Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Paper Towns"

I've been reading John Green's new novel Paper Towns this week and now that I'm finished, I thought I would spend a few minutes trying to come up with a description of what the story is about and what I thought of it--in short a review.

Now, a few days ago, I threw some phrases up on this post as a draft, trying to capture some thoughts that flitted through my head. Let's see if I can make any heads or tails of what I was driving at when I jotted them down for the first time. 

They are:

1. comfortable innocence of pre-adolescent boys and girls 

Well, here I think I was trying to get at the relationship of the two main characters in the novel--Quentin "Q" Jacobsen and his next door neighbor/object of mystery Margo Roth Spiegelman. You see, Quentin and Margo used to be friends. They grew up together, but somewhere along the years of school they separated and changed and Paper Towns gets at Q's realization that he has mis-imagined Margo for a long time. Back when they were children (during the comfortable innocence of pre-adolescence), they were unselfconscious and more truly themselves.

The story of the novel unfolds during the last month of high school as Q and his friends and Margo and her friends prepare to graduate. So, you know that this is a coming-of-age story, something that echoes American Graffiti--though I'm sure Mr. Green isn't trying to echo that film. It's just what I thought of. 

No, Green is after far more serious stuff here, hanging much of his plot around Walt Whitman's Song of Myself and also (less directly) Moby Dick. But, literary hifalutin-ness aside, this is a story about kids preparing to become something else--maybe not kids, but exactly what? All of Green's three novels (and to a large extent, Young Adult literature it seems) deals with this question of becoming something, the transition from childhood and the mysteries and conflicts that happen during this time.

But, back to me for a minute. I said before that the story is about how these two characters (Q and Margo) grew up together but drifted apart. Well, they come back together again in the central mystery of the plot. But this leads to the second thing that I jotted down:

2. my childhood friend went off and "became" someone while I (as many introverted kids may do) struggled to accept that we could also "become" someone 

I had a "Margo Roth Spiegelman" in my own childhood. Someone that I grew up with, was very comfortable with, and then (due to attending separate middle schools) we drifted apart. Her family moved out of the neighborhood and we didn't reconnect until High School. By that time, we had both changed, but (to my mind) she had changed more. Puberty had turned her into a different girl and economics and society had moved her (I thought) into a different social strata than I. Having been apart for several years, we had lost the connection to our comfortable childhood and she had become something else.

I didn't think that I was capable of becoming something similar, so she seemed to operate in a different social circle of high school--much as Q sees Margo as this unattainable person who no longer resembles that comfortable childhood friend. He/I wouldn't know what to say to her if given the opportunity--not that this opportunity presented itself very often. 

It felt weird to be tongue-tied around someone that you used to "sleep-over" with. It felt odd to not know someone "now" (in high school) but to remember that they had a "Dukes of Hazzard" poster hanging on the back door of their bedroom. But such was my life in high school, with my "Margo."

3. projecting that sense of "becoming" upon someone else, not understanding that they have their own internal dialogues that we aren't aware of. they have their own insecurities and they put on their own masks to meet the expectations that everyone else puts upon them 

What Quentin comes to understand during the course of the novel is that he has in his mind misrepresented who Margo is  all these years in high school. He failed to understand that no matter how a person presents themselves to the outside world, their inner world might be something entirely different. Pretty and popular does not always guarantee happy and secure inside. Q finds a way to learn about who Margo truly is, and in that process, he himself becomes more than he thought he was as well.


It's funny that this book is about how you misrepresent someone. Because I wouldn't be reading this book at all--or Green's other books either probably, had I not first encountered him on Brotherhood 2.o. As I've said before in this space, John and his younger brother Hank spent 2007 creating daily YouTube videos back and forth to each other. In the process, they became Internet-famous and have continued to video each other in the time since their initial year-long project ended.

John was already a two-times published author and Hank was also employed. But I'm quite certain that John's saleability went up as a result of Brotherhood 2.0. The people who actively followed the original blog--and what has come after--are called Nerdfighters (after John inaccurately described an Aero Fighter video game in an airport as a Nerdfighter video game.)

I suppose that I am what might be called in The Silent Nerjority. I have become captivated by the idea of what the Green Brothers have done in the past few years (harnessing their "fans" to do charitable good works--of which this example was only one of the first attempts), but I have not actively participated. I remain stubbornly voyeuristic.

But . . . let me stop this contextualizing and go back to my main point.

I've watched many, many, many of the videos put together by John and his brother Hank. Still, I run the very strong risk of misrepresenting them, since I don't know them in any real sense. Heck, I don't know the people that I work and live with most of my waking hours. Not really. So, how can I hazard a guess at who John Green really is?

But I don't have to. I'm not trying to. I just find it interesting that I ran into him through this very superficial means and then I read a book where he mused on the idea of a similar superficiality. (Since he was well into the writing of Paper Towns when all of this video YouTube stuff starting accelerating, it's probably not surprising.)

But, YouTube or not, as I said at the start, the inner life of Quentin isn't far fetched at all. It happened to me in a similar way. For this reason, the book resonated with me specifically. But I think you might enjoy it as well.

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