On “Paper Towns” (a heavy-handed critique)

This is not a positive review; consider yourself warned before you bother to read this whole post and possibly find yourself very frustrated.

Also, some ***SPOILERS***, probably no bigger than those on the back of the novel.

Although I finished reading Paper Towns, I was inclined to stop a long while back, and I think I only reached the end because a friend told me I should find out what happens. I did, and I don’t think it was all that necessary. The messages in the end of the book show up way earlier; the author just drags us through a few hundred pages in order to say them again, in less poignant and interesting language than they were said the first time.

I will say this though: the homilies about human nature (before they’re slogged to death) are good.  John Green is really adept at creating metaphors and similes for complex human interactions in vivid and engaging ways. His writing style is easy to understand and enjoyable to read.

The story left a lot to be desired.  (In simple form, it’s about Q’s quest to find Margo, who takes him on a Ferris Buellerian jaunt–she being the Ferris and Q the Cameron–and proceeds to disappear near the end of their senior year of high school.)

Let’s start with the main character, Margo Roth Spiegelman. Why do I call her the main character? Well, because the entire book revolves around her existence and in some cases lack thereof–(don’t think too hard about that phrasing if you haven’t read the book.) If you have read it, you’d know that Margo barely appears in the book. She, as a body, is in about a fifth of it. As an idea, she’s in the whole damn thing. As a person… well that depends on when, if ever, you decide she starts becoming real. (This is part of the whole Manic Pixie Dream Girl theory, which is a little too long for this post.) Granted, one of the facets of this dream girl is that she’s supposed to be desirable, but I couldn’t see it. I don’t even really see how Q, the narrator and possible protagonist, could care about her that much, which means that I don’t find the narrator realistic either. Take away the believability of both the viewer and his subject, and what do you have left? A lot of stilted dialogues between high schoolers who very quickly end up sounding like the same person.

So, what does he do with the rest of the book? It’s 305 pages long (in the publication I have), and as far as I’m concerned, the vast majority of that isn’t necessary. The book drags on for a very long time, repeating the same concepts about real-vs-imagined people, uprooting and disappearing, and Walt Whitman over and over again in slightly different conversations. I commented to a friend that the entirety of the plot could have been done in a short story, and Green could have written a personal narrative essay for the themes.

Back to this same-person idea: Green may not have realized it, but almost every character speaks with the same kinds of sentence structures and phrase patterns. The narrator uses “not ___ so much as ___” several times both in narration and his own dialogue, but it also shows up in lines delivered by his friends. Also, I’m pretty sure every character in the core six (aside from possibly Angela) uses the One. Word. Per. Sentence. to make their point. Sometimes this is done in unrealistically long sentences like “I. Will. Miss. Hanging. Out. With. You.” No one talks like that in real life; everyone talks like that in Paper Towns.

Green seemed to have difficulty actually separating personalities, especially between the female characters. On a basic level, Margo, Lacey, Angela, and Becca all sound and act like the same person when they’re actually in the scene (as opposed to in Q’s head, in which Margo is somehow TOTALLY different). Keep in mind that all of these girls are attractive and supposedly on the top of the pecking order in the high school hierarchy, and three of them end up being interested in the three stock ‘loser’ male friends. And even the three dude friends don’t seem all that different; they’re each just given a couple of quirks that shallowly grant them some variation. Radar has the Omnictionary and Black Santas; Ben has prom and awkward jokes about ‘big balls’ and ‘honeybunnies’; Q has the Margo obsession and not being good at anything. (Seriously, his main attributes are that he’s tone-deaf and can’t join his friends in band and isn’t very good at ‘Resurrection,’ a game they play together.)

One issue that bugged me–probably a lot more than it bugs most people–is the fact that John Green takes the narrative from past tense, suddenly into present tense, and then back again. You might assume I’m talking about the last eighty pages, which are in present tense and lead the reader chronologically up to (supposedly) Q’s present. No, I’m fine with that part. What I’m not fine with is the ten-page chunk in the middle of the story–pages 140 through 149 in my copy–that suddenly turn present mid-chapter, then go back after another chapter and a half. This scene does not happen later on the timeline; it’s like the morning’s in past-tense, the afternoon is in present, and then the same evening goes back to past. I’ve looked online for explanations of this switch, and no one really has an answer. Green did offer an explanation about general switches, but not this particular passage.


“So when people tell stories, they often switch from past to present tense—sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. Often, they do this because whatever they’re describing in the present tense feels so immediate and unresolved to them that it seems as if it is still happening, even though the events of the story occurred in the past.”

I can understand that point and agree with the logic, except that (in my opinion) these specific ten pages did not contain nearly as much action, chaos, crazy-unresolved-emotions, or whatever-else-have-you than other sections of the book that were in past tense. Mostly it just seemed like a lazy carryover from an early draft, which Green decided to keep because he found it (let’s say) quirky.

It’s a hard thing to argue about. At the end of the day, the author has to make a judgment call on what stays and what goes; the whole book is subject to his (or her) opinion, and no justification I make will change the writing. That being said, I am still entitled to my opinion as to whether I think that was a fair choice and whether it hurts the flow of the book.

After really taking some time to think about the story and its writing, I find myself thinking of John Green as a good writer but a poor storyteller. Granted, I’ve only read one of his books, but that’s my present verdict.

#manicpixiedreamgirl #PaperTowns #opinion #JohnGreen #novel #critique

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