A Review of John Green's Formulaic and Uninspiring Novel, Paper Towns
Hop on the bandwagon and read the book before watching the film
Let's begin with a brief summary of John Green's trusted formula for his novels
Awkward and insecure teenage boy is in love with kooky, larger-than-life Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In boy's pursuit of girl, his outlook on life changes, and he is confronted with big, philosophical ideas which he muses on in a heavy-handed and clumsy fashion for an absurd number of pages, lulling the reader into a deep and unshakable sensation of complete boredom.
This is John Green's formula for three out of his four solo novels. From a commercial standpoint, I can't blame him for not switching it up. It's an easy formula to follow, it panders to a good chunk of the teenager population, and it sure sells well. In Paper Towns, the lovesick boy is Quentin Jacobsen. He is obsessed with the mysterious and spontaneous Margo Roth Spiegelman, whom he was friends with during his childhood. After Quentin is dragged along on an evening of hoodlum exploits, including but not limited to breaking and entering, vandalism, theft, and revenge porn used later as blackmail, Margo suddenly disappears. She leaves behind clues that Quentin believes have been left exclusively for her, clues that possibly lead to her. All other parts of his life (friends, family, academic aspirations, etc.) are neglected as he goes on a journey to find out where and who Margo Roth Spiegelman is.
The characters, especially Quentin and Margo, are flat and supremely unlikable
Besides his outrageous obsession with Margo, a girl who hasn't given a flying fart about him in years, Quentin has little else. He functions as the vessel, the S.S. Margo, as he takes the reader through this plodding journey of finding, interpreting, and following Margo's clues. Green obviously and inelegantly compares oblivious Quentin to Captain Ahab, a literary figure known for his self-destructive obsession. He does this by making Moby Dick an English assignment that Quentin neglects to complete. So, even though Quentin might not be able to connect the dots, even the densest of readers can pick up on such a clumsy gimmick.
The point is that Quentin does not exist as an independent, autonomous character. He has one simple function: to carry the reader on this pointless journey to Margo. Green puts very little effort in constructing a protagonist that the reader can empathize with, as Quentin functions just as well as a one-dimensional envoy, a representative of the I Heart Margo Club.
Margo is almost indistinguishable from Alaska in Green's debut novel, Looking for Alaska. Both characters are impulsive, self-destructive, and generally unpleasant. Margo and Alaska take pleasure in putting on a mysterious persona. Quentin and Miles, the protagonists of Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska respectively, fall into the inescapable quandary of trying to decipher who the real Margo/Alaska is. I'd like to pose the question: Who cares?
One of the covers for Paper Towns
The supporting characters in Paper Towns are a carpenter's dream: flat as a board
Quentin's friends are laughable. They have no substance whatsoever, and, while they complain about Quentin's obsession with Margo sometimes, they put a great deal of time and effort into helping Quentin track her down, despite the fact that none of them really care for her all that much. Again, there's the issue of characters that don't exist in a way that feels authentic; here are more characters that serve a distinct purpose: helping Quentin on his rambling coming-of-age journey where he tracks down a self-centered girl who just couldn't stand the pain and suffering of growing up in an intact, nuclear family in an upper-middle class neighborhood. Oh, the horror.
Sure, there are little quirks that set the background characters apart from one another, but they feel so artificial, like Green put a bunch of random traits and details into a hat and just reached in and pulled a few out for each character. There's Radar, for instance, a tall, black kid who is good with computers and obsessed with an online encyclopedia. Also, his parents have the second largest collection of Black Santa figurines and ephemera in the world. Of course, these can't just be parts of Radar's character; they are all skills and traits that conveniently help Quentin on his quest to locate Margo. That explains the computer savvy, but what about the Black Santa detail? Well, dear reader, when Radar's parents go on a quest to obtain more Black Santas, that leaves the house empty for a rollicking high school party. And, I suppose, it gives Green an opportunity to indulge himself by constructing unfunny banter for the characters about Radar's embarrassment over his family's silly little secret.
The majority of the novel takes place in Florida, land to many strange and dangerous creatures
The book is not what it's marketed as
It's odd to me that Paper Towns is marketed as both a romance and a mystery. In fact, it even won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery. If you're looking for romance and mystery, look somewhere else. The romance is nothing more than a teenage boy mooning over a girl who most likely doesn't return his feelings, at least not in full. And, sure, I suppose Margo's cute line of clues constitutes the story as a mystery, but the biggest mystery is why I read this book in the first place.
When you boil the book down to its most basic elements, it's unfortunate that the primary element is Margo Roth Spiegelman. The problem with Margo is not that she's whimsical and filled with wanderlust; the problem is that she is frustrating and nearly impossible to empathize with. She's attractive and popular, and, although her parents seem overbearing and high strung, she lives a relatively privileged existence. That's not to say that people with near perfect upbringings can't have their own share of problems; sorrow isn't a competition, after all. It's simply more difficult to empathize with a girl who wanders off whenever she wants, leaving her friends and parents to bite their nails until she returns, simply because she's tormented by the ennui and pointlessness of existence. Having an existential crisis doesn't justify being an erratic jerk, nor does an existential crisis make an interesting character. Besides, existential crises are not a brand new concept, particularly in literature. Can't deal with the meaninglessness of existence, Margo? Well, get in line. Right behind Holden Caulfield and Hamlet.
View the official trailer for the film adaptation of Paper Towns
John Green thinks he's really smart
I read a review on Goodreads where the reviewer commented that she'd read somewhere that John Green is in love with his own brain. There is no comment I could make that would better convey how I feel about John Green. He's a very smart guy, obviously. Watch his YouTube videos, and you'll see that he's knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics, and he has a genuine curiosity for the human world. However, with that intelligence, he also comes off as a bit arrogant, especially in his writing when he forces his stick-figure teenage protagonist to wax philosophical for page after page. And Green snatches up every opportunity to do a sort of literary name-drop, referencing this classic text or that classic text. This happens in every one of his novels that I've read. In Paper Towns, one of the Margo's clues involves Leaves of Grass. Green then is free to take a little moment to congratulate himself on being so well-read and on ineptly giving the kids a nudge to go pick up some Whitman. I am most certainly in the minority here, but the set up of his novels is so painfully orchestrated that I can't feel that there's a reason he writes exclusively teen literature as opposed to trying out just some good ol' general fiction.
The official movie poster for Paper Towns, due for release summer 2015
Weigh in on the Young Adult genre
In general, do you find YA books stimulating and evocative?
Check out these articles and lists about the hits and misses of YA fiction
- Attention Young Adult fiction fans: grow up | Daily Review: film, stage and music reviews, interview
Helen Razer presents a rather forceful argument that the world's obsession with YA fiction is not the problem; rather, it's a sign that, as a whole, society is attracted and obsessed with mindless drivel.
- Why Snobs Like Joel Stein Are Wrong About Adults and YA Literature | ThinkProgress
Alyssa Rosenberg deconstructs Joel Stein's article which indicated that he thinks we should leave the YA fiction to the teenagers.
- Why Are We Still Fighting About YA Lit? | The Mary Sue
Sarah Arboleda presents a well-articulated response to an article by Ruth Graham which stated that adults should read "proper" literature.
Parting thoughts on Paper Towns
Perhaps the main problem I have with this book is that it's YA fiction and it's by John Green. While adults reading books written for and directed at teens is the hip new thing, the genre itself doesn't really do it for me. Maybe I'm just no longer in a stage of my life where I can relate to teenager characters or enjoy stories of high school drama. While I may not have enjoyed this book, those who are fans of YA fiction as a whole will most likely enjoy it, or at least think it's alright. Those who love John Green's writing will most likely adore this book, as his writing doesn't seem to be changing or growing at all, and he's certainly not exploring uncharted territory as far as plots and characters go.
In short, if you like YA fiction, give this a try, because it embodies many of the classic features of a YA novel. If you don't like YA, give this a pass, because it embodies many of the classic features of a YA novel.