Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter and his first year at boarding school in Alabama. Pudge chose to go to boarding school because he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the “Great Perhaps” (more on that in a second) and because he doesn’t want to wait to start looking for meaning in his life. At the school, he and his friends enjoy the freedom of boarding school life: smoking, drinking, pranks, relationships, and, somewhere in there, studying. As the book progresses, you see that it’s counting down to something, and that event does alter the course of the school year, dividing the book into before and after as the students wrestle with the effects of what has happened to them.
I have heard YA authors say that they like to write for teens because they get to write about the big questions of life: suffering, death, God, the purpose of our lives. I will admit that I like to read it for the same reasons. While the teenage years are supposedly the years in which we are figuring ourselves out, I will let you in on a little secret: I am still trying to figure myself out. I certainly didn’t have myself figured out when I was a teenager.
Pudge Halter “collects” last words. The last words of two people are especially important in this book: Simon Bolivar, who is reported to have said, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” and Francois Rabelais, who is reported to have said, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” The idea of the labyrinth is important to the characters of this book, who interpret the question as being about suffering: “How will I get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” At the end of the book, in the author’s note, John Green says, “I was born into Bolivar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ Great Perhaps.”
In a lot of ways, that sums up the questions that the book is talking about. At times, the characters in the book interpret the Great Perhaps as giving meaning to your life on earth, and at times they think of it in terms of the afterlife. In the end of the book, Pudge is asked the question, “How will you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?” and his answer has to do with love and forgiveness and belief that we are made of something deeper than just our bodies.
I love John Green’s answer to these questions because it’s how I feel, too. I see the pain around us, and I choose to believe that there is something greater beyond this, and that belief carries me through. And I agree with Pudge that the ways that we get there include love and forgiveness and belief. Those things can make the Great Perhaps seem present here on earth.
I have thought a lot about death and the afterlife over the past year, and nothing I have to say about it is going to be very profound or sound as poetic as, “I must believe in the Great Perhaps,” but what I believe/want to believe is that the Great Perhaps redeems or gives meaning to the suffering we see here. That our questions seem insignificant once we know the whole story. On his blog, John Green talked about the fact that he sees this book, despite the sex, profanity, and underage drinking, as Christian fiction. After reading it, I don’t disagree. Like YA literature, Christianity is about answering those big questions about meaning and purpose and life and death.
I had never lost anyone that close to me before my dad died. This morning as I was brushing my teeth, I was overwhelmed by the thought that he’s not here with us anymore. My dad? The guy who was so . . . full of life? How can he be gone? His exuberance makes me more sure that life doesn’t end here. There’s no way that the essence of my dad is gone even though he isn’t here with us. I think that idea of someone so full of life being completely gone is what brings Pudge to such a similar conclusion.
How do we get out of this labyrinth of suffering? My dad would have answered, without hesitation, through Jesus Christ. That’s what I believe, too, though I have never been able to speak it as boldly as he did. And so, in a way, I am thankful, too, for the labyrinth, because it gives us time to continue to work out those answers as we find our way.