On Reading: PAPER TOWNS by John Green
By Lauren Herstik on April 25, 2014
If there’s a spectrum on which marketability meets genius, wherein (for reference) Twilight lies on one end and Proust on the other, you have the work of John Green sitting right at that sweet-spot-nexus of the two. The Fault in Our Stars, a teen-cancer-patient romance, was and is a best-seller since it came out in 2012. Droves of Green’s screaming fans (seriously, he’s like a Beatle) will flock to theaters in June when the film adaptation starring Divergent‘s Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort arrives to rip tears straight out of their eyeballs.
John Green books currently hold four of the top ten slots on the New York Times Young Adult Bestseller list; 10 million readers can’t be wrong. (How many readers are there; Who knows?)
To stay ahead of the John-Green-trend-train, your next beach read will be Paper Towns, his 2008 novel that’s in the works as a film adaptation itself. The team behind The Fault in Our Stars – including star Nat Wolff, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen alongside Green himself as executive producer – will bring Paper Towns to the screen, and with good reason.
Paper Towns, set in a sun-bleached Orlando, follows high school senior Quentin in that last, nostalgia-drenched month before graduation, when you’re counting down to getting the hell out, but also clinging desperately to everything you know and hate.
Late one night, Margo Roth Spiegelman, the beautiful but untouchable girl Quentin has loved since they were kids and stumbled on a dead body in the park together, comes to his window dressed as a ninja. They embark on an all-night campaign to prank all the people who have wronged Margo: her boyfriend, her best friend, his best friend. It’s a magical, suburban midnight epic run through the Walmarts and the subdivisions and the Sea Worlds of Orlando, but when the sun comes up, the world looks different. Margo Roth Spiegelman is gone and Quentin is left to wonder.
Quentin’s bildungsroman plays out as he sifts through the clues Margo left hidden in her record collection, tucked away in an abandoned mini-mall. With the help of his band geek friends Ben and Radar, Q pieces together the mystery of Margo, not just where she went, or if she’s still alive at all, but who she really is.
John Green writes with such dexterity and compassion for the adolescent condition. And the adolescent condition really isn’t all that much different from the human one, it’s just more dramatic with its lack of perspective and its extreme hormonal emotional swings. What Quentin’s done in loving Margo from a distance is to reduce her essentially to a caricature in his mind. Broad strokes, rendered selectively to create a paper doll of a girl he can prop up somewhere in his imagination.
In between prepping for prom, cleaning out lockers, enduring one last bully beat down, finals, graduation practice, and basement house parties, Quentin follows in the footsteps of a disappeared Margo, paging through a vandalized copy of Leaves of Grass, scouring the forgotten in-between spaces of suburban Orlando. He comes to realize that the idealized notion of Margo Roth Spiegelman somehow eclipsed the real Margo Roth Spiegelman, and that the mind destroys the people we love just by loving them selectively in our minds.
The agony and the ecstasy of reading John Green is in the prose itself. There’s something irritating about books that call out the fact that they’re books, prose that exists for the sake of being brilliant prose. A good story is a world in which to get lost. When you’re walking through it and you trip over a passage that serves no other purpose than to remind you that you’re reading, the experience is ruined. But somehow, John Green’s genius is expertly interwoven into his narrative. It’s a testament to the strength of his characters that it’s not at all outside the realm of possibility that they’ll ruminate on mortality or memory or nostalgia or love with the most astute insight. You’ll be rolling right along, lost in the comforting rhythm of sunny suburban hijinks, and you’ll suddenly realize some absolute truth has been revealed to you by a hungover teenager.
In the specificity of the world he builds, John Green executes an impressive display of misdirection. You’re so busy silently nodding, “Yes!” to astute observations aired over AOL Instant Messenger, or issued over beers in someone’s parents’ living room during one of those pre-graduation parties filled with people you intermittently hated all through high school. You’re not at all prepared for a revelation about the nature of love or loss or the fact that sometimes people can’t stay just because you want them too. This is a powerhouse novel disguised as young adult fiction.