John Green’s latest and greatest novel. After an inspiring debut and a less relatable second novel, Paper Towns was a very pleasant surprise. It is definitely the best young adult book I’ve read this year; and it will be interesting to see if another will take its place as the year unfolds.
In the first part, the book takes us on a dizzying to-do list of adventures (I tend to like novels that contain lists). It promises to be a page-turner with tons of fun and no deep moral. But the second part makes a character disappear, veering away from such a prediction completely. There is a lot of meditation on understanding other people, and in particular, on misimagining others by seeing them as idea[l]s.
The hunt for clues left by the missing person continues almost until the end, making this another novel for whose answer-in-the-lack-of-answers ending I feared. Although the characters do finally reunite, the message Green sends out is not one that inspires comfort. Basically, he puts Maugham’s tower of brass into words intelligible to the impatient Google generation. True and complete understanding between people is impossible; you cannot be someone else.
The novel ends with a brilliant metaphor about human suffering and understanding.
Some quotes from the audio book, with an undisclosed number of transcription errors:
- The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.
- And now life has become the future. Every moment of your life is lived for the future. You go to high school so you can go to college, so you can get a good job, so you can get a nice house, so you can afford to send your kids to college, so they can get a good job, so they can get a nice house, so they can afford to send their kids to college.
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
(T. S. Eliot)
- When you say nasty things about people, you should never say the true ones, because you can’t really fully and honestly take those back.
- Everything’s uglier close up.
- You can see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q. Look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart; all those paper people, living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm; all the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store; everyone demented with the mania of owning things; all the things paper thin and paper frail; all the people too.
- Doing stuff never feels as good as you hope it would feel.
- This cannot be addressed by breathing exercises. This fear bears no analogy to any fear I knew before. This is the basest of all possible emotions; the feeling that was with us before we existed, before this building existed, before the Earth existed. This is the fear that made fish crawl out unto dry land and evolve lungs; the fear that teaches us to run; the fear that makes us bury our dead.
- Margo was not a miracle; she was not an adventure; she was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.
- Urban exploring. We enter abandoned buildings, explore them, photograph them, we take nothing, we leave nothing. We’re just observers.
- What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person.
- Forever is composed of nows.
- Nothing ever happens like you imagine it will … but then again, if you don’t imagine, nothing ever happens at all.
- ‘When I thought about him dying, which, admittedly, isn’t that much, I always thought of it like you said, that all the strings inside him broke. But there are a thousand ways to look at it. Maybe the strings break, or maybe your ships sink, or maybe we’re grass, our roots so interdependent that no one is dead as long as someone is still alive. We don’t suffer from a shortage of metaphors, is what I mean. But you have to be careful which metaphor you choose, because it matters. If you choose the strings, then you’re imagining a world in which you can become irreparably broken. If you choose the grass, you’re saying that we’re all infinitely interconnected, that we can use these root systems not only to understand one another, but to become one another. The metaphors have implications, do you know what I mean?’
‘I like the strings. I always have, because that’s how it feels. But the strings make pain seem more fatal than it is, I think. We’re not as frail as the strings would make us believe. And I like the grass too. The grass got me to you, helped me to imagine you as an actual person. But we’re not different sprouts from the same plant. I can’t be you; you can’t be me. You can imagine another well, but never quite perfectly, you know? Maybe it’s more like you said before, all of us being cracked open, like, each of us starts out as a watertight vessel, and these 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 open 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 it’s only in that time that we can see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks, and into others through theirs. When did we see each other face to face? Not until you saw into my cracks, and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade, but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.
To read next (referenced massively in the book): Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman.