Saturday, November 3, 2012

Paper Towns by John Green

And all at once I knew how Margo Roth Speigelman felt when she wasn't being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty.  She felt the unscalable wall surrounding her.  I thought of her asleep on the carpet with only that jagged sliver of sky above her.  Maybe Margo felt comfortable there because Margo the person lived like that all the time: in an abandoned room with blocked-out windows, the only light pouring in through holes in the roof.  Yes.  The fundamental mistake I had always made--and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make--was this: Margo was not a miracle.  She was not an adventure.  She was not a fine and precious thing.  She was a girl.  Page 199

Quentin and Margo have grown up together as best friends since they were two.  Their lives are marked by finding a suicide victim in a park as children.  As they grow older Margo becomes something more than just the most popular girl in school; a transcendental figure who embodies so much that everyone wants to be but so few even attempt aspire to.  They live next door to each other and keep up but aren't exactly close friends by the time high school graduation comes around.  Margo's disappearance--which isn't exactly something new--highlights and questions much of what Quentin thought he liked, and makes him reexamine his friendships and himself.  

Upon learning that her boyfriend is cheating on her and that her best friend has been keeping the secret for a while, Margo--out of the blue--takes Quentin out for a night of vengeance on her enemies (which includes a dangerous eyebrow removal from a school bully, breaking into Sea World, and depositing dead fish in the most choice places to rot).  The two spend more time together that night and talk more than they had previously for years.  Then, Margo leaves.  Just falls off the planet.  

To the chagrin of her parents, who are over it and her, Margo has done this before and it's up to Quentin and his friends to follow her clues and find her.  Quentin is the only one who genuinely wants to find her because he has this idea of who she is in his mind and who he wants her to be and is hopelessly in love.  Reconciling his ideal and the reality of the person is difficult for him, but not anyone else involved in the search.

As the days pass and there is still no sign of her, it's assumed Margo is dead and while everyone is saddened by the prospect to all but Quentin, Margo's death is more like waking up from a really good dream, because the myth that Margo had created for herself was a bit too big to properly fit into anyone's life.  

Quentin is a tone-deaf Duke bound band nerd who wishes he was cool enough and had some musical inclination to actually be in band.  He is the ideal narrator for the story as both his parents are therapist which means that he is 'really goddamned well adjusted.'  Radar is the only person nerdier than Quentin and lives in shame of the fact that his parents own the world's largest collection of black Santas.  Ben, Q's other best friend, is The Consummate band nerd, keg stand champion, un-dateable prom king who is terrified of dying a virgin.  If Margo is to be found it falls to these three to do the deed.  

Green made an ass out of me multiple times as I loudly laughed out loud more than once on the train.  Humor is certainly the most prevalent facet of his writing but almost secretly spread through three-hundred pages is an equal amount poignancy concerning all that Margo would deem 'paper': the two-dimensional paper boys and paper girls she knows and the life she's led with no real substance other than do what you're told and follow this mold to success.  It's a subtle theme but it's there.  At first I interpreted her ideas as 'spoiled-ass, rich, self-entitled suburban white kid complaining about lack of depth in her life as only a spoiled-ass, rich, self-entitled suburban white kid can.'  I wasn't exactly wrong but--while the book never directly makes mention of the fact, we come to see that Margo isn't okay.  She has some serious issues and serious problems that need to be dealt with and probably isn't a good idea (or person) for Quentin or anyone else to be in love with in her present condition, should she still be alive.

She's not just self-destructive and unstable (and boy oh boy was it refreshing to see those traits displayed in a teenager in a book without the kid going through the regular sex, drugs, and alcohol thing) but also wholly undesirable.  As I read, I kept wondering, why are we following or even interested in this girl?  Surely the author wouldn't reward such a character as Margo while making Q go through so much.  As I got to the end, I didn't so much feel a sense of vindication rather an expansion on my part concerning some of the ideas Green was trying to convey: that she didn't have to fit in, be fake or 'paper.'  I wouldn't go so far as to say the book was bitter sweet but there certainly is no happily ever after.  

I'm amazed I've written what I've written thus far, because all I thought I'd write about was how this is the single funniest book I've ever read.  It's organic humor: not a slapstick routine or situational comedy.  While the dialogue is top-notch (and I'm not usually one for chatty books, but it doesn't come across that way) it's in setting that Green prepares most of the humor.

I was trying to think of another one when we all three simultaneously saw the human-shaped container of anabolic steroids known as Chuck Parson walking toward us with some intent.  Chuck Parson did not participate in organized sports, because to do so would distract from the larger goal of his life: to one day be convicted homicide.  "Hey, faggots," he called. Page 17

It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca when perfectly liable individuals such as myself don't get to have sex with either of them--or anyone else, for that matter.  That said, I like to think that I am the type of person who wouldn't hook up with Becca Arrington.  She may be hot, but she is also 1. Aggressively vapid, and 2. An absolute, unadulterated, raging bitch.  Those of us who frequent the band room have long suspected that Becca maintains her lovely figure by eating nothing but the souls of kittens and the dreams of impoverished children.  "Becca does sort of suck," I said, trying to draw Margo back into conversation.  Page 38

In truth the book isn't as 'chatty' as I alluded too before.  The dialogue is frequent but it's as organic as the humor and never comes across as that all too carefully crafted witty chatter that many contemporary writers incorporate that always strikes me too good to be real.  It's all that the characters don't say that make their actual words hilarious.  Except for Ben: everything, said or not, involving Ben is painfully funny.    

It's on a road trip to find Margo (so much of this book takes place in a mini-van, I'm amazed at Green's creativity considering his choice of primary setting) that we discover Paper Towns isn't about Margo.  It's a long drive from Orlando to Agloe, New York and Radar's games to pass the time--meta physical eye spy, and the awesome 'That guy is a Gigolo'--reveal that it is not the particular object of the game that the players become educated about or endowed to as they ask questions and try to learn what is in someone else's mind, rather it is the players that learn so much about themselves through their speculation and guessing.  Quentin has no idea why Dartmouth bound Radar would forgo his high school graduation ceremony and almost assuredly having sex that night to drive cross country in search of one who Quentin deems to be one of the planet's most shallow people.  Despite his best efforts to discern the answer, Quentin also doesn't know why Ben is his friend at all (I loved that guy!)  All he knows is that these are his friends who would support and sacrifice for him, which makes him question the terms of his relationship with Margo and her self centered attention getting.  

There is an air of unbelievability about the book.  This feeling is stomped out by Margo in her night of vengeance: after that one night which happens in the very beginning, everything seemed possible.  Read it because it's funny; because of Radar and Ben; because I didn't even find space to tell you about Quentin being yelled at for 'not being proactive in the battle against the cow.'  The book is too compressed in terms of time to be 'coming of age.'  It is marked 'young adult' which only further confuses me as to what that term means.  Read it because it's fun and it will fly by and if you find other reasons to like as well, which you will, then so be it.  

It's not everyday I finish a book with such a strong sense of satisfaction and completion that I'm hesitant to pick up another.     

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