Monday, November 17, 2008

Paper Trail: Paper Towns by John Green

We could kiss. But what's the point of kissing her now, anyway? It won't go anywhere. We are both staring at the cloudless sky. "Nothing ever happens the way we imagine it will," she says.

The sky is like a monochromatic contemporary painting, drawing me in with the illusion of depth, pulling me up. "Yeah, that's true," I say. But then after I think about it for a second, I add, "But then, if you don't imagine, nothing ever happens at all."

Quentin is a smart, funny high school senior, a dorky kid who hangs out with his band geek friends Ben and Radar and who has worshiped tough chick teen queen Margo Roth Speigelman from afar since as nine-year-olds they discovered the body of a suicide together.

"I think I know why," Margo finally said.

"Maybe all the strings inside of him broke."

Now, a few weeks short of graduation, Margo's strings seem to breaking as well. Having barely spoken to Quent since she slipped across the border into the ranks of the cool-kid crowd, she suddenly appears at Q's window in the middle of the night and persuades him to drive her on a round of revenge upon her cheating boyfriend and best friend, ending in a pre-dawn invasion of Sea World in which Quentin feels as if he has arrived at his secret desire to be close to Margo again.

But then she disappears, leaving a set of cryptic clues behind only for Quentin. A poster of Woodie Guthrie on the outside of a pull-down shade facing Quentin's next-door window, a song title circled on a Guthrie album leading to underlined quotes from Leaves of Grass make him believe that Margo has left a series of clues behind that she desperately wants him to follow. Then he remembers something else she said on that exhilarating night of vengeance as they looked out over the sprawl of Orlando:

"Here's what's not beautiful about it from here. You can't see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You see how fake it all is. It's not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It's a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q.; look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm."

As Quentin pores over her copy of Whitman, he fears that Margo's clues may lead to his finding Margo dead at her own hand, but with his friends Radar and Ben, he sets out to search the "paper towns," unfinished suburban developments around the Orlando area--a quest which uncovers clues that she has gone to one of the places in her collection of discarded travel books. Then Radar, who is devoted to his Wikipedia-like web creation Omnictionary, leads him to the clearest clue to Margo's whereabouts, a recent posting under her IP address in the entry for another type of "paper town," the fictitious town of Agloe, New York, itself a "copyright trap" set by atlas publishers, which states a bit ominously in Margo's characteristic random style of capitalization,

fyi, whoever Edits this--the Population of agloe Will actually be One until may 29th at Noon.

Foregoing their own graduation night, Quentin, Ben, Radar, and Margo's one-time friend Lacey set out on a marathon 24-hour drive to Agloe, New York, hoping to arrive in time to find Margo still there and still alive. It's a signature John Green teen road trip, a life-threatening, memorable, hilarious, and finally life-changing pilgrimage for all his characters, one which ends not at the actual end of a road, but at the beginning of another journey.

The driving motif of the novel is the tried-and-true juxtaposition of perception and reality, image and authenticity, spin and truth, but beyond all that, the deeper theme is the very difference, the very unknowable essence, of the other at the heart of all relationships. As Quentin puts it near the end,

I understand now that I can't be her and she can't be me. Maybe Whitman had a gift I don't have. But as for me I must ask the wounded man where he is hurt, because I cannot become the wounded man. The only wounded man I can be is me.

Award-winner John Green's latest, Paper Towns, is vintage Green, less tragic than his acclaimed earlier novel, Looking for Alaska, (reviewed here on March 8, 2008) and less serio-comedic road trip saga than the equally well-received An Abundance of Katherines (reviewed here at publication on February 17, 2007). It does share elements of both, directed as it is at older, more sophisticated, and more thoughtful young adult readers. Paper Towns is sure to please this audience--male and female--as well as his closet readership of people well beyond those years. In an amusing video visit with the author, John Green and his editor modestly characterize his new book as "the funniest, seriousist, mystery novel written about love and Walt Whitman." It's all that and plenty more.



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