A novel which made me wonder about so many things.
Miles “Pudge” Halter, 16, decides to leave his friendless and uneventful home town and seek the Great Perhaps at an out-of-state boarding school. There he meets Chip “The Colonel”, Alaska, and Takumi, and their undying love for mischief soon introduces him to the world of smoking, drinking, and pranking. Miles notices:
The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as “the wrong crowd”; but for the wrong crowd, they both seemed awfully smart.
It’s interesting to see how Miles becomes a different person (in many ways) by associating himself with these people. But this is just the setup scene for what is about to happen, and it will leave nobody unaffected.
This is about as much as I can tell you without spoiling your reading pleasure. So you’d better stop here and read the book.
/* SPOILERS FOLLOW */
Considering the circumstances of Alaska’s death, I almost believed that the book was an elaborate way of saying “don’t drink”, but no luck there, that misses the point entirely. The real story is about the different ways of dealing with “this labyrinth of suffering” or that really, there is only one way.
The ambiguity of the novel’s ending and the “will never know” reminded me of As Simple As Snow, though it is a lot softer (and not really a mystery).
Some quotes (emphasis mine):
- The only thing worse than having a party that no one attends is having a party attended only by two vastly, deeply uninteresting people.
- “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (last words of François Rabelais)
- I’d never been born again, with the baptism and weeping and all that, but it couldn’t feel much better than being born again as a guy with no known past.
- (Alaska) Luck is for suckers.
- I hated sports. I hated sports, and I hated people who played them, and I hated people who watched them, and I hated people who didn’t hate people who watched or played them.
- (Alaska) Jesus, I’m not going to be one of those people who sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia. […] You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.
- (Alaska) It’s the eternal struggle, Pudge: the good versus the naughty. […] Sometimes you lose a battle, but mischief always wins the war.
- (The Colonel) I mean, it’s stupid to miss someone you didn’t even get along with. But I don’t know, it was nice, you know, having someone you could always fight with.
- (Alaska) We can’t love our neighbours till we know how crooked their hearts are.
“Night falls fast.
Today is in the past.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)
- (Alaska) Alright, the snow may be falling in the winter of my discontent, but at least I’ve got sarcastic company.
- I finally decided that people believes in an afterlife because they couldn’t bear not to.
- Turns our Romanian is a language; who knew?
- I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of the wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier.
- That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.
- And what is an instant death anyway? How long is an instant? Is it one second? Ten? The pain of those seconds must have been awful as her heart burst and her lungs collapsed and there was no air and no blood to her brain and only raw panic. What the hell is an instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.
- I was caught in a love triangle with one dead side.
- Is it so hard to die, Mr. Lewis? Is that labyrinth really worse than this one?
Side note: Who is Mr. Lewis??
- No reason to be angry, anger just distracts from the all-encompassing sadness, the frank knowledge that you killed her and robbed her of a future and a life. Getting pissed wouldn’t fix it, dammit.
- The hardest part about pranking, Alaska told me once, is not being able to confess.
- And I was left to ask, did I help you toward a fate you didn’t want, Alaska? Or did I just assist in your willful self-destruction?
- (The Colonel) After all this time, it still seems to me like ‘straight and fast’ is the only way out. But I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it.
- Takumi was gone. […] He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realised: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. There were so many of us that would have to live with things done and things left undone that day. Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless.
- […] and I wrote my way out of the labyrinth:
Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied only by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for a Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life. And then I screwed up and the Colonel screwed up and Takumi screwed up and she slipped through our fingers. And there’s no sugar-coating it: she deserved better friends.
When she fucked up, all those years ago, just a little girl terrified into paralysis, she collapsed into the enigma of herself. And I could have done that, but I saw where it led for her. So I still believe in the Great Perhaps, and I can believe it in spite of having lost her.
Because I will forget her, yes. That which came together will fall apart imperceptibly slowly, and I will forget, but she will forgive my forgetting, just as I forgive her for forgetting me and the Colonel and everyone but herself and her mom in those last moments she spent as a person. I know now that she forgives me for being dumb and scared and doing the dumb and scared thing. I know she forgives me, just as her mother forgives her. And here’s how I know:
I thought at first that she was just dead. Just darkness. Just a body being eaten by bugs. I thought about her a lot like that, as something’s meal. What was her — green eyes, half a smirk, the soft curves of her legs — would soon be nothing, just the bones I never saw. I thought about the slow process of becoming bone and then fossil and then coal that will, in millions of years, be mined by humans of the future, and how they would heat their homes with her, and then she would be smoke billowing out of a smokestack, coating the atmosphere. I still think that, sometimes, think that maybe “the afterlife” is just something we made up to ease the pain of loss, to make our time in the labyrinth bearable. Maybe she was just matter, and matter gets recycled.
But ultimately I do not believe that she was only matter. The rest of her must be recycled, too. I believe now that we are greater than the sum of our parts. If you take Alaska’s genetic code and you add her life experiences and the relationships she had with people, and then you take the size and shape of her body, you do not get her. There is something else entirely. There is a part of her greater than the sum of her knowable parts. And that part has to go somewhere, because it cannot be destroyed.
Although no one will ever accuse me of being much of a science student, one thing I learned from science classes is that energy is never created and never destroyed. And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself – those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we ARE as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.
So, I know that she forgives me, just as I forgive her. Thomas Edison’s last words were: “It’s very beautiful over there.” I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.
- deadpan: nice word
- I need to read this book.