Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

papertownsPaper Towns
by John Green
305 pages
Published 2008
Young Adult

So this is the last of John Green’s books that I hadn’t read. And it, like the others, boils down to much the same plot. Boy meets Girl, Girl affects Boy’s life in a profound way, Boy loses Girl and has to deal with the changes she’s wrought AND her absence. On one hand, I feel like Green needs to branch out and find a new plot, on the other hand, he writes this plot so well. And even within this plot he writes such different books. The Fault in Our Stars was slightly different, in that Girl lost Boy and had to deal with it. Unlike Looking For Alaska, in Paper Towns Girl didn’t die, but Boy still lost her nonetheless. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the plot was changed to “Boy meets Boy, Boy changes Boy’s world, Boy loses Boy and has to deal with the loss and the changes.” But in all four books the protagonist winds up dealing with something John Green has mentioned repeatedly in his vlogbrothers videos: imagining people complexly.

What does that mean?

It means not making preconceived notions of what people are or how they think. That woman who was rude to you yesterday, she’s a bitch, right? Instead of just deciding “well she’s rude and mean” imagine her complexly. Maybe she has a migraine, maybe she overslept and her entire morning was a cascade of failure. Maybe she has a sick kid and an out-of-work husband at home and they’re struggling to make ends meet on her minimum wage income. Imagine her complexly and you’ll realize that she has problems of her own, and maybe what you interpreted as a rude, mean-spirited remark was simply a tired tone of voice from a stressed-out woman. Maybe she was rude, maybe she looked at you as simply someone in her way because she didn’t imagine you complexly. Imagining people complexly is another way of saying “treat people like PEOPLE and not just bit players in your own little drama.” That can be a hard task when not everyone is doing it.

In Paper Towns, Margo Roth Spiegelman is an enigma, even to the boy who’s been her neighbor for sixteen years and from whose perspective the book is written. She’s been a different person to every person in high school, letting no one see the real Margo until she runs away and leaves a trail of clues for Quentin, her neighbor, to find. Quentin’s had a crush on her since he was ten, but it’s only in following her clues that he begins to see Margo as Margo, and not as the idea of Margo he had constructed.

It’s an important lesson, and maybe the reason it shows up in all of John Green’s books is because it is so incredibly important and yet so rare to find and so difficult to do. John talks about the concept in a speech he gave at the Alan Conference but the important part is here, I think:

“Let me tell you what is, in my opinion, the central problem of human existence: I am stuck in my body, in my consciousness, seeing out of my eyes. I am the only me I ever get to be, and so I am the only person I can imagine endlessly complexly. That’s not the problem, actually. The problem is you. You are so busy taking in your own wondrousness that you can’t be bothered to acknowledge mine.

When I was a kid, I believed in an embarrassingly total way that I was the only human being in the world and that all the other people, including my brother and parents and everybody, was in fact an alien, and that the aliens had created the entire world to do a series of controlled experiments on how a human child—me—would respond to various forms of trial and tribulation. And when I wasn’t around, they would take off their human costumes—the aliens had very advanced costuming technology, naturally—and they would do alien stuff. You know, go to the alien zoo and watch the alien local news and whatever else. I really believed this.

And obviously, on some level, this indicated the kind of massively narcissistic worldview that would later require decades of therapy to adjust. But in a way, I was right. I am the only person whose existence I can directly attest to. By the way, when I’ve talked about this in the past I’ve seen people nodding, like they also believed in their childhoods that they were the only real person in the world, and I would imagine that right now, some such people are probably feeling the comfort we feel when we learn that our delusions are shared, that we are not alone even in our darkest corners.

… I will acknowledge that you are all likely to be people. The probability that I am the only person in the world is extremely small—it is that number that infinitely approaches zero but isn’t zero. And yet. On some level, I have to take it on faith that you are as complex as I am, that your pain and joy and grief are as real and as meaningful as my own.”

The entire speech is very much worth reading. John Green is extremely eloquent (as good writers must be!) and his perspectives on things are usually worth reading.

From the back of Paper Towns:

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows. 

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

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