Recently, I began reading Looking for Alaska, John Green’s first book. More recently, I finished it.
Here are some thoughts about my thoughts.
Thought #1: That’s a lot of cigarettes.
Thoughts about thought #1: The characters in Looking for Alaska burn through more words and ideas and cigarettes in one scene than a great many characters sniff at for an entire novel. They smoke in the shower. On the soccer field. Under a bridge, by a lake, in a spot they call the “The Smoking Hole.” And while they smoke, they talk about writers, labyrinths, the last words of the famous dead, and, on occasion, a little bit about themselves and the mysteries of being themselves and wanting to be closer to the selves of others. They talk about themselves, and their ideas, the way they burn through cigarettes, as though their lives depended on burning through the very things (cigarettes, themselves, each other, their ideas) that might one day kill them.
The story of Looking for Alaska is, in so many ways, so terrifically small in scope–there’s a handful of teenagers attending boarding school. But, it’s so much bigger on the inside, so full of what Miles, the main character, calls, ‘The Great Perhaps.’
Thought #2: There was this girl.
Thoughts on thought #2: A very great many stories could begin with the words, “There was this girl…” And it’s a problem on the whole, because, on the whole, it tends to reinforce the idea, so very often idea-ed in stories, that women exist as something for people to stare and wonder at, and be transformed by rather than, you know, for them to exist as and for themselves. Stories of, “There was this girl…” include: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Leon, Scott Pilgrim vs. All the Things and Stuff , and Anna Karenina. And, of course, in some of these, the girl in question is absolutely a character unto herself rather than existing solely as a symbol for whatever thing about life the writer wants to write about, or a fulcrum around which another character’s life pivots. In the case of Anna Karenina, for example, we get it all, because Anna has her own story, her own arc, as well as, more or less, functioning as a symbol for, um, I don’t know, the existential horroradventure of being a woman in late 19th century Russia, both bursting with and being swallowed by love and convention. In the case of Looking for Alaska, Alaska is also, like Anna Karenina, both herself and a symbol, if in very many fewer pages, and with far more smoking and drinking of Strawberry Hill than probably Anna Karenina or Tolstoy would go in for. Alaska is a character unto herself, with a past, and concerns, and sorrows. But she’s also a symbol for the Great Perhaps, for those mysteries and sorrows of the larger world for which Miles, the ‘main’ character, has set out in search. Also, possibly, she doesn’t have terribly much of an arc. But, in this book, in this story, there’s something to that, because unlike Anna Karenina, our narrator here is not Leo Tolstoy, a.k.a. possibly god, but a sixteen-year-old boy, Miles Halter, who may not understand the arc of Alaska until later, until, looking back, he understands his story through the stories of others.
Corollary Thought to Thought #2: Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) gets thrown around a lot of late, possibly beginning with Eternal Sunshine, and continuing on into this day. It refers to a girl in a story who exists as a mess of wonder and terror (very often sexy, very often with a slight bent towards death and destruction, or endless joy, which is a kind of death, all situations of stasis–whether of joy or terror or anything in between–being a kind of death) that awakens the hero (generally a boy) to the mess of wonder and terror that is life. It’s very much a part of the larger canon of stories referred to in Thought #2 as “There was this girl…” I happen to have loved a great many stories of said type, and several MPDGs (Clementine/Eternal Sunshine, Ramona/Scott Pilgrim, Summer/500 Days Of, Anna Karenina/Anna Karenina, Penny Lane/Almost Famous), but I’m aware that the best stories, the best tropes, transcend themselves, and that the MPDG trope is part of a larger and always necessary trope of how sometimes, in your life, someone appears at just the right time and changes everything, of which movies like Almost Famous and Once are perfect examples in which there are so many manic pixie dream guitarists and girls and vaccuum repairmen that enter into each other’s lives and all of them are changed by it.
The characters exist to transform each other and themselves.
So, if at the end of your story in which “There was this [insert appropriate pronoun here],” the person referred to by the appropriate pronoun has not undergone any change, has not experienced a story of their own, you might want to look at that again and wonder over whether your story might not be bigger and better for having a MPDLGTBQETC. that is not simply magical and mysterious, but also mundane and unambiguously a person capable of growth in their own right.
Thought #3: Someone once said that every story is about sex and death.
Thoughts on thought #3: Yes. Sometimes there are lasers, too.
Thought #4: That’s probably enough thoughts, for now.
Thoughts on thought #4: But about the fox hat? Or the labyrinth? Or last words? Or all of those discussion questions John Green helpfully answered and posed at the end of the book?
Thoughts on thoughts on thought #4: I’m hungry and want to eat lunch now.
Happy Wednesday, readers.
Go seek your Great Perhaps, wherever and with whomever it might wait.