Thoughts: Paper Towns, by John Green

My sister was reading this when she came over to visit, and was kind enough to pass it on when she was done. The other John Green I’ve read are An Abundance of Katherines and The Fault in Our Stars, so I think I have a pretty reasonable grasp of his oeuvre, and for the most part I have to say I like it.

Sure, there’s the occasional mawkish moment (the Anne Frank house…) and sometimes the quirkiness is too quirky for its own good, but in general, yep, I like it. His writing is easy to read and comes with thoughtful questions beneath the stories. I know it’s fashionable to backlash against anything that’s been popular for too long (especially anything with a progressive or left-wing bent), and so I’ve seen Green castigated for being too successful in a female-dominated sector of publishing, among other things. On one hand, we need to get teenage boys into reading, but on the other, male YA authors aren’t allowed to do too well.

Another thing people say a lot is that teenagers don’t talk like John Green characters. Well, I hate to break it to you, guys, but we don’t talk like Buffy characters, and yet that dialogue is considered a high bar for anyone who wants to write wit.

Specific to Paper Towns, I’ve seen him accused to perpetuating the manic pixie dream girl trope, which is something like complaining that there’s sexism in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Of course it depicts a manic pixie dream girl. That’s what the book is about.

Let’s dive right in.

It just drives me up the wall that we talk about this toxic masculinity thing all the time, how it’s so deeply ingrained in society that women aren’t quite people, that we complain about the emotional labour of having to explain ourselves, and then there are people who complain when a man even engages with the topic, to gently explain to young lads how it is.

Anyway.

Paper Towns isn’t really even just for teenage boys or just about the fallacy of the inhumanity of teenage girls. It’s about the stage of growing up when you begin to learn – have to learn, if you want to exist in human society – that other human beings are people. So the mousy nerd finds out that the bold, glamorous, popular girl has problems, friends, a life, ambitions, thoughts, and he can only know what she tells him. And she learns that he’s more than just the stereotype next door too. She isn’t some wise stock character from a film – she has ugly flaws and her interpretations can be as wrong or childish as his.

When you get down to it, Margo (the aforementioned popular girl) is pretty unlikeable as a person. Maybe I’m showing my age here, but I didn’t judge her parents (initially, anyway) as harshly as the book seemed to want me to. And even later, to be honest, I sympathised with them to an extent. When Margo vanishes they’re unmoved – more annoyed than frantic. And it turns out that Margo has run away before. Quentin, the mousy protagonist, judges them immediately for their callousness (especially for their uncomfortable almost-relief that Margo is considered an adult now and no longer a missing child) and even his parents, both psychologists, seem happy to smugly armchair-diagnose Margo’s family.

Not that Margo’s parents are particularly likeable either – there’s obviously some friction there, and Margo’s mother changing the locks once she’s gone is heartless – but I was surprised at Q’s parents’ willingness to take the credit for having a well-behaved kid, whose primary flaw was being chronically late, and their unwillingness to think about how different their own family life might be if they’d raised unhappy, escape-obsessed Margo. Margo’s parents are people too, trying to keep it together (the fact that Margo as happy to leave her younger sister at home says strongly that there was nothing untoward going on, just parents and children who didn’t get on).

Quentin’s friends are also people. They start out as sort of ciphers, each with a strong John-Green-quirky distinguishing feature (Ben makes constant horrific innuendoes and Radar has a solid relationship, a house full of black Santas and edits fictional Wikipedia obsessively) but as the story goes on Quentin realises that they’re more than this collection of quirks, that their interests, stupid as he may think them, are equally as valid as his own stupid interest, namely, searching for Margo. For a while, Radar is the favoured friend because his interest in fictional Wikipedia slots neatly into Q’s sleuthing, bu he learns that friendship and personhood aren’t dependent on ho far they benefit him. And if parts of his friends’ personalities annoy him, then they absolutely return the feeling. No one is perfect – not even Margo – and we have to accept people or not based on who they are, not who we want or imagine them to be.

There are a lot of interesting details like this which take the story beyond a simple manic pixie dream girl deconstruction. The widening of Q’s horizons means that it’s not just pretty girls (who are, of course, only girls who are considered unattractively quirky by the mainstream, because Q hasn’t learned yet that this is a perfectly mainstream beauty standard) who are people too, but everyone. His loser friends, the popular girls he dismisses as catty and vapid, the bullies at school. hey aren’t all likeable or worthy of Q’s friendship, but they are all people to be judged by who they are, not whichever weird American high school trope they fit into.

Possibly one of the boldest choices Green makes is to make Margo herself as unlikeable as she is. It would have been easy, given the circumstances, to make her merely troubled, unhappy, invert her grand adventures into cries for help, and if he’d gone this way then I’m sure he would have done a decent, sensitive job of it. But he doesn’t. Margo is not only allowed to be as awful a teenager as everyone else, chafing against the soul-destroying boredom of her fate, but she’s given perhaps the most unforgivable female flaw of selfishness.

The reason Margo runs away is that she likes the feeling of leaving, and if the leaving means nothing then she feels nothing. She has to leave everything and it has to be meaningful; there has to be something to leave. By definition, it has to hurt people (not that she thinks of it in this way, but it’s true). And when it does, and her mother lashes out and her schoolfriends come and find her, she blames them for not minding their own business and reacting to her extreme behaviour with anything less than absolute tolerance. Margo has to learn that other human beings are people too.

The final thing I’ll talk about is another subtle inversion of the manic pixie dream girl trope – she has to teach the uptight, neurotic male lead how to let down his hair and have fun.

Is Quentin uptight and neurotic? It would be fair to say yes!

Does he learn to let his hair down and have fun? Yes he does!

Does Margo teach him to do this? Nope.

She takes him on her first night time adventure trip for her own reasons. She’s ticking off items on her own personal list, and Quentin’s presence is just another one of those things. Once she’s gone, and anarchy reigns through the school because American high schools seem to be basically holding pens for wild animals, Quentin manages to restore some measure of order through a sort of What Would Margo Do series of exercises, but it’s all him – what he’s learning is that he can take control of his own life. This Margo is basically his own inner Sasha Fierce. He’s the one who throughout the rest of the book acts decisively, makes sacrifices, learns to appreciate poetry for the sake of what’s important to him.

The whole book is basically quintessential John Green, with all the quirkiness that entails, and it’s an easy read that lends itself to rereading. It leaves enough unsaid that the lesson of the book itself – people are people – encourages you to go back and pay more attention to the more minor characters.

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