The beginning: In Paper Towns (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), a band kid called Quentin gets summoned in the night to join in an eleven-part revenge crusade by his neighbor, the gorgeous and popular Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose boyfriend (it turns out) has cheated on her with her best friend. The following day, Margo Roth Spiegelman disappears. But she has left clues behind as to her whereabouts, and Q becomes determined to track her down.
Is there a term for that phenomenon where someone points out a flaw or irritation in a piece of media you had previously enjoyed, and thereafter you can’t watch it without thinking of that flaw or irritation, and it kind of spoils it for you? You’re too annoyed with it now, or you can’t take it seriously, or you’re annoyed with it and can’t take it seriously? There should be a word for that because it is a very real phenomenon. Cf. the first five pages of Anansi Boys.
Well, sadly, that is what’s happening to me with Paper Towns. Whiskey Jenny (who is a big fan of John Green, and whose copy of Paper Towns I stealth-borrowed when she was out of town) mentioned a recent discussion she had about John Green in which her interlocutor argued that Alaska of Looking for Alaska was too much of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I do not remember Looking for Alaska all that well, but once the idea of John Green and Manic Pixie Dream Girls was introduced into my mind, it contaminated my reading of Paper Towns. I am several chapters in now, and I feel that Margo Roth Spiegelman lacks interiority.
Note from the future in case you are curious: I was very wrong about all of this.
The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight blank spaces to see them): Good news. She’s not dead, not that anybody thought she was. Q gets to kiss her at the end but she can never truly be his even though she likes him now. I flipped back a few pages to see if she at least gets to talk about what is happening inside her head, and the answer is that yes, she does. So okay, John Green is mightily beloved of bloggers, and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while I finish this book.
The whole: I was so unfair to John Green with the first part of this post, and I admit that now. I admit that the beginning of Paper Towns, while it did irritate me because of Margo’s apparent lack of interiority, also irritated me because Q’s parents are both therapists and it seemed like they were only therapists to amuse John Green by employing psychobabble in regular conversations. I admit this freely and openly.
It turns out that my criticizing Paper Towns for failing to give Margo any interiority was a bit like Publishers Weekly criticizing The Woman Upstairs for failing to make Nora a Nice Girl. Paper Towns is, in fact, about exactly the tendency of human people to disregard the interiority of other people because that is messy and complicated and it is easier to interact with idea-versions of people in your head. (This is the same theme I, but nobody else in the world, thought (500) Days of Summer was exploring.)
The five main characters of this book — Margo, Q, Margo’s friend Lacey, and Q’s friends Radar and Ben — all spend some time in the course of this book realizing that their ideas of each other are not equal to the actual persons of each other. All of them (well, not Radar so much, I guess) end up having something to say about the conflict that exists between the person that exists in their imagination and the person that stands before them. They have to realize, in other words, that each person in the world is the hero or heroine of his or her own story.
And that is a pretty great message for a YA book (or any book) to have.