Sometimes books or films, by their themes and craftsmanship, make us feel more intelligent or deep when we consume them. But oftentimes, once we thoroughly think through the ideas, the story unravels and little is left. Looking for Alaska is one such book, and it is dangerous due to it being so alluring.
The themes here are seemingly quite central to the human experience: growing up, defining oneself, falling in love, and coping with tragedy and death.
The setting is a boarding high school in the south. The protagonist, “Pudge,” is an innocuous but impressionable young man who arrives at the school as a new transfer and is quickly taken in by his chain-smoking roommate and a beautiful coquet down the hall: the funny, witty, flirtatious, and damaged (from a difficult upbringing) Alaska Young. It doesn’t take long before Pudge takes up smoking and falls for Alaska. But while she gives signals of interest to him, she ultimately proves only to be a figure who constantly frustrates him on account of her seductiveness and at times seemingly brilliant insights. His looking for Alaska is ultimately quite unsatisfying, though she does prompt him to get outside of himself and explore.
What ensues is a chain of illicit drinking, prank-playing, sex, and, unfortunately, death. And the tragic end of one of the characters is shrouded by the fact that suicide seems to have been its cause. The remaining characters are left to come to terms with the extent to which they are culpable.
In the end, conclusions are made that in this case suicide, if it did occur that way, was not necessarily a bad choice. Along the way, the group of friends come together and grow apart over the tragedy, and the immature feelings they experience are elevated to what they take to be penetrating conclusions about the human condition.
And this is why this book is both alluring and dangerous. The growth, both physical and psychological, that occurs during adolescence magnifies experience and makes it seem more important than it actually is. But one going through adolescence is ill-equipped to realize this tendency. Teenagers are often said to think they know everything; but one becomes an adult perhaps when they begin to suppose how little they actually know.
It must be said that this story is very well written, enjoyable to read, and engaging. The characters are well drawn, and the discussions they have seem to grapple at very important issues. The teenage experience is well captured, and any teenager can easily get swept in. And many have; this book is currently very popular among high schoolers in the area. But I would venture to say that the end is lacking in any real insight and that the situations described will easily lead a fledgling youth to begin to think that smoking, drinking, and pre-marital sex are necessary to the experience of becoming an adult.
I would seriously caution any parents to read through the book first before allowing their son or daughter to do so. Within are scenes involving graphic descriptions of sex.
- Is Alaska a good person? What are her strengths and weaknesses?
- To what extent are we products of our environment? Do we take up the habits of those closest to us?
- To what extent can teenagers experience love? When can one actually experience love? What is required for the experiencing of love?