Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: Paper Towns

We don't really know each other very well. Even in an age of facebook, blogging, twitter, and text-messaging, our efforts to know and be known are still halting, partial, and frequently stymied by prejudice and preconception. And yet, the effort remains a fundamental human impulse--we keep trying, even as we fail again and again, to make connections that are lasting and meaningful.

Quentin Jacobsen (Q) is a teenager like many others, on the outskirts of high school popularity and relatively comfortable there. He doesn't have a girlfriend or a date for prom, much to his parents' consternation, but he has a group of friends--"band geeks," they call themselves (though Q himself is not in band)--and that's pretty much enough. He does, though, have one thing most band geeks don't have--a history with the most popular girl in school, Margo Roth Spiegelman. She and Q are next-door neighbors, and once in elementary school--before the demands of popularity became quite as pressing--they discovered a dead body in a park while out bike-riding. Although Margo Roth Spiegelman (almost always referred to by all three names) no longer rides bikes with Q--or seems, sometimes, even to know he exists--the incident somehow still defines both of them.

John Green has been publishing smart, funny, and poignant novels about teenagers for three years now, and fans of his previous two novels, Looking for Alaska (Printz award winner for 2006) and An Abundance of Katherines, will not be disappointed by Paper Towns. Margo Roth Spiegelman has a certain resemblance, for example, to Alaska Young, in that they are both young women who become objects of both adoration and speculation. Becoming an object, though, turns out to be a problem for both the girls who are adored and the boys who adore them or speculate about them: we are all more complicated, Green's novels remind us, than the stories others tell about us. Adoring someone from afar may give us a sense of purpose or meaning, but in the end it minimizes both the object and the adorer, who can lose sight of himself in his obsession. Margo Roth Spiegelman, unlike Alaska, both embraces and resists her objectification. She's known all over school for her adventures, most of which seem larger than life, and she delights--or so it seems--in her reputation. But when she enlists Q in one last big adventure, then disappears, she leaves in her wake a mystery that teaches Q and his friends as much about themselves as it does about her.

As in his previous novels, Green here centers his novel on a compelling group of quasi-misfit characters who nonetheless manage not to seem like outsiders or losers. They're folks who have decided--as so many of us do--that high school social hierarchies are not going to do them any favors, so they (mostly) opt out. Realistically, they are also delighted when, on rare occasion, they find themselves invited in: Q's friends' reactions to their sudden popularity late in the novel is as convincing as it is amusing. I love Q's friend Radar--whose nickname is hilariously inappropriate but sticks, as such things often do--who, despite his relative acceptability in the social hierarchy, fears that he can't quite live down his parents' record-setting collection of black Santas. And his friend Ben, obsessed with girls and videogames but childishly delighted by his own outrageous braggadocio. More than once reading the novel I found myself laughing out loud. But as often as it made me laugh, it made me think, and the persistence of Whitman's Leaves of Grass throughout the novel formed an important part of that thinking. Margo Roth Spiegelman uses Leaves of Grass as part of a clue to her mystery, but Green uses it as well to comment on the process Q goes through in finding Margo Roth Spiegelman:

'I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,' Whitman writes. And then for two pages he's just hearing: hearing a steam whistle, hearing people's voices, hearing an opera. He sits on the grass and lets the sound pour through him. And this is what I was trying to do too, I guess: to listen to all the little sounds of her, because before any of it could make sense, it had to be heard. . . . I tried to hear, inside a song I'd never heard before, the voice I had trouble remembering after twelve days. (ARC, 196)

Like Whitman, like Q, Green tries to make us hear those voices: the voices of those whom we admire as well as those we avoid. In Paper Towns, he makes them come alive, in all their ridiculous adolescent angst as well as their honest and poignant earnestness, in their pleasures and their pains. Margo Roth Spiegelman may remain something of a cipher, but at least Q realizes that she is, and why--and that, in itself, is a big step for the boy who has called her his "miracle."

Reading over this review I find that I make it sound somewhat painfully earnest, which it is decidedly not. Or, at least, not only. I don't object to earnestness in fiction, and Q is an earnest type--as are his predecessors Miles and Colin. But he's also funny. Still, I'm afraid you're going to have to read it to find that out for yourself--what's funny in context often isn't, out of context, and all the quotes I pulled sound a little silly in the middle of my prose. Trust me, they work really well right where they belong.

(I read an ARC of Paper Towns which I received from the publisher after mentioning on the blog that I didn't have one yet. Thanks, Jillian!)

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't sound silly at all. Great review. Loved the book, too. Eisha and I are working up a co-review.

    I always love reading others' thoughts on the best books of the year.