Paper Towns – John Green

The last book I read in 2013 was Paper Towns (2008) by John Green—a personality who needn’t be spoken of because he probably has the most (and most virulent) fans of all authors writing today. This is the third of Green’s books I’ve read. And though I wouldn’t say it’s his best story, I think that it has the coolest idea and maybe does some really important things that Looking for Alaska (2005) didn’t—and I think this comparison is apt and doesn’t necessarily diminish the enjoyment or value of either book.

Paper Towns is young adult fiction, like all of Green’s work. It is a first-person story told by a boy named Quentin (“Q”) who is a senior at an Orlando high school. The action—excepting a flashback “Prologue”—occurs in the month preceding graduation. The book is split into three parts that have good names and short chapters:

(1) “The Strings” details a truly amazing idea—what I previously called Green’s “coolest idea”—in which a marvelous girl (the girl in the story, Margo Roth Spiegelman) chooses to embark on a one-night adventure she demands Q attend;

(2) “The Grass” outlines the inexplicable disappearance of Margo and Q’s attempt at reconciling the girl he thought he knew that night with the one who has apparently left him a bevy of clues (a veritable mystery!);

(3) “The Vessel” follows Q and three friends’ 24-hour road trip from Orlando to [a place], where they wish to find Margo.

Each of the titles of the sections names an important set of metaphors that streams through and is built through (and builds) the book: a way to understand how we are related to this place (earth) and these people (the communities) who surround us. Green plays with a variety of texts throughout his own to inform and influence our reading: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Plath’s The Bell Jar, etc.

If I were to boil the truth of the book down, to distill it, I’d say something like this: most humans get arrested at a common psychosocial stage of development, the stage before the stage in which we can understand, truly understand—against that natural solipsistic illusion—other people, before we can empathize and see them instead of ourselves in their behavior and words and lives. (Green does this with a motif of “windows and mirrors.”) So that doesn’t sound so distilled, which is probably OK because it’s one of those BIG TRUTHS. I say something very similar to this over and over to my students, because they are typically on that threshold of development, between the stages, seeing dimly the other people who people their worlds.

Anyway, Green does a pretty good job of demonstrating and elucidating this truth. And by God, it’s a most important truth for teens (in development or age).

 

Some representative quotes follow:

#1:  “’Sorry’ she said. ‘ Maybe things would have been different for me if I’d been hanging out with you the whole time instead of—ugh. Just, God. I hate myself so much for even caring about my, quote, friends…’”

So here’s some classic-but/thus-true teen angst, the kind that sneaks up on an actual teenager who’s realizing that it could not have been different. What a truth, right? And there’s this sort of immediate nostalgia that’ll hit you when you naturally read yourself into this line, into this book.

What’s also great is that this quote, like everything that’s been ripped out of its context, loses its life and its truth; it becomes all flaccid and flaky and flavorless. She sounds like a paper girl, but she calls herself this. And we all know you can be whatever you please free from judgment as long as you know it and claim it. (Thanks, irony!).

#2: “Why hadn’t she left me a specific place? All these scary-as-hell clues. All this intimation of tragedy. But no place. Nothing to hold on to. Like trying to climb a mountain of gravel.”

In these fragments, we receive the thinking of the very thoughtful Quentin—a true voice.

This passage yields a discussion of place, which the book must be about because the title deals with places, as do many of the movements in plot. And again, without place, we aren’t contextualized, ripped from the setting that gives us meaning, which is certainly a truth this book confronts: a paper town is a fake town, one that was put on a map by a cartographer to prove copyright infringement if another mapmaker placed the fictitious town on their own map.

#3: “But before he was this minor figure in the drama of my life, he was—you know, the central figure in the drama of his own life.”

This might be the most concentrated (though still figurative) form of that BIG TRUTH I mentioned earlier. It’s a wonderful analogy, for readers. We all imagine ourselves as the main character of this story that we are either making happen or that is happening around us, and it’s kind of disgusting, right? But natural, so excusable, I guess?

It’s a truth that DFW details in a footnote (no less, of course; in his review of Garner’s MAU) about a necessary fact that student writers must learn. From memory, he explains that writers must imagine a reader who will read what they are writing and also imagine that this reader has convictions, preferences and beliefs that are as important to him as the writer’s c/p/b are to her. It’s an act of empathy for a nonexistent (yet) person.

And because Paper Towns can deliver a DFW-level truth (I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a truth that I have experienced and know and keep learning), I will recommend this book to my students, and I’ll include it on those lists of books they can read for the various projects in my classes.

Oh, and I’d recommend it to you too. It’s one of those books that’s easy to read, and very quick (because YA), but it shows or reminds you what books can do.

 

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About Tyler
At this time, there is nothing more beautiful than the gospel. The ways in which it's manifested are to be received with attentiveness and compassion and awareness. "A closed mind is a dying mind." - Edna Ferber

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