Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Looking For Alaska, Printz Award, 2006

The story of Looking For Alaska depends entirely on character. The boy-meets-girl, girl-dies-tragically plot is weak, but three vivid characters–Pudge, the Colonel, and Alaska–shine as Green’s true accomplishments in this book.  

Pudge is a unique teenager– intensely inquisitive, kind-hearted, and desperate for affection. We see his character most clearly in the way he views Alaska. He sees himself as nothing, and Alaska as everything in this passage:
“[I wished we could] just sleep together, in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane” (88).
The ability to make the reader love, hope, pine, and lash out just as the main character does is a mark of great fiction. Green does this beautifully, and as the book progresses, the reader also takes his focus off Pudge and develops an obsession with Alaska.

Voice, style, and authenticity all contribute to this melding of character and reader. Pudge’s voice is intelligent and obsessive. It is invaded by reference to Alaska even where she isn’t immediately present. For example, when he day dreams in class, he thinks,
 “The trees seemed to clothe the hill, and just as I would never notice a particular cotton thread on the magnificently tight orange tank top Alaska wore that day, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest – everything so intricately woven together that it made no sense to think of one tree as independent from the hill” (39).

Style changes effectively reflect Pudge’s state of mind including physical and emotional calamity. For instance, Pudge’s change in mind during his concussion is evident from his incessant repetition of “I’m concussed.”  Minute details display his hopelessness after Alaska’s death–details like, “I’d gotten a plastic stock car with my Happy Meal, and it sat overturned on the table. I spun the wheels” (175).

Authenticity of a teenage experience furthers the bond between character and reader. High school is full of silly pranks, little crushes, big dreams, nervous embarrassment after any sexual encounter, and relationships that consist of little but fighting or settling for the easiest companion. I specifically identified with the fun of cramming six people into a tiny old car to go to McDonalds.

There were only a few problems I had with this text. I personally could not identify with the prevalence of smoking, drinking, and sex in a high school setting, because I attended a private school where immediate expulsion was the consequence for these activities. I also had questions about plausibility like, Why is a dork like Pudge attractive to Lara and Alaska? and, How are these students getting such high grades when they spend so much time drinking, talking about sex, and playing pranks? and, Why would any parent pay for their child to attend a school which cultivates such blatant disregard for authority?

My biggest problem with the story is Pudge’s treatment of Lara. After setting Alaska up as a such a strong feminist, Green works against his own message by allowing Pudge to ditch Lara immediately after their first sex experience. In his grief over Alaska, Pudge becomes the kind of hit-and-run guy that Alaska and all self-actualized women would despise.

Themes in Looking for Alaska include relationships, authority, religious philosophy, death, guilt, and forgiveness. Controversial issues include underage smoking, drinking, and sex, suicide, and dangerous pranks; however, no content is gratuitous. The primary theme is the passion of a youthful spirit. It is summed up in the last passage of the novel.
“Awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be . . . We [teenagers] think that we are invincible because we are.  They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

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