Thursday, November 14, 2013

Don't Ask Me How I Am! I Understand Nothing More- Hans Christian Anderson (Looking for Alaska- Part 1)

If you recognize where the quote for my blog comes from today you're certainly 1) aware that it is not a song quote, per my usual habit 2) you've read a fair amount of dying declarations and 3) (I can always hope) might be John Green.

What's much more likely is that you have, like I have just done, read Looking for Alaska, by the aforementioned Mr Green and took some time to look at unusual dying declarations (Its okay, really, I needed another weird obsession, I really did.). Having read it, I assume you were just a broken and touched by it as I was.

Before I really branch out, I'd like to give one of those general, vague, spoiler free type reviews. Like so:

Pudge was a loser in high school. Well, his first two years anyway. Then he convinced his parents to send him to boarding school where he meets The Colonel, his roommate, and Alaska, who is- of course- the most beautiful, enigmatic, tragic and amazing woman he has ever known in his man-boy existence. And she changes everything.

I have to tell you, honestly, this book is a tear jerker. I'm not a crier either. Not normally. But this book, it had me in tears. I also devoured it in less than a day. Its a quick read that begs (and I will give in) to a slow, languorous re-read that allows you to swim- nay- wallow in the tidal wave of emotions this book will set off in the deeply closeted teenager that you hide inside yourself. Unless you're still a teenager and in that case OMG THE FEELS. JOHN GREEN TOTALLY GETS YOU. I'm not being condescending. Its the truth.

The book has a beautiful tone to it. It holds the odd beauty of a boarding school- that mystique most of us never understand but yearn for as teenagers. It reminds me in some ways of Curtis Stittenfeild's Prep, only in a lot less painfully self-involved way. The setting rings true, and I think both works take a lot of the glamour out of boarding school and its inhabitants.  I think the characters are very real and I think the emotions are very accurate and true to life.

That said, I feel like John Green is much better capable of handling deep, visceral emotion and a lot of the questions that plague the lives of teenagers (and adults, let's face it) even when we're not really thinking that they're plaguing us. I think its that overreaching sense of omnipotence that Green, as a writer, really flourishes. The texture and depth is there, waiting to be discovered. Truly, whether you love the characters or you hate them or you chalk them up to tropes (seriously, I read a review like that and I couldn't believe it because these people lived in my mind, truly lived there, for the three hours I was reading it.) you can't escape the feeling that they are real.

Now. At the end of my edition John (can I call you John?) asks five questions of the reader and I have no one to discuss them with so I want to tell you (and him, if he's here) the answers.

1. Is forgiveness universal? I mean, is forgiveness really available to all people, no matter the circumstances? Is it, for instance, possible for the dead to forgive the living, and for the living to forgive the dead?

I think it is, in a way. I think that some of your characters would argue that we have to believe that because it is the only thing that gives us solace in this life. I think maybe they might discuss that (like Pudge argues) because matter, energy, and thus ourselves, cannot be unmade, that we are infinitely enfolded in our own and the forgiveness of others because we exist in a state of forgiving.

My answer is of course it is. I believe our souls are eternal, they exist without our bodies. It is our souls that hold the seat of our emotion and our wisdom (if not always our collected knowledge) and that is something that cannot be taken from us when we die. I think the dead forgive the living because the completion and perfection of not being non-corporeal (call it heaven, nirvana, the summerlands, whatever) prevents you from holding grudges. You are the universe, you have perfect wisdom, you've joined The Force. There is no room for anger any longer because you are perfect and infinite. I think as a living human forgiveness is a choice and our ability to forgive is a signal of our progression towards that perfection and one of the great challenges of our existence.

2. I would argue that in both fiction and in real life, teenage smoking is a symbolic action. What do you think it's intended to symbolize and what does it actually end up symbolizing? To phrase the question differently: Why would anyone every pay money in exchange for the opportunity to acquire lung cancer and/or emphysema?

Okay. This is an interesting one seeing as I started smoking at 15 and I quit just six months ago (for those of you unaware, I am in my thirties). I started, I suppose, because I could. Because people I thought to be like me did it. In a way, they were like me, and I don't know why they started so it might be a vicious cycle. For me, then, it had nothing to do with looking cool or taking a shot at the establishment or whatever- which is what it eventually ends up symbolizing. It just made sense and I didn't think much about it. I did quit for a while and then I started again and I think that really answers the second question, which is why I would do it knowing it harms me. The truth is, I like the flavor of tobacco. Not the horrible stuff, but the nice, imported kind you smoke in a hookah and is soft and sweet and has texture and flavors like wine or nice cheese. In the end, I weighed the health benefits and decided wine and nice cheese were less likely to kill me although only time will tell.

As to what it symbolizes in the book (which is what I think you're actually asking) I would say that it is a portrait of both the feeling of invincibility that teenagers feel and a shadowy foreboding of the pain and shadow that come with growing up and loss. Maybe that's why any teenager does it, in the end; its our one chance to take something grown up that we aren't ready for and control it.

But I will say this- I think the idea that we must avoid death at all costs is silly. Everyone dies. I don't think life is measured by length as much as it is by quality. Granted, a longer life means more opportunity for quality, but only if you make the best of it. I started smoking shisha while I was in Kuwait in 2005 on a truly once in a lifetime trip. The truth is me being gone from the US then (I was there for almost three weeks, I think) and the fallout from me being gone had long-lasting consequences in my life. When I arrived home I did not know it but my life was about to change dramatically and for almost four years, not for the better. But I'll tell you something- even if I had only smoked while on that trip and I would never smoke again and it killed me in the end, I would not change it. I wouldn't. Because eight years ago I was sitting on the Arabian Gulf with a handful of students I had just met, with a group of people I will never see again, at one of the largest TGI Friday's in the world (Who knew, right?) smoking shisha out of a pipe and listening to them laugh in Arabic though I didn't speak a stitch of it and I was having one of the most beautiful experiences I had ever known. And yes, I could have had that without the tobacco, but I would miss the soft and hazy, perfectly relaxed  feeling of that memory- and it would lack the aftertaste of rich Egyptian tobacco if I hadn't. And that taste, that moment, and the scent of the gulf air and the taste of my terrible soda was the experience in my life that made me brave enough to survive what came after and aware enough of my own personal beauty to see I was something worth fighting for. When I die it will be one of a handful of moments in my life that I would not trade anything for. If death came for me tonight, it would be one of the things I loved about my life and I couldn't regret it- even if it was the cause.

That said- don't smoke, kids. Give yourself more chances for infinite perfection and happiness.

3. Do you like Alaska? Do you think its important to like people you read about?

Yes. I like Alaska. She's a great depiction of a teenage girl. I really believe that. Because I knew her, and I was her and I see her all the time. She's the depiction of beauty and enigma that lives in all females of a certain age. She is the kiss in the corner of Wendy's mouth.

That said; no, I don't think you have to like the people you read about. I think this is adult perspective creeping in, but I think a lot of important characters are like that. I think Holden Caufeild is a punk, but I get why he was and I know why that's important. Scout Finch was a smart-aleck brat. I liked her, but that's the truth. Lady McBeth was a whiner and a wimp but you can't have Out Spot Out without her crazy ass. I mean, look at the people we idolize now- Frank Sinatra beat his wife. Queen Elizabeth the first had a mercurial temper. Hell, look at all the celebrities who are dead that we idolize- Curt Kobain, Amy Winehouse, Corey Monteith, Marilyn Monroe- most of them were bad people. Unlikable people, but that's part of their charm. In Ken Keysey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest Randall McMurphy talks about the "average asshole on the street."  all of us are that person- the average asshole- but that makes us no less deserving of love or interest, or no less lovable or interesting for that matter. I propose that's what makes us worth reading about. Alaska was an extraordinary "ordinary asshole" and I think that's why I (and everyone in the book) loved her.

Alright, kiddies, this is me tapping out because I have three other spaces to hit on the internet before I have to go to bed because I get up before the sun and its already way past my bedtime. John Green, you're costing me sleep, but you're worth it- you brilliant writer you.  I have two more questions to answer tomorrow and those will be the ones with the spoilers.

For those of you who have read the book, what do you think? For those of you who haven't- go get it. Seriously.