I’ve been sitting on this one for about a month and a half now, maybe longer, and I think I’m ready to admit something. I rated The Fault in Our Stars five stars immediately after finishing it, and I only rated Paper Towns four and a half stars . . . and yet, I’m fairly certain I actually like Paper Towns better. I can see myself coming back to it over and over again in the future. It resonates with me on a deeper level than TFIOS does, even though the stakes are so much lower. Perhaps because the stakes are so much lower. TFIOS wrestles with death and the meaning of life, things that are certainly central to the human experience. And yet, Paper Towns in its own way is also about something central to the human experience (no, not the deconstruction of the idea of the manic pixie dream girl, although that is part of it). At its core, Paper Towns wrestles with one question:
Can we ever really know anybody?
There are lots of related questions the book is also concerned with, like how much does our own behavior influence the way people perceive us? and, how often do our own expectations color the way we think about/understand other people? The answer to all of these questions aren’t as black and white as most of us would like to admit.
Also, it’s funny.
“The fundamental mistake I had always made – and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make – was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”
So, as always, how to describe the actual plot is the toughest thing for me. Because books, particularly this one, are so much more than a plot summary. This one starts with young Margo and Q (Quentin) finding a dead body on a park bench near their homes, a formative event in their childhood, and it also has Q telling us that knowing Margo was his miracle. From there, there’s a bunch of high school shenanigans, with a bunch of really fun characters (this book has my favorite of all John Green’s characters), and the first part of the book culminates with miraculous, funny, beautiful, mysterious Margo (who Q has been in love since they were children) essentially kidnapping him and taking him on a midnight adventure involving a bunch of really well-coordinated pranks. It is the best night of Q’s life. Afterwards, a month before their high school graduation, Margo disappears, and Q becomes convinced that she has left clues for him (and only him) to find. Moreover, that she wants him to find her, to save her.
As it turns out, Q is wrong about a very lot of things and the book is mostly about him recognizing that.
“When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
John Green gets slammed, I think erroneously, for furthering the myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a trope which I hate in all its forms, including when it appears in people’s reviews of books or films or TV shows, because it means the reviewer is responding to that rather than the actual book itself, which necessarily means they are ignoring the context of the story they are consuming, and what is actually wrong with it–same goes with Mary Sues–PLEASE SHUT UP ABOUT MARY SUES, GUYS). With JG’s stuff, I think the part where people get confused is that his protagonists are the ones who make the mistake of buying into the myth of the MPDG, and that it’s part of their growth as characters to recognize that mistake. I haven’t read An Abundance of Katherines yet, but my theory holds for Looking for Alaska, and certainly for this book, which is an entire book devoted to the idea of bringing down the false construct of the MPDG that lives in Q’s head and calls itself Margo.
That would have been interesting enough on its own, but what makes me love this book is that JG takes it to the next level, kills the MPDG at its source. What’s really fascinating for me (and obviously for JG, as he keeps writing about it in his books) is the way that Paper Towns ruminates on the way that, not just with Q, and not just with MPDGs, but ALL humans tend to reduce the people around us. We do this for people we love, people we hate, people we don’t know at all but only know of vaguely. We do it to celebrities and criminals. We do it for people we see walking down the street or waiting in line at the grocery store. The myth of the MPDG is just one example of this tendency.
“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
It’s funny that I read this book when I did, because I’ve been reading and watching stuff lately that all comes back to this issue, basically. I just finished Horns a couple of weeks ago, and one of that books main things is that people shouldn’t be defined by their worse impulses, or even their best. People are a complicated amalgamation of what you see and what they choose to show you (or not show you), what you expect to see, and what they expect you to see. Everything and everyone, and depending on the individual, may be exactly who they seem and nowhere close. It all comes down to an idea that John Green seems to be obsessed with, and frankly, I’m right there with him: the answer to the problem of knowing other people is to realize that you may never truly know everything about another person, but you always have to imagine them complexly. Resist the urge to simplify, to make paper towns or paper girls or paper people out of real people. People are not ideas. They are complex and chaotic and inherently unknowable.
Allow me to get weird for a second and quote myself. This is from a post I wrote several months ago about an episode of Farscape:
Language, when you think about it, is really fucking cool, but also really fucking scary. It is a tool that humanity has evolved in order to bridge the gap between my brain and yours, the vehicle through which we attempt to communicate our thoughts, emotions, and ideas. And it is an imperfect vehicle, at best. Even when we “successfully” use language to bridge that gap, there is still an infinite amount of stuff lost in the translation. And, let’s be real here, most of the time we aren’t so successful. Hell, that doesn’t even take into account purposefully leaving out information, let alone the things we simply don’t say out of habit, or because we’re not even aware of them. Picture two black holes, one on either end of a galaxy. I don’t know which galaxy, just pick one, and anyway it’s not important because this metaphor is not scientifically feasible in the slightest. And because we’re talking about Farscape here, let’s say there is a tenuous but determined little wormhole connecting the two black holes, one which they’ve struggled to build up over eons, and that’s the only way the two wormholes have to send information to each other. One black hole decides it wants to convey to the other black hole what his side of the galaxy looks like: that cute little nebula, that asteroid field he’s about to suck up, and how he likes the way all those suns look shining over his black hole backyard, and how sad it makes him to think of how he and his black hole mom and dad used to eat up planets together when he was just a little baby black hole. And then he takes all that information and sends it through the wormhole, hoping the other black hole not only has the ability to understand the basics of what he’s saying, but the insight and life experience to glean as much as possible from it. But even before that happens, some stuff falls out of the wormhole, some of it gets mangled and altered and turned around, some of it fades and changes color, and by the time the black hole’s emotion waves finally reach his black hole friend on the other side of the galaxy, the black hole friend basically has to construct a 3-D picture of his friend’s message out of what is essentially a stick figure drawing. You know, some swirlies and dots that are stars, and some nice lines for light. And that’s not even taking into account that the black hole friend is a black hole. It is his nature to consume and destroy. So he sucks up his friend’s mangled message and incorporates it into himself in the way that his life has prepared him to do.
And that’s language, my friends. As I type this to you, my brain is a black hole embedded in its own unique galaxy of experiences, sucking up the world and futilely trying to spit up words with enough escape velocity to overcome my basic inability to convey even my most basic thoughts and feelings, and you in turn as a black hole will suck them up and interpret them to the best of your ability, which no matter how similar we are (both being human beings descended along the same evolutionary chain), is just different enough to destroy the original message so that you may have it for your own. That’s how we go about our lives.
So yeah, the idea that you could be loving an image of a person rather than an actual person (or conversely, hating a person who doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in your own head) is one I’m inclined to obsess over, and so this book was perfectly primed to hit me right in the feels.
“Imagining isn’t perfect. You can’t get all the way inside someone else . . . But imagining being someone else, or the world being something else, is the only way in. It is the machine that kills fascists.”
Ultimately, both Q and Margo come to a realization. Q idolized Margo, and Margo reduced Q to a fearful, impotent little boy. Her leaving for me, I think, was also a way of her trying to make the world as outwardly complex as she wanted it to be in her mind. Her problem is the opposite of Q’s. He turns her into a paper girl, idolizing her and discarding her true humanity and feelings, filling her up with his own ideas and building her up to mythical proportions. She sees him as empty as she feels, discounting the very real way that people can surprise you or be complex on the inside, just because he doesn’t do crazy charming things all the time, she thinks he isn’t as daring or courageous as she thinks he should be. I think this is why she’s so dissatisfied with her life, this tendency to assume emptiness and shallowness and simplicity on others. As Q says, “She loved mysteries so much that she became one.”
All of this feels very important to me, as if it weren’t obvious by the extremely long and self-indulgent review you (may) have just read. Because even if human beings are complex and inherently unknowable, that shouldn’t stop us from trying anyway, using our imaginations and our empathy to find a way in, keep searching for those mythical moments of true connection. That’s what this book is about for me.
Also, it really was funny.