Saturday, 28 December 2013

Paper Towns by John Green

I've now read two John Green books, and I'm sure that's not enough to fully gauge his entire oeuvre. But it is enough to feel like I've seen his tricks, and while I enjoyed both books, I just might be done. It's not a knock against either books - they're fine young adult books. They just don't transcend that genre.

The very best children and young adult books have something to them that speaks to the hearts of adults as well, that uses the particular to say something about the universal in such a way that endears them to me forever. Those are not these books.

Instead, these are very good slices of early 21st-century teen life, with mostly believable characters and interesting stories. But nothing more. Again, not a knock, but now I feel like I've seen it, and can move on. Someone tell me if he reaches another level with his next book - and not just if he tells another good yarn for teens.

In Paper Towns, Quentin, the main character, is involved in a late night escapade with his neighbour, Margo, just before she disappears. He spends the rest of the book trying to figure out where she went, and if the messages she seems to have left for him have a deeper meaning - if, indeed, they are a trail of bread crumbs leading him to her.

Having read the acknowledgements and seen that his inspirations were young men going off into the wilderness to find themselves, like Into the Wild, it's interesting to both switch genders on that, and to tell the story from the perspective of one of the people who is left behind. It does leave Margo weirdly opaque, from which I think stems the complaint I've read about John Green's early books focusing on the quirky female, only one step removed from Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But in this case, anyway, I think that's the point. Quentin doesn't know Margo. In fact, no one knows Margo. And he realizes how much everyone paints their own version of her in their heads, and are even more free to do so when she's not physically there.

So, what doesn't work for me? Well, these insights are interesting, but they just sort of…lie there. It's one step from the prose that would layer that into something more profound. As it is, they seem sort of like superficial insights, which are perhaps what teenagers would have, but I want just that little bit more.

And Ben. I wasn't fond of Ben, with his calling all girls honey bunnies and overly stylized speech. I knew girl-crazy band geeks in high school. I ran with the nerd crowd (surprising no one, I'm sure). I don't remember those kind of verbal quirks. He's just too much, all the time, and it reads as a weird unrealistic note in a book that is otherwise very good at capturing teenage verbal patterns.

(Side note: it was weirdly apropos the mention of Radar's parents' Black Santa collection, as I was reading this just as Fox News was going apeshit over the very idea of a Black Santa! This kind of quirk worked just fine, as did Radar's Omnictionary obsession.)

So, in the end, Paper Towns is a fun young adult read, but I feel like it's going to slip away from me quickly. It's good, but not great, and while I would quickly and without hesitation recommend it to teenagers, I wouldn't for most other people.

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