Last time we met The Colonel. Today, we meet The Eagle, The Swan, and Alaska. I assume sooner or later we will meet someone with like, a normal human name? Otherwise in my head I fear I’m going to start seeing this story acted out by puppets, like Avenue Q or some shit.
“One Hundred Twenty-Eight Days Before”
After Miles and the Colonel/have their meet-nude-cute, the Colonel walks out the dorm door and leaves it open. We learn after a while that this is his gruff way of inviting Miles along on his errands. And when he closes a door, well, figure out the metaphor yourself.
Miles helps him pull his stuff from storage--you can store your stuff at this bitch?--and continues, natch, to complain about the heat. Ugh. So, I guess we should talk about the furniture, right? Because there’s a lot of detail regarding Chip and Miles’s decorating choices, which in theory makes it easier to picture the place. But does that like, matter? Is that a priority for you when you read things?
I’ve been thinking about why I personally get so bored when novels launch into physical descriptions of places, especially nature (oy, nature), and my theory right now is that when I read a novel, I put the characters into buildings and places that I already have a mental map for. It’s the Inception thing, basically: you construct your imagination around the hard data in your head. So I don’t need to read three paragraphs laying everything out for me--I already know. Miles’s dorm and bathroom is my old dorm and bathroom. His parents’ house, for some reason, was a combination of my childhood frenemy Billy’s house (I think it was the description of snacks his mother had laid out) and my uncle’s house in Florida (the bookshelf). The lake he will soon walk to is a pond at St. Anselm College, where my friend Brian’s dad works (we threw a folding chair into the middle of it one time). And so on.
John Green, as it turns out, went to a boarding school not unlike this one,* and so he’s doing more or less the same thing I am doing--projecting his imagination into the architecture of his memory or whatever (I would have none of those phrases at the ready were it not for C. Nolan. Remember when we all knew nothing about Inception except that it was a thriller “Set within the architecture of the mind”? And we were all just like “Put the bong down, buddy”) but from the other end. If I were just leisure reading Looking For Alaska, the truth is I would probably mentally skim over his physical descriptions, subbing mine for his. But now that I am recapping, I’m thinking about these passages more than usual, and I’m forced to mix his vision with my own. So this really IS some Inception shit.**
(**And it’s also kind of just the way reading is for most people, I guess, but I’ve never put it into words, you know? It feels more significant than it probably is. Reading is so magical, you guys!)
Chip’s got a couch that he found on the street (from the Allston furniture store, as we said in Boston)--Miles describes it as “30 percent baby blue faux leather and 70 percent exposed foam.” Yeah, I can picture that (INCEPTIONNNN*). He then takes Miles’s trunk, positions it in front of the couch and spells out COFFEE TABLE on it with tape. At first I was like, “huh?” but then I realized that was exactly the kind of incomprehensible, whimsical thing I’d have done in high school. (One time my brother stabbed a knife into our bedroom wall like 200 times and then glued a skateboard deck over it. Nobody knows why.)
(*I am writing right now in a papasan chair, which means essentially that I’m in a stress position out of the Army Field Manual. And now I can’t get that damn couch out of my head. I need a couch!)
And then Chip sets up a class consciousness theme that kind of hangs (somewhat haphazardly) over the whole book. He tells our narrator that the student body is divided in two. The “weekday warriors” who board during the week and then go home to their wealthy families on the weekends, and the regular poor folk like himself. Chip is the 99%, in other words. He then unceremoniously bestows Miles with his own nickname (Sadly, not “The Lieutenant”): Pudge.
“Pudge,” the Colonel said. “Because you’re skinny. It’s called irony, Pudge. Heard of it?”
Oy. Okay, so he’s Pudge now. And then Chip says it’s time to go buy cigarettes from Alaska. OK! Our heroes go LOOKING FOR ALASKA and find her down the hall (that was easy), where she has a solo dorm. The girl who was supposed to live with her got kicked out, and that seems like it warrants a story but Miles doesn’t really care/hear words anymore because suddenly he’s staring at “the hottest girl in all of human history” in cutoff jeans and a peach tank top. Yeah, I can picture that.
Alaska rambles through a story about a boy who grabbed her boob over the summer while Miles surveys her landscape. Look her in the eyes, bro! Then she mentions having a boyfriend. GUHHH I hate this guy already! I’m in your corner, Miles (I’m a great wingman, you guys). Anyway, Alaska: she’s “petite (but God, curvy)” (again bro, look in her eyes!) and she sells cigarettes and she says things like “Who’s the guy not laughing at my very funny story?” I’m getting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl vibe SO HARD already; this is exciting! I like my women like I like my coffee: fucked up and dangerous.
Alaska tells them she’ll meet them at the lake in a few minutes, so Miles and Chip walk there and smoke. Our nonsmoker narrator’s attitude is to do as the Romans do, so to speak, and even though I don’t necessarily condone smoking I very much do condone the corruption of innocents. So I think I’m on board with this. Go ahead and smoke, kids! It’s very cool, especially when girls do it. And soon Alaska shows up and starts magnificently doing just that, but in the meantime Chip introduces Miles to two potential adversaries: The Eagle and The Swan. Birds are not your friend in Culver Creek, it seems, but only one of those is a literal bird. The Eagle is The Colonel’s nickname for the school’s Principal (it’s important to note that “Alaska” is not, in fact, a nickname) and he is apparently not one of those cool educators who is OK with smoking and drinking (and who likes Arcade Fire and fucks students). Pudge learns, and raises concern about, the fact that they’re smoking within sight of said Eagle’s house, who presumably has Eagle-like vision, but the Colonel says the rules don’t really kick in until classes start. And that even then, he shouldn’t worry too much:
“The school doesn’t want your parents to think you became a fuckup here any more than YOU want your parents to think you’re a fuckup.” He blew a thin stream of smoke forcefully toward the lake. I had to admit: He looked cool doing it.
Let us note the fact that people swear in this book, as people do, and that is great. They even smoke and swear simultaneously, with no apparent regard for the precious virginal sensibilities of teens. Yay!
Chip also stresses the importance of never ratting anyone out, no matter what. Omerta keeps the aforementioned discipline ecosystem going, I guess. Fun fact: Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, took the role under the condition that his character never become a rat, ever. Another fun fact: Sirico was reportedly a member of the Columbo crime family in the sixties and seventies and was arrested twenty-eight times. A third fun fact: he has played both mobsters and police officers in different commercials for Denny’s! A less fun fact: he donated $1,200 to Giuliani’s presidential campaign in 2008. Anyway, the Swan is a literal swan, who hangs out in the lake and is apparently an asshole. So.
And then Chip wanders off and Alaska shows up. She and Pudge start talking last words, as that is clearly a better icebreaker than “how 'bout this heat?”, and she asks him if he knows Simon Bolivar’s. He doesn’t, and she pulls a book out of her backpack.
And then she lit a cigarette and sucked on it so hard for so long that I thought the entire thing might burn off in one drag. She exhaled and read to me:
“‘He’--that’s Simon Bolivar--’was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”’”
First of all: PUNCTUATIONCEPTION. Second of all: awesome. Third of all: I’m kind of too distracted thinking about sucking hard and long on something to fully process all that labyrinth shit. Miles’s brain is working in a similar way. He pauses the action to tell us about how foxy Alaska is, how the “burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light.” How her eyes, even in the dark, are “fierce emeralds.” OK, but that is not how men talk. And then he notes her “breasts straining against her tight tank top” yearning to be free. We’re getting closer to how men talk. How’s her face, incidentally? Not that that’s a dealbreaker.