In his third novel, John Green asks us to look at a person and see only a person, not a miracle or a metaphor.
John Green has said that in many ways Paper Towns (2008) is an attempt to expand on a theme he touched on in his debut, Looking for Alaska: the importance of at least trying to imagine other people complexly, even though it will never be possible to understand them completely. Alaska Young and Margo Roth Spiegelman are different characters, but they have a lot in common: good looks, charisma, popularity and a talent for mischief-making, plus (at times) a selfish disregard for the people around them. In the earlier novel Miles eventually realises that Alaska is both more and less than what he has always seen in her. Likewise, when Margo runs away from home, Quentin (known as Q) has to let go of “his” Margo, the idealised version of her that he wants to remember, in order to “discover what Margo was like when she wasn’t being Margo.” The main difference between the two novels is that in Paper Towns the search for the truth is much more central to the plot, and consequently much more urgent.
Beginning with a handful of cryptic clues left by Margo, Q enlists the help of his friends to unravel the mystery. As ever, Green captures perfectly the experience of being a teenager in the modern world; Q is something of an outsider, and his quest pushes yet another wedge between him and his peers, but with distance comes an understanding of why his friend Ben is so desperate to find a prom date even if Q himself is a combination of alienated and bored by his obsession. Q has always been happy with the tedium of everyday life in Orlando, but he appears to catch some of Margo’s discontentment with this “paper town” and come to recognise the artificiality and flimsiness of the routine he has so carefully cultivated.
The idea behind Paper Towns, that we are all “imaginable” and yet “consistently misimagined” permeates every chapter of the novel. The characters make guesses about the lives of the strangers in passing cars, only to discover that their guesses reveal more about them; Q reads Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and marvels at the number of ways to interpret a single metaphor; and even the phrase “paper town” is revealed to have a far greater number of possible meanings than either Q or the reader was previously aware of. It’s a testament to Green’s capacity for great storytelling that this novel can be so engaging while remaining true to its central philosophy throughout.