Paper towns for paper people?

Through a sort of trial and error process over the years, I have realised that one of the more reliable ways of getting myself out of a reading slump is a good book from the YA (young adult) genre. But that wasn’t what I was thinking of when I started Paper Towns which had been lying around on my Kindle for at least a year or more. Sometimes I close my eyes and randomly pick a title, whether from my actual or virtual shelves. The winner this time around was my second John Green (you can read about my experience with the first here) and after I finished that and watched the movie based on it, I picked If I Stay by Gayle Forman, inadvertently giving the month of March a young adult flavour. I’ve now consciously decided to go with it, so expect the same theme on the blog for the duration of this month.

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So, Paper Towns. The term refers to ghost towns plotted on maps by cartographers to protect against plagiarism. In the book, it’s used as a metaphor for things without dimension, people who are only a shadow of their real selves. But that’s getting ahead of the plot. The narrator and protagonist is one Quentin Jacobsen (Q for short) who lives in an Orlando suburb with his therapist parents who are proud of raising a very well-adjusted son. Q has been in love with his neighbour, Margo Roth Spiegelman, since they were children and he calls living next door to her his “miracle” (at least he believes so at the start of the book). One of the most indelible memories binding their childhood friendship (indeed it is actually the only one we get to read about) is coming across a dead guy in their local park. We realise that Margo has a weird fascination with the guy’s story and why he had committed suicide, even going so far as to say that all his “strings” to life had been cut.

But now the two seniors in high school are no longer best friends and move in very different social circles – Margo in the popular cliques with the reputation of being a free, rebellious spirit, and a shy Q with Ben and Radar who are band geeks (I liked that they were all fairly normal and not angst-ridden or cliched). Until one night, when Margo climbs into Q’s bedroom like she used to as a kid, and tells him that she needs him and his car for a night of revenge against a cheating ex-boyfriend and best friends among others. She promises a reluctant Quentin that it will be “the best night of his life”. After following through with the elaborate plan that has 9 ambitious items, Q and Margo part ways. The next day Margo disappears (she has apparently done this on several prior occasions so her parents are not particularly bothered, especially now that she is 18) and Q stumbles on to the first clue she has left (another Margo trademark when she disappears). He strongly believes that she has left the clues for him (Woody Guthrie, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and more), and develops an obsession to finding her that takes over a large part of his final year in school, even against the misgivings of his friends.

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There are plenty of coming-of-age stories better than this, but what interested me the most were the thoughts and questions raised through the book. None of them unique, but worth paying a second look to. For example, Quentin’s referencing of “Margo Roth Spiegelman” instead of simply Margo. She is an ideal that he has built up since they were kids, someone that he loves from afar but doesn’t really know. During the journey, he realises that the person he is in love with might not actually exist, that he should stop believing that a person can be more than a person, a miracle. He grows and learns, tries new things, changes his perspective. There is a rather poignant observation about the same:

“…Each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And then things happen – these people leave us, or don’t love us, or don’t get us, or we don’t get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack in places. And I mean, yeah once the vessel cracks open, the end becomes inevitable. Once it starts to rain inside the Osprey, it will never be remodeled. But there is all this time between when the cracks start to open up and when we finally fall apart. And its only that time that we see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs…But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”

But maybe that is where the book also falls short. Ben, Radar, Lacey (one of Margo’s best friends), Q’s parents all make for very engaging side-characters, but I was more intrigued by the ideas propagated by the story (though like I said they were quite pretentious at times) than the protagonists. Margo is a hard person to care about because she is not only missing for most of the book, but what we do learn of her along the way also makes it hard to believe that Q could go to such extremes to find her, or that she is as loved and revered as the story makes it seem.

I understand that here Green chooses to subvert the “manic pixie-dream girl” and shows us that it is a dangerous thing to view people as ideas and not humans because we simply see what we want to see and never get to know the “real” them. I understand that eventually Margo isn’t the main crux of the narrative—it’s Quentin’s journey and how he ends up finding himself in the end, even though he wasn’t really lost to begin with—but Margo does plenty to fuel the enigma surrounding her, the carefree, daredevil image she carefully builds up, and isn’t as faultless about the misunderstanding (though her parents are a piece of work and I don’t blame her for wanting to run away). I also understand that the novel tries to tell us that by idolising someone we run the risk that they might be far less interesting or alluring in reality. But by making Margo slightly more likeable, by giving her real depth without trying too hard to make her appear aloof, mysterious and complicated (quotes like “the rules of capitalisation are so unfair to the letters in the middle” are just pretentious), and by giving her a more substantial, less selfish reason for leaving (the pay off definitely wasn’t worth the mystery that preceded it) would have caused the main plot thread to make more sense.

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Page to screen transitions are always difficult because you can never get the kind of detail that is possible in a book. This adaptation by the same team behind The Fault In Our Stars  has many issues, but I was grateful for its treatment of the road trip. A section that I tried really hard not to skim in the book translates perfectly onto the screen because it can condense the best bits and the very idea of a road trip is made for engaging screen-time. (Watch out for a very cheeky cameo by a certain Ansel Elgort, by the way). While the book drags in large parts, it also put us in Q’s head and we could vicariously follow every single nuance that he felt, thought and actively see how he changed with each new piece of information. For me, he went from a rather nondescript character to one I quite warmed to as he grew into his own. The movie glosses over many of the major developmental arcs, including almost trivialising the revenge plan (there is no Sea World, for starters), and Q’s gradual transformation as well as his unravelling of the mystery happens too fast to be believable. Even more than in the book, we can’t fathom the attraction he nurses for Margo (Cara Delevingne is rather underwhelming), and the change in the ending from what happens in the book exacerbates the problem of none of it mattering all that much.

Nat Wolff does a charming job nonetheless, though maybe he comes across as too put-together, too comfortable and not nearly as unsure and nervous as the Q we know from the book. The friendship between him, Ben and Radar is one of the film’s highlights, as is the chemistry between all of them (the film includes Angela, Radar’s girlfriend on the road trip), and I was glad that the constant use of slang in the book (one of my pet peeves) was much toned down. The sense of transience and moving on from one part of their lives is much more evident in the film which I appreciated because it felt natural.

My final verdict? The story promises much but ultimately falls short of delivering it, appearing instead like a paper version (pun unintended!) with mostly paper people. Ultimately I just didn’t care as much as I was supposed to. But for YA-lovers and those looking for an easier read/watch, I’d still recommend it.

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