Escaping the Labyrinth: Suffering in YA Fiction and the Case of John Green’s [Looking for Alaska]

Front cover of John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005)

Front cover of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005)

 

How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? –A.Y.

– John Green, Looking for Alaska (p. 158)

What is the role of suffering in young adult literature? I’ve been obsessed with answering this question since one of my dissertation committee members asked me it a couple of weeks ago. My desire to answer this question has further increased as I continue to teach a course on young adult fiction this semester. I am constantly thinking about what defines this genre of literature, especially when considering that the line between literature written for adults and young adults is so thin. Part of this has to do with the ambiguity of what a young adult is, but for the most part, the trouble in defining young adult literature is found in the plasticity of the genre itself.

Young adult literature has become an umbrella term for an ever-expanding collective of novels, dealing with everything from the real, the everyday, the fantastical, the impossible, the painful, and the imaginary. Since the scope of young adult literature is so embracing, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish parameters for what it can or cannot be. Does a YA novel simply require a teenage protagonist in order for it to be categorized as such? An adolescent protagonist is definitely a must–but is there a further narrative strand that binds this collective of novels together? Perhaps an exploration of suffering in these novels can provide some answers.

I’ll be the first to admit that suffering is perhaps a universal element of most, if not all novels. After all, most events that a protagonists face are in some way driven by dissatisfaction or displeasure. However, it seems that most young adult novels go at great lengths to highlight the role of suffering in aiding the development of a character over a particular span of time. In the course that I’m currently teaching, we’ve read novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Arguably, all of these novels center wholeheartedly on a protagonist’s suffering. Holden Caulfield is tormented by phoniness and hypocrisy–including his own. Jess copes with the death of his best friend, Leslie. Charlie is distressed by his obsession for observation and his struggle to become an active participant. This week, as we begin our discussion of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the notion of suffering has become front and center due to the novel’s explicit and reiterative questioning of the nature of torment and dissatisfaction in the lives of contemporary teenagers.

In a nutshell, the novel centers on a year in the life of Miles Halter (a.k.a. “Pudge”), a resident of Florida who moves to a boarding school in Alabama during his junior year to seek a “Great Perhaps” (5). It is during this year that Pudge befriends colleagues such as the Colonel, a lower-class math genius with a stoic attitude and sarcastic personality, and Alaska Young, an intelligent, free-spirited, impulsive young woman (and the source of the novel’s title). Much attention is given to Pudge’s somewhat unrequited desire for Alaska, and his attempts to understand her despite her impulsiveness and her candidness.

The novel is structured into two parts: Before and After. The Before section of this novel can be approached as a countdown, in that every chapter tracks the days that are left until an unknown event occurs. With this in mind, the reader approaches this first section with an awareness that a major, plot-shifting event is about to occur–thus creating an anticipation for the event that will mark the beginning of the After section (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). This event happens to be Alaska’s death, as she dies when drunkenly driving to her mother’s grave to leave flowers on the anniversary of her death. The novel, however, is unclear as to whether or not this death was intentional. Thus, the After section, which comprises about 1/3 of the novel, focuses mostly on Pudge’s and the Colonel’s attempt to cope with the grief and guilt instilled by Alaska’s passing. Although Alaska’s death certainly comes as a shock, the novel foreshadows this event various times, the most notable instances being:

  • When Pudge questions why Alaska smokes cigarettes so quickly, she responds by saying “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die” (44). This claim gives the reader insight into the fast-paced fashion in which Alaska lives, and furthermore, it possibly indicates an affinity that Alaska has with the death drive.
  • Further exemplifying Alaska’s connection to the death drive and self-harm, when Pudge suggests that Alaska should stop drinking so much, she responds with the following: “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person” (124).

What is interesting about this novel is that although Pudge is undoubtedly its protagonist, its narrative is driven primarily by Alaska’s suffering. Her unhappiness can be traced back to her early childhood, where she witnessed her mother dying of an aneurysm, yet was too shocked and confused to help her at the moment. According to Pudge, her impulsiveness and her desire to continue moving forward is her way of making up for her supposed lack of inaction as a child. Alaska’s dissatisfaction with life, and her connection with the notion of suffering, are narratively framed by intertextual references, the most notable being a reference taken from Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth–a historical novel on Simón Bolívar. Alaska points out that Bolívar’s last words are “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (19). From this moment on, Bolívar’s last words become a significant motif in the novel.

The motif of the labyrinth becomes quite significant in an instance in which Pudge and Alaska are discussing futurity. Alaska expresses her disdain for the future, for it lures people into the trap of focusing on the not-yet-here rather than the here. It is in this rejection of futurity (a foreshadowing of her death, perhaps?) that the image of the labyrinth becomes associated with Alaska’s ideas of suffering:

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. (54)

What is significant about this passage is that Alaska clearly believes that there is no way of escaping the labyrinth that we are stuck in. The passage is imbued with a crushing pessimism–to the point where Alaska is unable to envision any reality besides the one she lives. Alaska views suffering as a static presence in her life. Suffering is so crippling for her, that she is ultimately unable to envision a way of being that is different to the reality she is currently living–which leads her to reformulate the question originally penned by García Márquez: “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158). In due course, Alaska’s reformulation of this question becomes the question that haunts the novel’s characters. How do they escape the labyrinth of suffering erected by Alaska’s death?

While the novel eerily suggests that death is the only way of escaping this labyrinth, I find it interesting how the novel ultimately emphasizes the importance of the labyrinth in our everyday existence. As Pudge reflects on Alaska’s reconfiguration of the big question, he recognizes a shift in his way of thinking. Originally, Pudge thinks that the only way to cope with the labyrinth of suffering was by pretending “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” (219). Pudge’s moment of growth occurs when he realizes that the labyrinth is ultimately an inseparable part of life. To live is to suffer. Life is more than the maze, but the maze is still an integral component of life. Pudge realizes that by trying to escape the maze, or by ignoring it, he is setting aside the very experience of navigating the maze, and he is focusing on the end rather than on the events that led him to the end. This exemplifies a moment of growth for Pudge, for it is here that he begins to distance himself from teleological notions: the process of navigating the maze is just as important as the process of escaping it.

The novel thus concludes with a glorification of adolescence, precisely because it is a middle ground between the beginning and the end. It is a time in which uncertainty reigns supreme–where possibilities are endless. It denotes the moment in which we navigate the maze, not when we enter it or escape it. As Pudge states in his teenage manifesto:

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, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.  (220)

John Green’s Looking for Alaska has given me serious food for thought, not only when it comes to the role of suffering in YA literature, but also in when it comes to considering how suffering is connected to the sense of invincibility and infinity associated with the concept of adolescence. Through the act of looking for Alaska, we find not only ourselves, but we also find more interesting ways of navigating labyrinths. When it comes to the labyrinth of young adult literature, perhaps it is time to stop finding a way out of it, and focus our energies in co-existing with it. Perhaps it is time to relish the interconnectedness of YA fiction–its ability to be all-encompassing, ever-expanding, and invincible.

Work Cited

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Books, 2005. Print (Hardcover Edition).

You can purchase a copy of Green’s novel by clicking here.

Candle cover image by coloneljohnbritt.

On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.

When a Horny Queer Boy and Giant Praying Mantises Collide – Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle] (2014)

This is a bizarre novel–but it’s bizarre in the best possible way. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: A History is an end-of-the-world narrative about love. And sexual confusion. And growth. And God. And Polish ancestry. And paranoia. And Satan. And Saints. And two-headed babies. And bisexual love triangles. And bullying. And giant praying mantises. And pill-popping mothers. And genetically modified corn. And cannibalism. And pizza. And testicle-naming. And sex. And history. And mad scientists. And bison. As Austin–the novel’s protagonist–states when contemplating the nature of histories, “Good books are about everything” (217). If you enjoy deep, strange, complex, hilarious, nonsensical, non-linear, zany, over-the-top narratives, this is definitely the young adult novel you’re looking for.

On the surface level, Grasshopper Jungle consists of two core narratives. The first core narrative, focused on depicting the end-of-the-world, is triggered when Austin Szerba and his gay best friend, Robby Brees, witness a group of bullies who accidentally unleash a deadly virus known as the MI Plague Strain 412E in the fictional town of Ealing, Iowa. In a nutshell, when this plague comes into contact with human blood, it transforms infected humans into giant praying mantises that only do two things: “They eat and they fuck” (135). Austin and Robby attempt to explore the nature of the plague while also trying a way to prevent an emerging  population of ravenous, sexually-charged mantids from becoming the world’s foremost apex predators. The second, and more interesting core narrative centers on matters of queerness–Austin is in love with both his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby. As Austin confesses when coping with the guilt of loving two people at the same time:

…I sat there and thought about how I was ripping my own heart in half, ghettoizing it like Warsaw during the Second World War–this area for Shann; the other area for queer kids only–and wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl–two completely different people, at the same time. (162)

These two core narratives twist and turn in convoluted ways, ultimately creating an effect of chaos, confusion, and instability that makes this reading rich and challenging. The thematic and narrative complexity of this novel is further charged via the implementation of stream-of-consciousness narration. Because of this, as Austin attempts to discuss the novel’s two core narratives, he often digresses into discussions of his living and dead family members, political figures, biology, and the act of documenting events. He also speculates about multiple events simultaneously, reflecting on what other characters are going through as he faces his own dangers and crises. Reading this novel thus feels akin to watching five television screens depicting five different (yet loosely interrelated) events at the same time. This multifaceted narrative structure, however, works brilliantly in Smith’s novel because:

  1. It invokes the sense of panic and turmoil that an apocalyptic event would trigger within the mind of a teenage protagonist, who’s usually dealing with the pains of transitioning from childhood and adulthood.
  2. It mobilizes the theme of paranoia that haunts the novel. Since Austin feels helpless in a world that is undergoing a state of unraveling and undoing, his only alternative to cope with this emerging world is to establish as many connections as he possibly can between people and events–even when said connections are forced or entirely fabricated. As Austin points out when documenting a series of events occurring simultaneously: “History is my compulsion. I see the connections” (71). His mission is to make a whole out of the fragments that he gathers.

Austin’s compulsion to document and curate history is another element that adds narrative depth to Grasshopper Jungle, for this compulsion is what frames the text. When we read the novel, we are delving into Austin’s mind as he attempts to recall, write down, abridge, and edit his own history, and the history of the world before it ended. As the narrative unfolds, we develop an awareness of the events that Austin jots down on paper, and we also witness the events that he hesitates to share with other people. It also becomes clear that he completely fabricates events when writing his history to reify certain connections that he visualizes. This notion becomes concrete when Austin describes the secret love affair that his great-grandfather, Andrzej Szczerba, had with a Jewish atheist named Herman Weinbach. According to Austin, Andrzej and Herman were in a clandestine gay relationship for over a year, until Herman died of Pneumonia in 1934. While coping with his grief, Andrzej “forces himself sexually onto” a young woman named Phoebe Hildebrant (220), and nine months after, Austin’s grandfather, Felek Szczerba is born. Realistically speaking, there is no way that Austin could know this information, for it is revealed that Andrzej dies without disclosing the details of his relationship with Herman.

Why does Austin spend a significant amount of time in effort in creating this fictional queer biography for his dead great-grandfather? Austin later discloses, while discussing a different event, that “historians need to fill in the blanks on their own. It is part of our job” (261). With this in mind, the history that Austin creates is not written to “prevent us from doing stupid things in the future” (8), but rather, it is his attempt to narratively repair his own life and own story–a life that was convoluted and fragmented even before the appearance of the monstrous insects. Austin’s fictional narrative of his great-grandfather’s homosexuality arguably be approached as his attempt to frame himself in a narrative that has unfortunately persisted throughout decades and arguably centuries. Austin needs to feel as if he’s not alone in his struggle to understand his sexual and romantic compulsions, especially since the world he previously knew no longer exists. This effort to frame himself in a prolonged narrative of sexual struggle also explains why Austin is so drawn to the figure of Saint Kazimierz in the novel, for he is characterized as a young man who also dealt with the pressures and tortures of sexuality at an early age.

If you dislike spoilers or if you haven’t read the novel, you should stop reading here.

I’m deeply impressed with how the novel handles its representation of queer sexuality. Throughout most of novel, we are left wondering whether Austin will end up having to choose between the two loves of his life, and whether he will find a way to end his sexual confusion. However, in the novel’s epilogue, Austin affirms that he continues to love both Robby and Shann, and he ultimately refuses to comply with heteronormative models of kinship in a new, post-apocalyptic world. As he discloses about five years after the world has ended:

I continue to be torn between my love for Shann Collins and Robby Brees. But I no longer care to ask the question, What am I going to do?

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to decide not to decide, to remain confused and wide-eyed about the next thing that will pop up in the road you build. Shann does not like it. Robby Brees asks me to live with him. I stay in my own room, which I share with my strong Polish son, Arek, and we are very happy. (383)

Austin thus inhabits a new world with new rules–a world with new possibilities of being and existing. I find it interesting that Grasshopper Jungle presents the idea that it is only possible to embrace confusion and refute stable categorizations of identity once our current world ceases to exist. Although Austin laments everything left behind with the advent of a new history, he looks forward to the possibilities of being a New Human. It is often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a change in our current mode of existence. Smith’s novel boldly and brilliantly pushes us to envision a new mode of existence by obliterating the world that many of us know and (problematically) cherish. Grasshopper Jungle is a work that all young adult novels should aspire to be. Andrew Smith is now on my radar, and I’m really looking forward to his future works.

As always, your thoughts, comments, and opinions are more than welcome!

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle: A History. New York: Dutton Books, 2014. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Smith’s novel by clicking here.

Praying mantis cover image by Bill & Mark Bell.