly. And now they are tortured by the reality that they could have stopped her.
The kinds of questioning and guilt Green discribes is so astute and tears at your heart if you have ever suffered real loss of a loved one, especially if it was from suicide or under tragic circumstances. The Religion class resurfaces as it turns out Alaska had written her final essay paper on “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” The teacher, who admired Alaska, and in helping students cope, he puts her question on the blackboard, and he turns her question into an essay question for them final exam for everyone to grapple with. This was a clever device in the story as Pudge comes to grips, and we as the readers try to understand the seemingly senseless loss. The Pudge’s essay answer is a wonderful wrap up to the story. He uses things they learned from Buddhism to state things like, all things that come together will fall apart, and all things are interconnected, so that the loss of Alaska, she isn’t truly lost. “Maybe she was just matter, and matter gets recycled.” But, Pudge also realizes that even as sad and tragic as Alaska’s life was, it didn’t have to end that way. Pudge writes, “Awful things are survivable,” and he wishes he could have told Alaska that. And that we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.