Friday, April 11, 2014

Reading: Paper Towns

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I'm from a small, Indiana town with an array of small businesses lining the street downtown.  When I go home to visit, I like to bring my road bike and head out to the country, where I was once literally chased by a cow.  (It was the most frightening experience of my life so far.)  After attending college near Indianapolis and student-teaching in Houston, a sprawling city in which I never really felt at home (even with a library card!), I spent five weeks teaching summer school in the Mississippi Delta before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina - a beautiful Southern city where I spent a lot of time among the bungalow-lined streets of the Dilworth neighborhood.  Now, I live in southeast Virginia, a view of the Chesapeake Bay outside of my window.  I have also spent many summers visiting my grandparents in Des Moines, playing games and going to bridge with my grandma and watching Animal Planet with my pappaw.  I have lived many places, but when I think about my experiences in each, I cannot help but think about the people (and animals) I know there.  It is the people who help to shape my experience of a place more than anything else.

In Paper Towns, written by John Green and published by Speak in 2008, Margo Roth Spiegelman wants to escape her city of Orlando which she dubs a "paper town."  She has escaped before and not without leaving subtle clues; for example, when she was in tenth grade, she fled to Mississippi and left the letters "MISP" in her alphabet soup before fleeing.  One evening during her senior year, she climbs through the window of her long-time neighbor, Quentin, with a devilishly clever plan: Revenge.  

With Quentin at the wheel of his mom's old minivan, the two old friends trek through Orlando taking photos of scandal, leaving dead fish underneath car seats, breaking windows, and sneaking into Sea World just for the heck of it!  The next day, Margo runs away - again - and Quentin believes that she has left him clues.  She wants him to find her!  Along with his best friends Radar and Ben, Quentin spends the last of his senior year connecting the clues in an old abandoned mini-mall. He ponders Margo's mortality and eventually thinks he has figured out her destination.  So of course, he goes to find her, whisk her away, and carry her home like the hero he is!  But it doesn't quite work out that way. 

There are a lot of aspects of this book that I could talk about, but I want to focus on Quentin's revelation that people are mirrors; they can see inside themselves but have trouble looking out and being somebody else.  

Quentin has "been in love with" Margo Roth Spiegelman for his entire life, but as the story unfolds, he realizes that he doesn't really know Margo at all.  He didn't know she was in love with music and had an eclectic record collection in her possession.  He didn't know that she would trapeze through abandoned buildings and write about them in her black notebook, nor did he know what she even wrote about.  He didn't know she liked Walt Whitman and wasn't sure what significance the poem she had left for him had, if any.  Has she killed herself? he wondered.  Is this poem a hopeful message or a suicide note?  He didn't consider that she might be lonely.  Instead, Quentin had been in love with his idea of her but finds that she is really quite a mystery.  If he had really looked outside the window, perhaps he would have known her better.  Then again, Margo was somewhat evasive and seemed to want to bare an air of mystery.  Quentin reveals, "What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person" (282).  His parents, both therapists, inadvertently assist Quentin in making this discovery over a dinner time conversation.

" 'The longer I do my job,' [his dad says,] 'the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors.  It's so hard for anyone to show us how we look and hard for us to show anyone how we feel.'

My mom said, 'Isn't it also on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that people are human beings in the same way we are?'

'True.  Consciousness makes for poor windows.'

The fundamental mistake I had always made was this: Margo was not a miracle.  She was not an adventure.  She was not a fine and precious thing.  She was a girl."

Throughout the novel, there are many situations in which we see the characters looking in mirrors and ignoring their windows.  There is a scene in which Quentin gets furious with Ben because Ben does not do what Quentin wants him to do.  Radar explains that Ben is not the same as Quentin, just like Quentin is not identical to Radar.  But that doesn't mean they can't be friends.  They like each other anyway. I feel that Radar's makes somewhat of an obvious revelation, but it is so often ignored! It is easy for someone to say, "If I were in his shoes, I would _________."  But it is impossible to know exactly how someone else feels or what someone else has experienced or what someone else thinks.  Yes, looking in my mirror, I am very frustrated with Margo Spiegelman in the book.  But if I use my windows, I am more likely to understand her actions.  

For example, when I read about all of the destruction that Margo caused in one single night, I felt that she had gone too far.  Yes, it is wrong to cheat on your significant other, as Margo's ex-boyfriend did to her.  But does that make it okay to illegally break their windows with a dead fish?  Of course not!  I felt that Margo's action were quite extreme because my own experiences make me believe that they are. However, Margo's thought processes and family and background experiences and own consciousness are different than my own.  To her, this was the only plan that was suffice.  Similarly, I was frustrated with Quentin for spending his last weeks as a senior in high school obsessed with an idea of a girl he really  knew very little about.  Besides the fact that she was beautiful, what did he love about her?  Then again, if I used my windows, I might better understand Quentin's obsession.  I realized after reading this that I need to be looking out the window more than I am looking in the mirror.  

Overall, I enjoyed reading Paper Towns.  Besides the revelation that I gleaned from its page, I enjoyed the banter and chemistry between the characters and actually dreamed about them one evening!  If you would like to read more about Paper Towns, you can do so at John Green's webpage.  Also, if you're interested, check the book out from your local library

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