Two days before it happens, everyone learns a devastating truth about Alaska’s family, and then it arrives. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Looking For Alaska.
two days before
Well. Well. I’m still in a bit of shock from this chapter. What’s so distracting about its composition is that it starts off so silly. The day after pulling off the prank, the group hangs out in the barn, trading poorly improvised raps, and drinking instant coffee. Green captures that youthful sense of hope once again: There’s nothing that can touch these five people in that barn. And for these moments of awkward joy and celebration, I can feel it coming through the pages, too. They drink. They eat the worst dinner known to humankind. They don’t care. You hear that a lot, and it’s rarely true. But for those few hours in the barn, they just don’t care, and it’s a beautiful thing to read.
And then Alaska brings up “Best Day/Worst Day.” In hindsight, it seems obvious that she did this on purpose. And maybe it was the feeling in that barn that inspired her. Perhaps that’s why she wanted to tell everyone the truth of what happened to her; why else would she suggest a game that would bring up her Worst Day Ever? Sure, it’s a form of exposition for John Green. I can’t deny that. But it fits. I’ve done this! I’m sure others have as well, and by the silliest means, I’ve come to know great things about the people who are close to me.
A great plot will usually get me, but I read because I want the experience of discovering characters, of getting to know them and their flaws and their qualities and their behavior. This chapter is one massive info dump on all five characters, and it’s nice just to read them talking to one another. I think it’s safe to say that they all finally feel comfortable together as a group, that Miles is most certainly a part of all this, no longer the outsider he was when he arrived at Culver Creek. I like that it’s never stated. Miles never outright says he feels like he belongs, and none of the other characters make any overt statements about it either. Instead, Green just shows us this in the behavior of the four other students who he is friends with.
The fact that Miles is comfortable enough with them to state that this day is the best of his life is one of the ways that Green shows us how the group has changed. It’s the perfect amount of Miles’s surprising poeticism and his awkwardness all wrapped up into a touching moment of appreciation for the friends he’s made.
I’ll get to Alaska’s story because you can’t talk about her best day without her worst day.
Lara’s story…good lord, how fantastic. She describes such an important and transformative moment in her life, and does so without a touch of shame in her voice. Like Miles, she feels like she belongs. I mean…I’m aware that it was the act of trying to ruin lives that brought them all together in that barn, but it’s still pretty cool.
Takumi’s story is…very Takumi. It is! The guy’s not very talkative as it is, so I honestly didn’t expect him to say much. The Colonel proves that, once again, the love he has for his mother is just the most beautiful thing in the world. Because his best day ever hasn’t happened yet, and I’m way into this idea that he’s planning his whole life to provide it for his mom. Can I swoon over the Colonel? I can, and you cannot stop me.
I sort of dreaded getting to the Worst Days of these people, and the Colonel, who goes first, delivers the polar opposite to his plan for the Best Day Ever, and we learn why his dad isn’t around anymore. He just up and left, after cheating on his wife, and he just hasn’t come back. It seems to me that the Colonel’s fierce sense of loyalty has a pretty defining moment.
And that’s sort of what I take from each of these Worst Day Evers. They’re not the answer to these people’s lives, and they don’t define them. But they all affected these people in a certain way that pushed them to where they are now. I found it fitting that Miles’s worst day really wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. Green acknowledges that Miles has lived a pretty privileged life. Still, I like that he doesn’t say that Miles hasn’t had his own problems, or that his day wasn’t the worst thing ever for him. Being a victim of bullying just like that, I know how horrific those singular moments can be, and how you can remember them for years after the fact. And I remember moving from Boise to Riverside and how that uprooted my whole life at the time. Yes, it’s not at all the same as moving from another country to the United States, but it’s something that’s familiar.
And even Takumi’s story is familiar to me, since my dad was Japanese/Hawaiian and his funeral was a combination of both Buddhist and Shinto beliefs; on top of that, I had to travel to a place (Oahu) during a summer trip that should have been longer and…well…not as sad. That sounds shitty, but have you been to Hawaii? My dad’s funeral was so surreal because it was in one of the most beautiful places in the whole world and I cried a lot and my brain could not rectify the two of them existing at the same time. It’s the truth! Maybe my father should have held his funeral in like…I don’t know. What’s an ugly place? I almost mentioned a place in the desert in southern California, but I think the desert is pretty. It’s the people who live there that I hate.
And then Alaska tells her story. And I have to put the book down and just go hang out with my face buried in a pillow because it’s just so fucking sad and now Alaska makes so much more sense and my heart is broken and WHYYYYY. Her best day was her last day with her mother. The reason she feels like a failure? Because her father blames her for her mom’s death. Again, I don’t want to say this is the only thing that defines Alaska, because that would be disingenuous. It’s important to her because it’s something that’s traumatized her, so much so that there are a lot of ways in which this manifests in her current life. For me as well, it speaks to the way in which parents can negatively affect your life without even really knowing it, you know? My mom was genuinely oblivious to the effects her parenting style had on me until I had enough and had to run away from home to escape it. Unfortunately, I get the sense that Alaska’s father never learned this about his daughter.
Oh god, now her statement about not going home because there are ghosts is just…fuck. Fuck.
There comes a time when we realize that our parents cannot save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow–that, in short, we are all going.
my heart someone hold me
“We are all going,” McKinley said to his wife, and we sure are. There’s your labyrinth of suffering. We are all going. Find your way out of that maze.
None of which I said out loud to her. Not then and not ever. We never said another word about it. Instead, it became just another worst day, albeit the worst of the bunch, and as night fell fast, we continued on, drinking and joking.
I think what I’m coming to like about this book, aside from the power of such passages, is that John Green doesn’t deny that teenagers can have experiences that are weighty and philosophically heavy; I’ve never much enjoyed the idea that we’re all vapid children with no drive or motivations aside from grades and sex while in high school. And while there is a lot of sex, hormones, studying, and immature pranking, it’s not mutually exclusive with these characters ruminating on death, suffering, betrayal, and loyalty. Our lives are multi-faceted, and it’s what Green does well with all five of these characters. Sure, they have desires and personality types that are obvious and that you can pick out; but this chapter has shown just how complicated and layered each of them are.
And then, of course, we get a whole lot of Miles and Lara, and their adorable and awkward make-out session in that barn. Even if I didn’t have my first sexual experience until about a month before my nineteenth birthday, I can still find things to relate to about how this felt. I discussed it before, but this scene is cute. It’s a neat way for Green to show us how Miles can actually be more respectful to a woman. He’s made it pretty clear that Miles is kind of a hot mess around Alaska in some ways, but there’s none of that here. (And I do believe that’s a reflection on Miles, not Alaska.) I think it’s refreshing that these characters are starting to come into their own; while having this all in Miles’s perspective does tread a little too close to some eye-roll-inducing tropes, it’s good that the characters are now filling in with their own ideas, hopes, desires, and agency, not only existing to make Miles look better, worse, or to give him growth.
Also I seriously could never have a make out party with three non-participating parties in the same room THAT IS SO AWKWARD.
one day before
The weekend in the barn comes to an end, and the group of friends all rush to head back to Culver Creek to seal their alibi of being with the Colonel’s mother. I found myself getting progressively more nervous about how this would end because I’m now one day from whatever it is this book has been counting down to. It’s not the prank, so what on earth deserves this sort of format? I DON’T LIKE SURPRISES LIKE THIS. Just kidding I LIVE FOR THEM.
What’s so distracting to me is how uneventful this day is. The alibi works, they all return to their dorms, and Miles sleeps eighteen hours straight.
Damn it, what’s going to happen?
the last day
Oh, Kevin. You have no idea what’s going to happen, and that sort of fills me with joy. It’s weird because, like Miles, I don’t necessarily have a reason to hate him. I just don’t like him because he peripherally reminds me of some awful people in high school and college. That’s a pretty shitty justification, I admit. But he’s one of the few characters left that has no depth to him beyond the obvious, so I don’t feel compelled to care about him at all. So I simply smiled and laughed to myself when I learned that Lara’s dye efforts worked, as Kevin and his friends all had to get “Marine” haircuts to compensate for the blue coloring now present in their hair.
The Colonel is still sticking to his intense dislike of the man and his refusal to make any sort of truce. Part of that’s pragmatic; the other half of the prank hasn’t happened, and making a truce before that would be silly. But I think that even though he knows that Alaska actually did rat out Paul and Marya, he’s determined to support his friends. And that’s pretty awesome, I think.
I started to also get the idea that the “thing” that happens that this was all counting down to was Miles losing his virginity. It’s an important thing in most people’s lives. I guess it even was for me, too, but my relationship with sex is so complicated because of my upbringing and experience with homophobia. Things were just as awkward for me as they were for Miles when he gets his first blowjob from Lara. Without going into details (that’s a story for another time, and it is fucking hilarious, unfortunately), neither myself or the guy I lost my virginity to really knew what they were doing. (Even more ironic is the fact that I lost my virginity after I left Christianity and the guy’s name was Christian. God is eternally laughing at me, y’all.)
But what stuck out to me the most was this:
It was my first orgasm with a girl, and afterward, I was embarrassed and nervous, and so, clearly, was Lara, who finally broke the silence by asking, “So, want to do some homework?”
While my experience wasn’t identical, I remember those moments after my first orgasm from another guy: I was embarrassed and nervous. Actually, that’s probably not strong enough: I felt shameful. And that might be a strange thing to some people, and it might be remarkably familiar. You have to understand that I was raised to believe that sex was awful, and that sex with a man was unforgivable. Despite having left the Catholic church and abandoning religion altogether, it took years to weed out those feelings of shame and worthlessness post-orgasm. One of the things that helped was learning that so many other people, of many variations of sexualities, all had had the same experience, a sign of a greater force at work in our society that teaches us that sex is meant to be shamed. (And on the flipside, there’s also a message that those who don’t have sex or don’t desire it are also broken and terrible and GOOD LORD, SOCIETY, MAKE UP YOUR GODDAMN MIND. And by “make up your mind,” I mean STOP SHAMING PEOPLE FOR THEIR SEXUAL CHOICES OR SEXUALITIES ANY WAY YOU THINK OF IT. tyvm world.)
I think that Miles’s behavior here is one of the most human things in Looking For Alaska, and I’m touched to read it. Sex is a really bizarre thing, and it always will be for me. I don’t mean that entirely negatively or positively. It’s just weird once you stop and think about what it is. And it’s such a big moment for a lot of people, and I don’t think that Green ignores that at all. But it’s interesting to think about this book in a larger spectrum and how sexual attraction and sexual activity is framed in our world, how it’s such a heated topic for so many people, and even how it’s spoken about in a way that discards asexuality entirely. I’ve heard that Green got a lot of flak for the frank sexual nature of this book, but the truth is that I sort of wish I had something that talked about the awkward and uncomfortable nature of sex back when I was in high school. There’s such an underrepresentation of this for teenagers, and not talking about it at all isn’t very productive. I suppose I just wanted an honest discussion to take place about sex and the repercussions from having it.
On that same note, we had no real discussions about drinking in high school that were anywhere near as honest as what’s in Looking For Alaska. The only thing we were told was not to drink and drive, which was a good message to send, but no one talked about anything else. It was always, “Don’t drink, drinking is bad, you are a bad person for drinking.” Lord knows I could have used some sort of nuanced discussion of alcohol use or alcoholism that didn’t solely make me feel like a loser. Maybe I wouldn’t have drank so much if there was some sort of outlet or information that didn’t posit only one reality of it.
To be fair, I’m not saying that this is all a beautiful and perfect guide to drinking and teenage sexuality. But it’s honest about alcohol, poor decisions, sexual attraction, and it’s a jumping ground to talking about. Basically, it’s something I did not have, and I probably could have used it.
I would have liked to talk about sex and inebriation, even though I was already straight edge by the time I lost my virginity. And Alaska and Miles’s frank make-out and fondling session could have provided that opportunity. It’s a mistake, I think, and as soon as it happened, all I could think was that I was totally on the Colonel’s side with this one:
“This is going to end poorly,” he said to himself.”
Because how could this not? Lara and Miles just agreed to be in a relationship of sorts, and Alaska has flowers sitting nearby from her anniversary with Jake. THIS IS A DISASTER ABORT MISSION ABORT.
But then I was shocked and confused by what happened next. Well, I’m not sure what happened in the interim when Alaska got up in the middle of the night and when she returns to her dorm. She’s upset, that’s clear. She insists she needs to leave right then, begging the Colonel and Miles to distract the Eagle so she can pull this off. And then this:
We did not say: Don’t drive. You’re drunk.
We did not say: We aren’t letting you in that car when you are upset.
We did not say: We insist on going with you.
We did not say: This can wait until tomorrow. Anything–everything–can wait.
We walked to our bathroom, grabbed the three strings of leftover firecrackers from beneath the sink, and ran to the Eagle’s. We weren’t sure that it would work again.
I don’t like this. I don’t like it all, and I don’t like that implies a colossal mistake. I don’t like that Alaska is leaving while drunk, upset, and believing she is a failure, and I don’t like that this chapter ends with no word whatsoever is going on. I am assuming the absolute worst, and it fills the pit of my stomach with the most horrific sense of dread.
This is a fucking disaster, and this has all been leading up to this, and this whimsical, touching, and delightful book is about to destroy me, isn’t it?