Day One: Looking for Alaska: 136 before – 109 before

April 21, 2008 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Looking for Alaska | Leave a comment

Looking for Alaska by John Green. 2005.

“The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.” (3)

Miles Halter is our narrator. And our first glimpse of him reveals him to be on the nerdy/geeky side of the social strata, and in his present locale quite friendless.

“The only thing worse than having a party that no one attends is having a party attended only by two vasly, deeply uninteresting people.” (4)

His parents use this disaster of a party to ask if that’s the reason why he wants to go away for this final two years of high school. But, no, he tells them. He’s going because he’s on a quest to find the Great Perhaps. What is the Great Perhaps? He doesn’t know yet. And we can’t be expected to answer it for him. But the phrase comes from the last words of Francois Rabelais. (I go to seek a Great Perhaps.

Miles is into–really into–reading last words. As he tells his roommate Chip Martin (Colonel) “‘Um, I know a lot of people’s last words.’ It was an indulgence, learning last words. Other people had chocolate; I had dying declarations.” (11). He’s also into reading biographies.

Miles first few days reveal quite a contrast. He goes from being friendless, to being included in a great group of friends (“Colonel” Chip Martin, Alaska, and Takumi). From hanging out with no one, to hanging out with people that while they may not be the coolest of the cool among the other students, are quite “cool” to Miles way of thinking. They smoke. They drink. They talk about sex. They like breaking the rules. Quite the opposite of Miles’ squeaky clean past. One of the first things that happens is that he is given a nickname, “Pudge.” The second thing that happens is that he is introduced to the one and the only Alaska. A girl which defies explanations and definitions and labels. Alaska is just Alaska. And to Miles, she is perfect.

“Her library filled her bookshelves and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of us in an asphyxiating mass of literature.” (15)

I like that  phrase: “asphyxiating mass of literature.”

So one of his first, “firsts” at boarding school is his first cigarette. He doesn’t really like it. At all. But he can’t not smoke because both Alaska and Colonel enjoy smoking. And he doesn’t want to be different.

Other important last words because they weave into the themes of the novel:

Simon Bolivar: “Damn it, How will will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (19)

The Great Perhaps and the Labyrinth being two recurring themes throughout the novel. You’ll see them pop up all over the place.

And now we come to the page that made me fall madly in love with the book (when I first read it back in 2005):

“You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can’t say that Alabamans as a people are unduly afraid of deep fryers. In that first week at the Creek, the cafeteria served fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and fried okra, which marked my first foray into the delicacy that is the fried vegetable. I half expected them to fry the iceburg lettuce. But nothing matched the bufriedo, a dish created by Maureen, the amazingly (and understandably) obese Culver Creek cook. A deep-fried bean burrito, the bufriedo proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that frying always improves a food. Sitting with the Colonel and five guys I didn’t know at a circular table in the cafeteria that afternoon, I sank my teeth into the crunch shell of my first bufriedo and experienced a culinary orgasm. My mom cooked okay, but I immediately wanted to bring Maureen home with me over Thanksgiving.” (22)

There are so many things I loved about paragraph. One that it rings with truth. Absolute truth. But second, that it does so in such a stylistically pleasing way. Unduly. Foray. Culinary orgasms. If you haven’t had a fried bean burrito, you really don’t know what you’re missing. (Dad always called them “smiling” burritos because they were just too much to resist. They smile and say, “eat me, eat me.”)  Fried okra. I’ve had fried okra good enough that it deserves a poem in its honor. I love, love, love fried okra. (Fried mushrooms, fried zucchini, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.) Chicken-fried steak. Another of life’s perfect foods. I am so the expert there. I know what one is supposed to taste like. And I know what one is NOT supposed to taste like. And the big-size chains usually don’t get it right. (Stay away from the Texas Roadhouse. I don’t think the people coming up with the menu, the recipes, have ever set foot in Texas. Believe me.) But I’m really digressing. Really.

Pudge’s initiation into boarding school–so not fun. Terrifying actually.

His first few classes. His favorite class is philosophy. The teacher is Dr. Hyde. “I will talk most of the time, and you will listen most of the time. Because you may be smart, but I’ve been smart longer.” (32) I love that. I don’t really remember having too many hands-on classes in high school that weren’t lecture based. And college, it’s usually a mixture. But as a student, I prefer lecture classes if I’m in it to learn. Students have a way of digressing and taking things a million miles away from the point. And generally speaking, I’d rather be taught by someone who has “been smart longer.” But I do like class discussion. Don’t get me wrong. But some classes lend more easily to it.

Miles agrees with me, by the way.

The Colonel’s girl friend.

He spends his time indoors reading and studying.

Maureen’s meat loaf. Yucky. One reason why my mom’s is the only way to go. No ordering meat loaf out for me. It’s one of those ‘warning, warning’ items on the menu like roast beef. Always better at home.

Colonel’s ‘streak’ of being thrown out of basketball games.

“I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.” (49)

So what do you think so far? Of Miles? Of the Colonel? Of Alaska? Of Takumi? Of their friendship? Of their school? Are you liking it? Or not so much?

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