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.
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.