So we had a bit of spare cash this summer, and a plan to spend the whole summer in the house writing (which I must say the British weather has been co-operating with fully), and we got a stack of books, including a fair bit of American Young Adult fiction that we'd heard of but missed over the last few years. And we were really excited about Looking for Alaska, and I don't even know why, now, because it's not like it doesn't signal THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT AN INTERESTING BOY AND A SYMBOLIC MYSTERIOUS GIRL right there in the title. And so then it arrived, and the blurb was like:
His whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the 'Great Perhaps' (Francois Rabelais, poet) even more. He heads off to... boarding school, and... down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up and utterly fascinating Alaska Young...
and then the final blow to my hopes was delivered by the quote on the back from KLIATT (whatiz?): The spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on.
Well, I say the final blow to my hopes, but then I did read the book, because we'd spent money on it and everything and... oh, I can't believe they're still writing this book. It's the old, old story of boy-reads-too-much-existential-poetry, boy-meets-fucked-up-girl, boy-decides-fucked-up-girl-is-too-much-effort-to-treat-like-a-human-being, fucked-up-girl-dies, boy-is-sadder-and-wiser, for-some-reason-we're-still-supposed-to-care-about-this-boy-whose-story-is-apparently-more-important-than-the-girl's-I-wonder-why-oh-wait-I-forgot-he's-a-boy.*
It's just extraordinary. The girl pretty much tells the boy that her mother died on page 57 (or 'ninety-eight days before' she dies, in the novel's before-and-after structure) - I mean, I understood that that was what she meant, I have no idea why the narrator didn't - and she's obviously really, really fucking unhappy. I mean, for values of 'obviously' and 'really fucking unhappy' that include 'coming into the boy's room completely distraught, in uncontrollable tears, asking for help'. But when she does that, she doesn't explain the full context of everything she's saying (that's right! the distraught sixteen-year-old girl doesn't provide a full glossary and back-story!) and the narrator says: As much as I wanted to understand her ambiguities, the slyness was growing annoying. That's for a value of 'as much as I wanted to understand' that means 'I once asked her what was wrong straight out and she didn't tell me!', and a value of 'slyness' that means that the distraught sixteen-year-old says That's the excuse everyone has always used while not explaining who 'everyone' is. Sly!
And then she gets obscenely drunk and unbelievably distraught and the narrator enables her to go for a drive at three in the morning (advising her not to turn her headlights on) and - omigod - she totally dies! And the narrator is really sad for a while, but in the end he knows that Alaska would forgive him for being such an unbelievable shit, and we have all learned and grown and stuff. I mean, apart from the girl, the girl who is genuinely unhappy and has real problems. She hasn't learned or grown. She's dead. But the boys! The boys who are emotionally safe and from happy homes! They have learned and grown!
Probably my two favourite symptomatic quotes:
She didn't leave me enough to discover her, but she left me enough to rediscover the Great Perhaps.
Which is the main thing, of course. And:
Hank hugged me and said, 'At least it was instant. At least there wasn't any pain.'
I knew he was only trying to help, but he didn't get it. There was pain. A dull endless pain in my gut that wouldn't go away even when I knelt on the stingingly frozen tile of the bathroom, dry-heaving.
I just love that. He didn't get it! I didn't care about Alaska's pain! I cared about MY PAIN!
I was trying to remember why we'd been attracted to this book in the first place, and J. reminded me that we'd been told that Alaska was a feminist, which is kind of cool because very few young women I know seem to be happy with that word (or indeed those politics) at the moment. And indeed Alaska might be a feminist; she uses the words 'objectify' and 'patriarchal'; she uses them more than once. But don't worry! She's not one of those man-hating feminists! She ends her mini-lecture on how mainstream porn is not good for women by reassuring the protagonist that it is nonetheless normal and healthy for him to get turned on by watching men fuck women who appear to be being hurt! She insists that it is sexist to expect women to cook for men, but she does it anyway, whipping up a delicious Thanksgiving dinner in a trailer together with the protagonist's best friend's mother, because boys can't cook! She hangs out only with boys, and only speaks to other women twice in the book: once to accuse another girl at the school of being a bad feminist, and once to get another girl (whom she later tutors in how to give a blow job, again for the protagonist's benefit) to go out with the protagonist! She's a quirky, kooky, cool kind of a feminist, who isn't afraid to smile indulgently when her male friends stare down her tank top, and who knows that these days being opposed to the patriarchy doesn't mean that women can't choose to put their energy into providing emotional, sexual and domestic labour for boys!
This blog post was brought to you by the letter R for Rage.
*This is unfair, actually, as girl-on-girl versions of this story abound, cf The Tulip Touch and Me Without You, but Holden Caulfield comparisons make me unreasonable. Oh! Except for Frank Portman's King Dork, which is excellent, and even has a hilarious critique of the interesting-boy/kooky-girl-out-of-his-league plot into the bargain.