Looking For Alaska* is a story about like, people. And love, and loss, and grief. And smoking. It’s mostly about smoking.
(*Ways in which this series of blog posts will be different from the others:
- Before writing a word of this, I read Looking For Alaska from beginning to end (it was one of those thing that started involuntarily but became by design). Truth be told, I can probably write better on this subject if I know it well--Blogging The Hunger Games being a case against doing it the other way. That said, I am going to be mindful of spoilers--just the one, really--and would ask you to do the same in the comments. For now.
- John Green is a very different sort of author than our old friend Stephenie Meyer. He has an, I would say, extreme Internet presence (as I write this he has literally been streaming himself live on the Internet for something like five hours) and is therefore much more of a knowable entity. We do not know how (or maybe why) Stephenie Meyer’s brain works (sure, there are interviews, but interviews are bullshit), but Green is someone we can hear from (we can like, see him work in real time). And most of you probably know and understand him better than I do; though I am increasingly a fan of his work, I have literally seen less than a dozen of his videos and have only read one article about him (about his Thoughts From Places series). That will change, though! I am going to periodically watch Vlog Brothers videos (for those who don’t know, John Green’s primary YouTube channel rolls 900 fucking videos deep) and burrow a little deeper into Nerdfighterdom (Nerdfighters being the name for fans of the Vlog Brothers--and being a fan is more of a spiritual thing than you’d think). If there are VlogBrothers videos out there that pertain to specific sections of Looking For Alaska, shoot me an email or give me a heads-up in the comments, yeah? Thanks.
- Despite my lack of serious knowledge about John Green, he is not very separated from me like, as a human. My long-time friend and current neighbor Jory Caron is friendly with Green. Several other people that I sort of know know him, sort of. And once I made a video gently parodying his particular, peculiar delivery style and either he or his brother Hank watched said video, as evidenced by this comment (I was proud at the time and am now kind of mortified). In other words, as Jory put it, on the Kevin Bacon-like scale I am one or less than one degree from John Green. I don’t know exactly what that disclosure has to do with anything, exactly, but reading this book FEELS different, in an authorial intent sort of way, than does reading any other book. The author is a real, vivid person, which is something I have not really experienced unless you count the experience of reading my grandmother’s self-published memoir, How To Be Hot At Sixty.
- Also, maybe most importantly: I really, truly liked this book. My enthusiasm for Twilight was heavily, morbidly qualified and my enthusiasm for The Hunger Games was nonexistent, so the tone of these blog posts will probably be different.)
“136 Days Before”
Here we meet our narrator, Miles Standoffish. Just kidding, his last name is Halter, but anyway he is in the middle of a doomed going-away party for himself, which his parents have thrown, as he is soon to be off to boarding school. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, he explains, unless you count he “ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks” (...is he talking about us?) he sits with “by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria” of his school. And he knows they won’t come.
Miles clearly ate his Narration Wheaties this morning, right? Cavernous cafeteria! And this is pretty much the pace at which we proceed from here on out. Miles is a clever kid, and one of the first things I wrote in the margins of this book was "Maybe too clever by half?" because much as I appreciate the lively writing there are times when you just want him to RELAX. I mean, two guests finally arrive, and Miles notes that while he was never one for small talk his mother "could talk small for hours." So far so fun. A line or two later this happens when one of Miles's "guests" is talking about the relative success of a play she was in that summer.
"I guess it was," Marie said. "A lot of people came, I guess." Marie was the sort of person to guess a lot.
SIT DOWN, Miles. No, it's fine, but I worry he is going to strain himself, you know? Marie et al filter out, and Miles sits with his parents on the couch and feels pity for them that he has no friends. "I wasn't disappointed," he says. "My expectations were met."
So we have a sense of what kind of guy Miles is all ready: He's a loser but in kind of a noble way. I mean, clearly he'd like to have friends, but that desire is neither particularly pathetic nor spelled out too clearly by Green (two facts which are related. This book is welcoming me into its loving arms, is it doing the same for you? I've been lost in the desert for so long! Spitting teeth into my hand!).
Anyway, his mother asks if his lack of social success is why he wants to leave (Florida, by the way). Surely that is part of it (we also learn that his father attended the same boarding school Miles is headed to)(also, I mean, Florida! Why wouldn’t you want to leave?) but our narrator gets up and grabs a book from his father's office, a biography of Francois Rabelais, and reads them a quote. Rabelais's dying words were, "I go to seek a Great Perhaps," and while I wonder how he indicated the way those last words should be capitalized, there's no arguing that they’re pretty good last words, and Miles finds them inspiring.
I looked up Rabelais on Wikipedia, as one is wont to do, and learned that he was a humorist whose work is still shocking to many today because of his double-entendres. Being a person very interested in the double-entendre (both the literary term and the sex position) I found a few translations of his work. Here's a quote from "Gargantua and Pantagruel" (available here). It turns out his double-entendres are more like 1.5 entendres (I've emphasized a few things):
This little lecher was always groping his nurses and governesses... handling them very rudely in jumbling and tumbling them to keep them going; for he had already begun to exercise the tools, and put his codpiece in practice. Which codpiece, or braguette, his governesses did every day deck up and adorn with fair nosegays, curious rubies, sweet flowers, and fine silken tufts, and very pleasantly would pass their time in taking you know what between their fingers, and dandling it, till it did revive and creep up to the bulk and stiffness of a suppository...Then did they burst out in laughing, when they saw it lift up its ears, as if the sport had liked them. One of them would call it her little dille, her staff of love...Another, her peen, her jolly kyle, her bableret...another again, her branch of coral, her female adamant...her jewel for ladies. And some of the other women would give it these names,—my bunguetee, my stopple too, my bush-rusher, my gallant wimble, my pretty borer...my little piercer...my pusher...my honey pipe...my lusty andouille...my pretty rogue, and so forth. It belongs to me, said one. It is mine, said the other. What, quoth a third, shall I have no share in it? By my faith, I will cut it then. Ha, to cut it, said the other, would hurt him. Madam, do you cut little children's things?
HOLY SHIT, right? So what I am getting at is when Rabelais said he was going to seek a great perhaps, he was probably referring to shoving something up his butt. But Miles is seeking something a little more noble, and that is fine too.