Paper Towns by John Green

This is my third John Green novel, and I have loved them all. They are just so easy to read (I finish them in 2 days – though actually that’s probably only significant because I’m so used to reading mammoth books like A Feast for Crows which take a bit more time not just because of length) and I love his writing style. I was quite aware that this is 3/3 for a story where it revolves around a guy and a girl and some love, but that’s fine, that’s Green’s thing obviously. Though I can see where some criticism comes from that it’s always three guys who are enamoured with these ‘hot’ women, but I think Green is using it more to comment on teenage guys rather than ‘be sexist’. And Paper Towns is becoming a movie!

The story follows Quentin (Q) Jacobsen who is in his final year of high school. He lives next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman, who he played with as a child, and who he found a dead body with many years ago in the park. But now Margo has become the school’s queen bee, and Q is part of the band crowd, but isn’t in the band, so is to a degree isolated from them too. His friends are Radar (who’s parents have the largest collection of black santas, and he spends most of his time fixing ominictionary (aka wikipedia)) and Ben.

the town was paper by surrexi via DeviatArt
the town was paper by surrexi via DeviatArt

Another common theme for all three books is pranks, especially between Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska. We have an epic, elaborate, 11 part prank, which is largely a revenge thing. And it’s all quite exciting, almost enough to make me wish I was going to plan and undertake massive pranks. Margo is the mastermind behind it all, and drags Q along for the ride. She does so because she wants him to have an adventure and for them to do one last thing together, and I also think she kind of wants to be the person who ‘opens his eyes to the world’. We find out later that she changed her plans after finding out her boyfriend was cheating on her, so she pushed the date forward, and presumably changed the targets…?

The pranks are quite ingenious (or at least I think so), and the pair of them are having a great time together. Perhaps too great a time for Q, who sees the adventure as hope that they could be a ‘thing’. That hope is dashed when Margo doesn’t show up the next day to school, and inevitably is thought missing. For Margo this is all too common, she frequently heads out on extended trips without telling anyone. Though she apparently leaves vague clues around the place, which is what she ends up doing this time. So a very long section of the book is dedicated to Q trying to puzzle out where Margo is, there’s a variety of clues, and an abandoned mall and a post on ominictionary. It is the last one which reveals her location. But the whole point of Q’s journey is that he begins to understand that Margo is a person who nobody knew about. And that in fact there were several Margos, and each person has their own, but all of them weren’t quite right. And that’s so true of everyone, we all have varying personas that we play out depending on where we are, and who we are with, and what’s expected of us, and then we have our collective self that only we know fully (or kid ourselves that we know). And perhaps truly knowing someone is impossible. I really enjoyed the journey trying to figure out where Margo was, and there were a number of very exciting, and terrifying (who knew if Margo meant to kill herself or not, and would Q find her dead somewhere?) passages. I loved the mystery.

And I loved that the mystery was thrown together in a few hours by Margo, and that partly it was Q’s finding the meaning in the clues, which had very little meaning. The clues were what Q thought/wanted them to be/mean, rather than what Margo really intended. In the end it all comes to the title “Paper Towns”. Margo earlier describes the city as a paper town, where everyone and everything is 2-D and so fake. But it has a number of meanings, and one of those, a copyright trap, leads Q to Margo at Agleo, a town which didn’t exist until it existed. Someone put it on a map literally, and someone else put it on the map (aka built a building there and named it Agleo General Market), which put it on the map figuratively for being a paper town. The idea of copyright traps is so fascinating, that there are towns which don’t exist, or facts which don’t exist, but are made to be real to catch out any competitors.

The roadtrip Q, Radar and Ben (as well as Lacey, who Ben has hooked up with) is a lot of fun. And perhaps in reality the journey was better than the destination. I mean, sure they nearly died, they were way over the speedlimit, they had to pee in beer bottles, but they had a blast. They played metaphysical eye spy! And the three guys were only wearing their graduation robes, and were completely naked underneath. Oh yeah, they missed their graduation to find Margo. Which is quite interesting, because they miss such an ‘important event’, and it’s almost more important for family than it is the children, because they graduate without actually going to the graduation.

In the end Margo didn’t really want to be found, and didn’t expect Q to do it. She wants to travel around and live, while Q still wants to go to college and have a life (aka college, work, wife, kids). The two of them couldn’t be together because they are different people with different journeys.

And there were so many quotes which were really great, I’ll list a few:

It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.

So true, and it’s not just leaving, there are so many things in which we think that it’s going to be hard, or scary or impossible or boring, but once we’ve done it, it’s great. And this is definitely true about school, especially high school. Q leaves his high school behind, but it’s a tough journey to start out with, you have so many memories there, and the future is scary and unknown. But once you’ve left, you hardly ever look back.

A Margo for each of us–and each more mirror than window

And this is what I was talking about above. Everyone has their ‘Margo’, and in reality it’s more a reflection of ourselves than the other person. After all we see the world through our eyes, and those eyes have their biases and filters.

What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person

This again goes back to how we see other people. We idolise some people, when they are just people, and we see others as animals (paraphrasing another quote) when really they are just people like you. People are people.

I really did love the book, and I finished it off so quickly, which to me makes a good book.

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4 thoughts on “Paper Towns by John Green

  1. “Though I can see where some criticism comes from that it’s always three guys who are enamoured with these ‘hot’ women, but I think Green is using it more to comment on teenage guys rather than ‘be sexist’.”

    My issue with the characters’ flaws is this: the narrative (from what I can interpret, at least) seems to have no awareness of these flaws. I’m not talking about the viewpoint character—I’m talking about the narrative itself. To me, Hazel’s critical examination comes across as angsty and, ultimately, damaging. And honestly, I find Gus to be an asshole, and to me it seems like Green finds no real flaws in his own characters whatsoever. So, maybe my issue is not so much that the characters are flawed, but that there is no narrative awareness of these flaws.

    And honestly, for me, with Hazel, the issue mostly isn’t her flaws, it’s her lack thereof. She isn’t even a Mary Sue—she’s kind of just this blank canvas of nothing at all. This isn’t true for the entirety of the story—there’s parts that, to me, give a really strong sense of a sad sort of “what could have been” if only Green had stuck with Hazel’s characterization—but for the most part she’s just really…boring. And inactive. And it bothers me a lot.

    1. Hm interesting. Thanks for your comment. Since his novels are all first person (except An Abundance of Katherines) perhaps its part of the fact that as characters they don’t have awareness of their own flaws. They are teenagers, and not all teenagers are aware of their flaws either, so is it a reflection of that?

  2. I dunno, honestly I personally doubt that’s the case. But I guess I wouldn’t discount that as a valid interpretation either.

    Now, the real test is seeing if Green can write adults.

    1. The thing is I don’t know if he will write adults. He seems to be perfectly happy writing teens/young adults, but who knows what the future has in store.

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