Paper Towns by John Green
I knew I loved John Green’s writing when I read The Fault in Our Stars. This book isn’t quite as good as that one, probably because the tearjerking potential of a couple of teenage cancer patients is hard to top. In this novel, a boy goes on a night of crazy pranks with the girl-next-door, and then she disappears. Most of the story is then about following clues to track her down and taking a road trip with friends to find her. At its core, this book is about a boy who’s in love with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but instead of existing solely to enrich his life, she teaches him that she’s a person in her own right and that our ideas of the people we know are never exactly the same as who they really are. I’m so impressed with the way Green deconstructs this trope through the story’s action.
For greater clarification, here’s Feminist Frequency’s great video about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and why it’s a sexist trope.
Margo Roth Spiegelman fits the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope because she “is a supporting character used to further the storyline of the male hero.” But she furthers the storyline of the protagonist, Quentin, through teaching him that she does, in fact, have “a life of her own.” She refuses to fit into the box that Q wants to put her in. Here’s Q figuring that out:
Margot Roth Spiegelman was a person, too. And I had never quite thought of her that way, not really; it was a failure of all my previous imaginings. All along–not only since she left, but for a decade before–I had been imagining her without listening…The fundamental mistake I had always made–and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make–was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a find and precious thing. She was a girl.
I particularly like that Green complicates Margo by making her complicit in her own Manic Pixie-ness. She consciously plays the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the lives of those around her, and when she runs away from home, she’s breaking out of that role. That gives her a lot more agency than the MPDG typically has. Leaving home is a way for her to grow up, declare her independence, and become the star of her own life, rather than a supporting character in others’.
But that’s not all. It turns out that Margo had sort of made Q into a bit of a Dream Boy of a sort herself, if not a Manic Pixie one, and she also realizes her mistake:
“And then you surprise me,” she says. “You had been a paper boy to me all these years–two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night you turned out to be real…”
What a nice way to flip the tables. I also like that Q and Margo don’t live happily ever after together forever. They learn an important lesson from each other in a specific moment in their lives, and then they each move on in different directions, each enriched by the experience. In that way the ending is more realistic.
Another thing I love about this book is the way Margo, Q, and Green use Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” One of the book’s central questions is whether Whitman is right and we can really inhabit someone else’s point of view so thoroughly that we “become” that person: “I am the man…I suffered…I was there…I do not ask the wounded person how he feels…I myself become the wounded person.” When Q makes the breakthrough in the mystery that finally allows him to find Margo, it is through a moment of “becoming” Margo, imagining what she would do and how she would think. But in the end, after all this drama about how he and Margo had imagined each other in certain two-dimensional roles, Q seems to conclude that he, at least, is not capable of the radical empathy that Whitman proclaims.
On top of all that deeper stuff, the book is really funny, like a teen movie comparable to Superbad in novel form. Q’s friends make some great comic relief and get themselves into some hilarious situations. It’s a fun book with some deeper messages and themes that even quotes my favorite poem. What’s not to like?