This is a story of befores and afters. But really, aren’t all novels? There’s always an event that changes someone’s path. It’s the size of the event that changes. Green sets us up to know from the very beginning that there’s a game changer coming and counts it down for us. I’ve seen this technique used in other books – with varying degrees of success. I stamp Looking for Alaska a success. Knowing this created a story beyond teen hijinks (which would have been fine, but wasn’t what I was in the mood for when I picked this up) and dramatic irony. Something big is coming, it’s going to happen to Alaska, and it’s going to transform the entire life Miles thinks he’s building.
Miles sets off to boarding school looking for his Great Perhaps. A socially inept kid with zero friends, he’s searching for that moment that will shift the forward propulsion of his life. At Culver Creek, Miles’ skinny frame is inevitably dubbed Pudge by his roommate, Chip (The Colonel). What could seem like an insult is the first moment in Miles’ life where someone other than family cares enough to give him a nickname. It’s the beginning of everything. Then he meets Alaska, Takumi, and Lara, and Miles begins to understand what it’s like to have people that matter. These characters are often referenced as quirky, but I think that word gets thrown around too liberally. Each of these characters has a quirk, but who doesn’t. Teenagers often cling to one unique thing because they’re trying to be different. Their quirks are affected. They’re trying to figure out who they are. Their chosen oddity gives them a platform to start finding their own personality. It’s that search that shapes this entire novel.
In the Before: The person looking for Alaska is Alaska. The story is told from Miles’ perspective, but this part isn’t about him. Green is sometimes criticized for writing Alaska as a feminist simply because what else could he do with a smart, teenage girl. But I side with Green – what else could she be. Yes, she’s smart, but we see that more when she tutors everyone in pre-calc. Her feminism is what she thinks will make people take her seriously. More importantly, she’s trying to prove herself to herself. From the first moment she appears, it’s clear that this is a girl who thinks she is worthless. She hides it behind bravado and booze and boys, but she hates herself. Her erratic behavior isn’t because she’s quirky; it’s because she doesn’t think she’s special. Worse, she believes she is solely responsible for her mother’s death and her father’s perceived abandonment. Alaska pushes away everyone that tries to make a real connection with her. She hides her pain in perfectly staged, eclectic moments – like reading Vonnegut in a field under the stars and burying her wine in the woods. Her completely-not-self-aware friends don’t see her pain. This is just Alaska being Alaska. So, when she gets super drunk with the Colonel, makes out with Pudge, and then convinces them to help her sneak off campus in the middle of the night, it’s just something she would do. The response she gets is exactly what she expects from them.
In the After: Pudge and Chip are rocked by the announcement of Alaska’s death. Finding out what happened becomes their driving purpose. It’s been a long time since I was in high school, but a vehicular death occurred in my senior year and I still remember getting the news with vivid clarity. I wasn’t even that close the girl that died, but being slapped in the face by mortality when you’ve barely had a chance start forming personality is a terrifying moment in a young person’s life. Maybe that memory made me connect to this book more than other readers, but for the people left behind, trying to figure out why something happened can become all encompassing. Did Alaska kill herself? Did she? Didn’t she? The boys will never know for sure. Personally, I think she did. In a moment of all powerful self-pity, she made the easy, split second decision. Miles and Chip finally decide it’s more important to pull Alaska’s last great prank to pay tribute to their friend. It’s a great, light-hearted moment but it’s still an example of their powerful obsession with Alaska. When they finally figure out that Alaska’s death happened when she missed the anniversary of her mother’s death, it feels like there’s some kind of closure, but the bigger question will follow them for years.
People get up in arms about YA novels that are simple slices of life. They seem to find the trite or predictable or boring. Worse, there’s surprise or disbelief that that kids have access to booze and sex and whatnot. Perhaps my school experience was different from these people, but this is how I remember school. Who you’re dating, who likes who, what you can get away with without getting caught, how you can get your hands on drinks or cigarettes, the issues are petty, but they’re often the things that matter most when you’re trying to be more grown up than you actually are. The experiences of the students at Culver Creek aren’t extreme. It doesn’t shift political boundaries. There’s no serious rebellion here. Miles is looking for the Great Perhaps, and for him, it happened in the form of his first real friendships. It won’t be his only perhaps, but it’s the beginning of a path he wasn’t on before he met these people. The big moment starts not with the crash that kills Alaska, but when Miles meets her and Chip. He cares enough about someone outside the pages of a book to start the journey that will be Searching for Miles.
*A final shout out to The Eagle. The ‘adult’ figure in this book. He holds the students to high standards but years of teaching have taught him to pick his battles. As a teenager, his character might come off as nothing but background, but as an adult, he’s the heart of this school and I found him delightful.