Saturday, December 22, 2012

Paper Towns

John Green has been getting crazy buzz this year - every YA blog that I read gushes about The Fault in Our Stars (the TEARS!  Oh, the sobbing that was recounted...)  So... I've been missing the boat on this Green fellow.

I snatched up a copy of Paper Towns (2008) at my local library to see what all the fuss was about.

In Paper Towns, Quentin (Q), is woken up in the middle of the night by his beautiful, slightly older neighbor, Margo, who he has naturally had a crush on his entire life.  Margo needs his help on this all-night adventure trip to exact revenge on her popular friends that have sort of double-crossed her.  Margo is a meticulous planner and has a great imagination, so the reader might get a little crush on her as well.  She gives Q a list that includes catfish, VEET, Vaseline, & Mountain Dew - and the mystery of their night unfolds for the reader just as it does for Q - what are they going to do with this bizarre list?  This all-night adventure, which is about the first 1/3 of the book, is really fun to read, and clips along at basically an "unputdownable" rate.

The next morning, Margo's gone - run away.  But, she's left a handful of clues that Q and his friends unravel and attempt to find this poor, lost girl.

I quite enjoyed reading Paper Towns.  Green crafts a good story, and includes some sophisticated themes that appeal to older readers like me, and, I'd imagine, gives younger readers access to some larger ideas to ponder.  "Paper Towns", for example, refers to non-existant towns that are put on maps as a kind of copyright test - if the false town shows up on another map, there's proof that someone just  plagiarized a map.  Margo sees people living paper lives - inconsequential and unimportant. She and Q live in Florida, not far from Disney World - in the created environment of that strange land, you can understand how a bright, existential kid could get the itch for something "real".  And Q learns some big-boy lessons about the impossibility of knowing someone - that his idealized girl-next-door is mere mortal with the breadth of human tragedy and triumph wound up in her teenage form:
The fundamental mistake I had always made-was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.
Despite Q's little lesson about not idealizing his neighbor, Green's teens are hyper-idealized.  (I did finally read The Fault in our Stars, more on that later...) Green writes teenagers that have great relationships with the parents, are smart and witty, thoughtful and kind.  Q and his best boy pals are considerate, brilliant and helpful (do you know a lot of 17 year olds boys like that?)   I've heard tell that it's not that unusual for today's teenager to claim, with utter sincerity, that their parents ARE their best friends... I concede that the modern teenager might be a bit more sensitive than I and my friends were when I was a kid... but  I did find Green's teenagers eye-rollingly mature and witty.  His characters remind me of Daniel Handler's.  (Not surprisingly, Handler told me he liked Green's work when I interviewed him earlier this year.)  The alternative to my cynical criticism is that Green's teenager serves as a Guide to Good Teenaging to actual teenagers, as well as a romanticized image that teenagers and adults can "relate to".  In other words, I think his charming young people allow the reader to see their best selves as they inevitably relate to the characters.  I think if I had read this book when I was 16, I would have thought, "Yeah, I'm a lot like this kid..."  (even though I probably wasn't.)  So, in the end, I love that how his books have the power to inspire the reader to be a better person.
   "I just want to find her," I say, because I do. I want her to be safe, alive, found. The string played out. The rest is secondary.    
"Yeah, but--I don't know," Ben says. I can feel him looking over at me, being Serious Ben. "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. People are different when you can smell them and see them up close, you know?" 
"I know that," I say. I know how long, and how badly, I wrongly imagined her.  
"I'm just saying that is was easy for me to like Lacey before. 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."

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