***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: the most cohesive John Green novel I've read so far, but still off the mark that I know he can hit in terms of depth, and tasting like the same batch of cookies he always bakes with his eyes closed. I'd like to see this author stretch himself.
Can we talk for a second about John Green's career? Like many readers, I'm morbidly fascinated by the John Green phenomenon. I'm not a nerdfighter, and I think teenage me would have found his social outreach to be energetic but strained and sometimes patronizing. There's no denying that it's working for him, though--young adults love him. I'm also interested in how closely he adheres to the John Green formula in most of his novels: awkward but brilliant main character, shallow but glib best-friend sidekicks, a girl who will cause the main character to grow but doesn't herself have much of a fleshed out internal life, and some sort of road trip. The dialogue is rarely laugh-out-loud funny to me (your experience may be different, humor is subjective), but is dry and occasionally too self-conscious in its "smartness." For me, the wit of the characters sometimes feels pretentious, and its relentlessness can make it feel old before the novel is done. Even The Fault in Our Stars, which is written from the POV of the girl, has all these elements woven in. I find myself wondering: why the sameness? Does Green want a body of work with an identifiable brand? Is that part of his strategy for success (is it in fact the reason he's successful)? Or does he feel pressure to publish on a rough schedule, and this formula is what occurs to him when he's on the spot--it's simplest for him to produce? From a marketing standpoint, perhaps this is the way to go. But from a literary standpoint, from the point of view of art, I want more from him. If each book were the only one he'd written, it would be an excellent contribution. With each subsequent (similar) book, the impact of the earlier ones is diminished. That's the weakness of Green's oeuvre, I think: the whole adds up to less than the sum of the parts. (In fairness, I haven't read his zombie e-novellas or Will Grayson Will Grayson.)
An interesting theme. The overall theme in Paper Towns is quite good: we can't know people unless we take the time to sort of "be" them, to stop and really inhabit their lives and spaces and loves when we ourselves are also vulnerable, and that we're particularly wrong if we think we know them from our superficial impressions--from our idea of them or the facade that they put forward while playing whatever role in the community they've chosen or that has been chosen for them.
Pacing and cast. I thought the road trip was a snooze compared with the rest of the book, and that Green tried hard to sustain it with jokes and madcap situations, but they weren't enough to keep it from dragging. For example, during the scene in which Quentin and Radar are the only ones awake and they drink the Red-Bull-style sodas, all that happens is that Quentin's turn at driving ends, but he decides to drive some more because he's buzzed. (This scene does nothing for the plot.) I also wanted to see the secondary characters get something out of the trip, but they sort of disappeared--or Green conveniently removed them from the scene by having them get pissed at Margo--as soon as Quentin found Margo and started his tete-a-tete with her. And as sometimes happens for me with Green books, I found myself fatigued by the shallow, smartass, sidekick best friend (Ben, in this case), though I did think that Radar was a different spin for the second-sidekick. (Radar is still smart and ridiculously eloquent, but genuinely charming this time, if a somewhat awkward trope of "the nerdy black guy." But what of those black Santas? How do they fit in with the themes of the book? How do they help the novel, other than giving Radar's family an identifiable quirk, and providing an excuse for a party when Radar's parents leave town to buy up their competitor's collection?)
Unrealistic denseness. It's always there in a Green novel: something that's so improbable it takes me out of the action and makes me wonder what the author was thinking. The worst example for me was the blow-job scene in Looking for Alaska. Would a teenage boy and girl attempt oral sex by lying on a bed with his penis in her mouth, and then freeze, not moving a muscle, wondering what's supposed to happen next?! They literally go ask Alaska how the girl should give Pudge oral sex. It's just such an impossible set-up, it's infuriating. Can the boy not even imagine what would feel good and tell the girl? Would she honestly think that not moving was a strategy? And in Paper Towns there were at least three of those strangely dense moments: one when Radar wears the Confederate flag T-shirt, and it doesn't occur to him to turn it inside out, a second when they try pulling the doors to the Osprey open and Q later finds out the doors push inward (it seems to me that vigorous tugging on a door includes both a pulling and pushing motion), and a third when Ben is peeing into the beer bottle, and when he has nearly filled it but still has more to go, they all scramble to empty another beer bottle out the window with him warning them to hurry up, so he can transition to the second empty bottle with no break in peeing. Is this the only human being on the planet who can't stop and start his stream of urine? He could have dumped the first bottle of pee out the window and started over. Is Green deliberately ignoring how bodies work? Is he saying to himself, "This will be funnier!" and just going with the eye-rolling scenario? Should I be wondering about his writing process while I'm reading?
Muddy Margo. Margo's explanation to Q about her thought process before skipping town was muddy, and somewhat plot-serving. It was clear that Green wanted her to leave town abruptly (and ominously, thoroughly) in order to get Quentin worried about her. But the final "wrap-up" scene doesn't help to flesh her out more, and her lack of depth is the primary weakness of this novel, I think. Her explanation is that she had prepared a prank night with Quentin all along, and had always planned to leave town after graduation, but the fact of discovering Jase's affair with Becca pushed her to do it all earlier. Her goal in leaving the clues was only to get Q to the Osprey (the defunct mini-mall) so that he could enjoy the kind of private time she had spent there. From that point on, Q uncovers clues she didn't intend for him to find, e.g. the map that matched the pin-holes on the wall. Margo protests twice during this interchange that she had to leave town and she had to do it all at once, "like pulling off a band-aid," and, "You see that don't you?" Well, we readers don't see that, actually, and telling us she desperately needs to leave isn't enough. Margo's conflict feels less real and more a case of Green knowing he needed a journey to allow Q some time to live in Margo's mind in order to make his point. Green had Margo explain away why it happened, why Margo left him some clues but not others, but without much care to deepening her inner conflict.
In fact, how could Green have made his point (about not knowing someone until you've seen their cracks through your own cracks) while having Margo gone for much of the novel? Is the structure a problem, because Margo and Q have to tie up all the ends verbally in their last scene together? Maybe. But maybe Green could also have fleshed her out more on the prank night, rather than have her be quite so manic, or better yet he could have had Q find her sooner (and by himself) so that they could have lived in the Argoe General Store together for a while, learning more about each other "through their cracks."
Argh, Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The point of this story is paradoxically that Margo is a real person under her peers' image of her, and that's what Q was not seeing all these years when he had a crush on her. It's trying to puncture the MPDG model. (In that sense, I believe "Paper girl" is a stand-in for MPDG.) But for the reader, Margo remains fundamentally the dream girl who helped Quentin find himself while he was finding her--she even expressly states it as a goal that she had--to free him up, to make him less uptight, to take risks that would give him pleasure. In the end Margo continues to be overly idealized and to exist largely as an excuse for Q to grow as a person, which is basically Nathan Rabin's exact definition of a MPDG. Quentin's protestations (and he's speaking for Green here) that Margo is a real person don't magically make Margo a richer character, which is what we need to fully blow apart the MPDG trope. Green constructs an elaborate metaphor about cracked vessels letting light in and out through the breaks, but Margo's cracks remain superficial for us.
Margo's reason for not returning over the summer is: "I'd get sucked right back in....and I'd never get out. It's not just the gossip and the parties and all that crap, but the whole allure of a life rightly lived--college and job and and husband and babies and all that bullshit." How does this help us understand Margo? In order to reject these traditional stereotypes of happiness and success, I believe we'd have to see in a more profound way how those things, or the prospect of them in her future, weren't working in her former life. (Incidentally, there is a slight contradiction when she complains with genuine bitterness that Chuck will be rewarded, even though he's an asshole, by getting a great job and becoming rich--an irritation that doesn't mesh perfectly with her dislike of the American definition of success.) We never saw Margo's true conflicts, she merely told them to us. She told us that she was buying into her own image while she was in school, and that disturbed her. And Green gave her a record collection and a journal that were supposed to indicate a hidden, deeper part of her personality, but they ultimately felt like props. The only hint at genuine problems in her life was her mom announcing to the detective that she was changing the locks because Margo was eighteen, and if she tried to return home, she could no longer live there. But even that feels like the exasperation of a mother whose daughter has forced chronic worry on her over the years. We also saw Margo's dad telling her not to go out (when she's dressed like the ninja), and we know her parents locked away her car keys--but these are normal experiences that lots of stable teens have had. Margo tells us that living the "idea of Margo" (the popular girl, the girl who sets trends and pulls epic pranks) was a facade that she worried she'd buy into if she stayed, and yet she outlines no alternative for her future--from our point of view and Quentin's, she will simply disappear into the Big City. (Am I a fuddy-duddy if I point out that an eighteen-year-old moving to NYC without a friend or apartment or job is a young-adult at risk?)
Literary allusions. Maybe there were too many of them? Whitman's Leaves of Grass is the primary one throughout the novel, so we expect to end with that, but the last chapter throws in Dickinson and Plath and Vonnegut--all mixed up in the metaphor soup.
All in all, though, I think I'm going with this as my favorite John Green so far.