Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Paper Towns by John Green

My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.

And thus the reader begins the journey in John Green's third (but, at least in my school, his least popular) novel. Now that I've read all of John Green's non-collaborative works, there are some definite patterns that appear throughout, and I want to start by looking at these. 

Looking for Alaska - average dude leaves ordinary life for boarding school life, meets a damaged and intriguing girl named Alaska Young, falls in love, shenanigans happen

An Abundance of Katherines - child prodigy who has 'dated' and 'been broken up with' 19 Katherines leaves ordinary life behind, goes on a road trip, attempts to figure out a mathematical formula to dictate to predict breakups, he meets an intriguing girl named Lindsey Lee Wells, shenanigans happen (I object to his definition of 'dated')

Paper Towns - above average dude leaves ordinary life to go on a nighttime adventure with the intriguing girl he's in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman, shenanigans ensue, Margo disappears, more shenanigans ensue, road trip, shenanigans ensue

The Fault in Our Stars - an ordinary teenager dying of cancer meets an intriguing guy named Augustus Waters at a teen cancer support group, love and shenanigans ensue


  • John Green sure knows how to name a love interest. These names remind me of Amelia Pond and fairy tale names: Margo Roth Spiegelman, Augustus Waters, Alaska Young, Lindsey Lee Wells - who wouldn't fall in love with these people on their names alone? 
  • John Green sure knows how to get rid of parents. Between road trips and boarding schools and cancer perks, we don't really have to worry about parents interrupting narratives, but they are mostly ridiculously cool and supportive of shenanigans because their kids are good middle class or upper class kids who don't ever get into serious trouble.
  • John Green sure knows how people like to create mental narratives for other people that don't live up to reality. These guys - whether ordinary or prodigy - know how to pick a girl with a fairy tale name and turn them (in their minds) into the most intriguing and amazing women of all time. To John Green's credit, these images fall flat eventually, and this idea is actually addressed in Paper Towns (in a way that feels like a response to Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines) when BenFriend tells QProtagonist
"Just - just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn't the way they actually are. Like, I always thought Lacey was so hot and so awesome and so cool, but now when it comes to being with her, it's not the exact same. . . It's easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who's kinda bossy - then I had to basically start liking a whole different person"
So, my question about this whole people-don't-live-up-to-reality idea. I realize that high school lends itself to that kind of situation (being able to see someone a lot and yet not know them at all and yet totally feel like you're in love with them), but I just don't remember feeling that way when I was in high school about anyone and I don't feel like I see that happening with my students. Calling these books popular is an undestatement, so obviously these books speak to teens, but I wonder if this particular pattern in plot is the part that is reaching teens' insides? And what would John Green do without this pattern? (Answer: TFIOS - good luck following that one Green!)

For me, the characters that Green creates are really what make these solid novels. [This is most successful in TFIOS where August is just perfect enough to launch the love of millions of teenagers, but also not so perfect as to be unbelievable - there could be an August Waters waiting to sweep people off their feet. There could be a Hazel Grace that we totally want to be our best friend. In the other novels, the friend groups are portrayed really well while the Girl Infatuation Interest is less believable (Margo Roth Spiegleman ran off with the circus, rejected the bassist from the Mallionaires, ran off to Missisippi and lived with an old dude who didn't hurt her and just taught her to play guitar, etc)] His characters are believable in the sense that some high schoolers are this cool - and don't we as readers like pretending we were part of the groups that were that cool? But they're still just teenagers:
Honestly, she's hot, but she's not that hot. You know who's seriously hot? ...your mom. Bro, I saw your  mom kiss you on the cheek this morning, and forgive me, but I swear to God I was like, man, I wish I was Q. And also, I wish my cheeks had penises.
This same group of  friends later plays I Spy:

"I spy with my little eye something tragically hip." 
"Is it the way Ben smiles mostly with the right side of his mouth?" 
"Is it the idea of wearing nothing under your graduation gown and then having to drive to New York while all the people in passing cars assume you're wearing a dress?" 
"A 24-hour-road trip in a minivan? Hip because road trips always are; tragic because the gas we're guzzling will destroy the planet." 
The tragically hip thing turns out to be failing to turn in your rented graduation robes on time. 

Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" plays a really important role throughout the novel which will please any teachers in the crowd, but there's still drinking and sexing that will piss of the conservative parents. If you're a fan of John Green, I think this novel is worth a read. It's different from the other three because it's a mystery, so this won't feel like you're just reading the same story with new characters. However, it doesn't stand up to the emotional depth of TFIOS and LFA. You only have until June 5 to read this before the movie comes out and you'll lose your opportunity to smugly announce "The book was better." 


Brent Waggoner said...

I've only read LFA and I didn't like it. I'd written off John Green but his YouTube videos are fantastic, so I dunno. Maybe I'll give him another shot.

Brittany said...

The Fault in Our Stars is definitely his best work, but I feel like if you don't love YA and teenagers and teen drama, then even a book like TFIOS which is excellent might not be up your alley.

What didn't you like about LFA?