Looking for Alaska – A coming of age story of a boy Miles/Pudge. Here is this kid who doesn’t have any friends (unless you count two as a number for friends) who wants to attend the school his father had attended to see his ‘Great Perhaps’ [Note: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps” : these are the last words of François Rabelais, a French Renaissance Writer, poet.]. Since his life lacks any purpose till then, he things that his time in Culver Creek School, will give him his greater cause for his life. What happens there, did he achieve his ‘great perhaps’, what he learnt , forms the story.
The book is split into two portion, ‘the before’ and ‘the after’. ‘The Before’ consists of their biggest prank and ‘The After’ consists of the incidents of their biggest prank. Miles (nick named Pudge) meets his roomy Chip (nick named Colonel) and they sort of form a bond. Pudge has this habit of knowing the ‘last words’ of famous people, which is a unique thing and I really liked that idea. He is secretly in crush with this girl Alaska, who is great friends with Colonel and Takumi. Together they form a gang. Miles being the gawky guy. They have their usual fights between the rich kids and the poor kids, playing pranks, getting caught, starting to smoke, drink etc. The fun part of being in the school, learning to bond, having some friends who would stand up for you (like Colonel and Alaska does)…all these are so fun to read. But all through this, Alaska is an enigma to Pudge. She is hot and cold, friendly and flirty, moody and chipper. She gives hints here and there about how unhappy she feels. she also tells them how she let her mother die when she was a kid, but did not have the presence of mind to call 911. But none the less he likes her a lot. As part of their school lives, to get back at the rivals, they plan a pre-prank and a prank. All goes well with it, and then comes the day after the prank.
That is when Colonel, Pudge and Alaska are celebrating it and then out of the blue Alaska makes out with him as a dare and then gets a call from her boyfriend and all of a sudden goes to a panic attack and asks their help to make her a way to leave in her car. They distract their warden and teacher so that she can get away and the next thing they know is that she died in a car accident. Colonel and Pudge are not able to come to terms with it. Pudge more so for the fact that she was very much ok with making out with him and everything seems normal at that time. So he cannot make out what happened when she got the call in between their sleep and why she panicked. The whole process of coming to terms with her death and trying to find out what happened to her to make her do it, whether it was a suicide or an accident. In this process, they find the answer to their own way our of their labyrinth (one of the questions that Alaska poses to Pudge).
There is lot of references to religions, philosophy in this story, but none to the extent of making it a boring thing. Its sort of the learning process for the kids. I felt like I was with them in the class listening to it, wondering why we did not have any such classes when we were growing up and if that would have made any difference in the way we see religion and God. Here are a few nice lines from the book.
“It’s not life or death, the labyrinth. Suffering. Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?”
“What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.”
“Muhammad brought the promise that anyone could find fulfillment and everlasting life through allegiance to the one true God. The Buddha held out hope that the suffering could be transcended. Jesus brought the message that even the last shall be first, that even the tax collectors and lepers – the outcasts – had cause for hope. And so that is the question I leave you with in this final: What is your cause for hope.”
“Islam and Christianity promise eternal paradise to the faithful. And that is a powerful opiate, certainly, the hope of a better life to come. But there’s a Sufi story that challenges the notion that people believe only because they need an opiate. Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seem running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven of fear of hell, but because He is God.”
Even though this book was meant for High School students, I think everyone can relate to it, irrespective of the age, because learning is never ending. He might not have found his exact Great Perhaps, but he knew how to find the way out of the labyrinth or at least enough to understand what it means to him.
A pleasant read.