Melancholy of teens

Paper Towns
John Green
Penguin
2014, pp 305
Rs. 399

There are good reasons to consider the third novel of John Green, Paper Towns, as a significant American novel. Indeed the novel is incredibly American set in Orlando, Florida. The narrative revolves round two adolescent characters — Quentin Jacobsen (nick named ‘Q’) and Margo Roth Spiegelman (usually called Margo), who are childhood friends. At the age of nine, both of them discover a dead body in a nearby park that changes their perceptions of life altogether. (The dead one is one of their acquaintances in the neighbourhood who commits suicide for his own personal reasons not really known to anybody.)

Q, being the only son of empathetic parents, manages to scrape through the negative impact of the experience. But Margo grows with a sense of abnormality in her and continues to behave accordingly. The two meet after nine years when on a particular night Margo appears in Q’s window and entices him to indulge in besmirching people who have deceived her knowingly or unknowingly. Thus they go on their rampage of insulting people in their ingenious ways. In any normal situation, the working together of the two in the night for a cause could have culminated in a well-expressed relationship.

Unfortunately, by dawn, Margo cuts all relationship with him. She just disappears, and no one knows where she has gone. At this point, it is made known that she habitually disappears and reappears for her own reasons that cannot not be explained either by her parents or by her sister.

But, this time when she disappears, she leaves behind certain curious clues for Q to locate her, if he wants her. They resemble childish pranks, but have serious undertones in them. Q, like a resolute lover, with the help of his friends Radar and Ben and Margo’s friend Lacy, and with his own ability to disambiguate the bizarre clues offered by Margo, and also after a long and eventful travel of 21 hours, locates her in a godforsaken place in Agloe. Interestingly, when they meet and talk to each other, they deferentially realise that their ways are different and there is no way that they can accompany each other in their lives.

In fact, the novel could be read as an allegory of the discovering self. It revolves around two roles; the discoverer and the discovered; the roles are also exchanged with multiple dimensions to them. Complete discovery (it could also be recovery!) of human minds is just impossible, and it is always partial. All the characters — Ben, Radar, Lacy, Parents and others are thus discovered partially. The human mind is inherently mysterious that it cannot be understood completely by any, despite serious efforts. Most of the characters here are less than 18 years of age. They do not behave like the ones of that age. They are precocious, highly opinionated, and have an aura of their own perception of life and the people around.

The two problematic protagonists are capable of deceiving their parents by their wits. They have a fairly good understanding of some of the best American writers, like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, T S Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Interestingly, Margo and Q draw their inspiration not from any detective fiction, but from an American classic, Leaves of Grass. As found in any discovery, there is also a long voyage to know the truth — the 21-hour drive proves that. The inspiration for this comes from Melville. The structure of the novel resembles that of an epic. ‘Prologue’ throws open the problem of partial perception of human nature. This is actually the harbinger of all the discoveries to follow. Why did the particular man commit suicide? There seems to be no complete answer for his self-inflicted death. The search for truth starts from that point. In the first part called ‘The Strings’, Margo attempts to avenge the ignominy by curious ways, as if she is trying to locate herself and Q in the whole scheme of things. The second part, ‘Grass’, which is contrasted with ‘the strings’, drawn intelligently as a metaphor drawn from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, tries to connect the underlying assumptions about human nature, but only partially.

Q says, “If you choose the strings, then you’re imagining a world in which you can become irreparably broken. If you choose grass, you’re saying that we are all interconnected, that we can use these root systems not only to understand one another but to become one another...” (p 301). The third and the most important part, ‘Voyage’, is actually a voyage to discover the truth, but alas, found partially. The inevitability of the two protagonists not being able to live together despite the material and mental comfort that they may get is also problematic as they appear to be just the half-truths about themselves. Note what Q says finally — “Yes, I can see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness”. No one can miss the tinge of melancholy in the end.
The first-person narrative perfectly suits the theme of the narrative. The self-absorbed self of Q, which is also questioned by his friends, makes the novel complex. But, the sheen of the revealing title, Paper Towns, is taken away by its repeated delineation during the course of the narrative.

This novel could by no means be classified under children’s literature. One cannot understand why it is debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list for children’s books. However, the book deserves mature artistic attention.

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