I picked up Green’s 2008 novel because I had really loved Will Grayson, Will Grayson and because Ben had really loved The Fault In Our Stars. So, I was pretty prepared for Green’s quirky, sometimes-too-smart-for-teenagers kind of dialogue (too smart for teenagers to be speaking, not for teenagers to be reading), and that preparation sort of gave me a sense of comfort when starting the book, like, “Hey yeah, I’ve read this guy before. I know his shtick and his basic moves. We’re old friends he and I.” Granted, I may have also gained this sense of comfort from watching most of his videos on Youtube, and since Green writes like he talks (at least on the internet), I was ready to settle in to a fun-but-recognizable book. And then I read past the prologue.
Paper Towns is the story of Quentin Jacobsen (Q) and his quest to solve the mystery that is his long-time crush and next-door neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman. You see, just a few weeks before their senior graduation, Margo pulls Quentin into a night of vengeance, pranks, breaking, entering (but never breaking & entering), and exhilaration. And then she disappears–but not before leaving a trail of clues for Quentin to follow, though he’s not exactly sure whether they will lead to Margo or not. The majority of the book follows Quentin (and his friends Ben and Radar) as they piece together Margo’s clues and, in doing that, Margo herself.
Green’s novel is called Paper Towns because Margo, in her clues, demonstrates an interest in these fictitious towns that were created by mapmakers as copyright traps, but this book could just as easily be called Paper People, because so much of what Green is exploring is how our understanding of one another (and ourselves) can move from the two-dimensionality that so often characterizes our relationships to something deeper and truer. Early on, Q is led to Walt Whitman’s famous “Song of Myself” by Margo’s clues, and the poem functions so brilliantly as a framework for the narrative at-large and the arcs of both Q and Q’s understanding of Margo. I’ve been thinking about how to describe the interplay between these things–“Song of Myself,” the plot, the driving theme(s), and the characters–and I think I’m most impressed, not by Green’s structural or architectural genius, but by the way in which the pieces of the machine are wrought so perfectly that they function only under the surface. At no point did I find myself thinking about this construction or that narrative manipulation; Paper Towns is brilliant because it makes you forget so easily about its brilliance. I read the book in two sittings, and I only read 10 pages in the first sitting. It’s the kind of narrative that invites you in so completely that everything else fades away, even the pieces of the narrative itself. Despite not having been 18 for some time now, I felt myself following and, in a weird way, becoming the characters Green writes. And really, that’s what Paper Towns is ultimately all about. Near the end (and I’ll cut out a chunk of it to stay spoiler free), Green gives us one of the best bits of prose I’ve read in a long, long time. He writes:
“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”
And for me, that’s what reading books is all about. It’s about seeing someone or something else, something not you, so fully that you feel something. Whether it’s anger, sadness, joy, or excitement, it’s about that moment of power when you see a world that is not your world. Green gives us a powerful story about kids, but more importantly he gives us a story about people trying desperately to see one another. And his point that we can’t ever really crawl all the way inside someone else is crucial and important because the other half of that statement, the part he gets to at the end of that quote, is that we succeed in our endeavors just by endeavoring. By imagining what our world might look like or how things might look from his or her or its perspective, we accomplish what we set out to do, which is become more than ourselves.
I give Paper Towns five pieces of lasagna. This is a special book, and I really hope all of you get a chance to read it.