If we’re going to talk about John Green’s PAPER TOWNS, we’d better get the obligatory MY SO-CALLED LIFE comparison out of the way first. (I mean, besides the MSCL comparison I already made.)
Brian Krakow was a nerdy guy, in love with/obsessed with the female neighbor he’d had a childhood friendship with, whose therapist parents really didn’t help:
Bernice: [offscreen; we never see Brian's parents] Brian, honey? Are you ignoring me, sweetheart? If you are, it’s okay. Just tell me.
Brian voiceover: My mother is a behavioral psychologist.
Bob: Bernice, if you left him alone, maybe he’d break out of this prolonged latency.
Brian VO: And my father is a Freudian psychiatrist.
Bernice: Our child is not in latency!
Bob: Keep living in denial, Bernice.
Brian VO: Which basically means that they fundamentally disagree on, like, everything.
Bob: Bri? Everything all right?
Bernice: Feel free not to respond!
Brian VO: At Angela’s house, they probably, like, laugh, and eat unbalanced meals, and talk about things that don’t have deep symbolic meaning. They’re probably like this normal family.
[And, because this is television, that leads us into an ironic segue]
Quentin “Q” Jacobsen, the PAPER TOWNS protagonist, on the other hand, is… exactly what I just said.
The psychologist parents who really don’t get it is such a cliche (I assume it far predates MSCL; anyone got examples?), but Green does it quite well with the parents’ small role. I particularly enjoyed this bit:
My dad put his arm around me. “Those are some very troubling dynamics, eh, bud?”
“They’re kind of assholes,” I said. My parents always liked it when I cursed in front of them. I could see the pleasure of it in their faces. It signified that I trusted them, that I was myself in front of them.
This is a great parody, in that it’s a very small detail that I absolutely can believe, and can build a mental picture of these folks around. But a nice thing Green does here is go beyond just parodying Q’s parents; he uses their characterization to develop our sense of Q, and the stakes for him of the choices he’ll be making in the book. When Q takes the major step of deciding to do something that he thinks will be helping his friend, which involves staying out all night, he lies to his parents and says he’s going to the prom:
He told me not to drink, and I told him I wouldn’t, and he said he was proud of me for going to prom, and I wondered if he would be proud of me for doing what I was actually doing.
This is a very economical, and in my opinion, very well done way of conveying Q’s development of his own moral compass, without any fuss.
That kind of quick characterization is one of the things John Green excels at. Another is metaphors.
Some of these are at the line level:
- “A small, olive creature who had hit puberty but never hit it very hard, Ben had been my best friend since fifth grade, when we both finally owned up to the fact that neither of us was likely to attract anyone else as best friend.”
- “Chuck Norris’s tears can cure cancer, but unfortunately he has never cried.”
It’s shit like this that’s made me have to fight myself to keep the Wednesday Words from becoming one big John Green marathon.
But PAPER TOWNS as a whole is also organized, in a way you don’t understand right away, around finding the right metaphor for death. The setup involves a nine-year-old character confidently describing her explanation of a man’s death: “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.”
It’s the kind of inexplicable thing that you can imagine a nine-year-old finding perfectly sensible, but it languidly takes on a whole new series of meanings over the course of the story. This climaxes in a two page explicit monologue about the metaphor by one of the characters, and amazingly, instead of finding this unbelievably pretentious and annoying, I think it’s actually kind of beautiful.
…So here’s the thing, though, with John Green. I wrote the above in early March, and I’ve been sitting on this post ever since, and the reason is that I just can’t pin down what I really think about the man’s books.
On one level, I feel like Green really gets a certain kind of kid, and it’s the kind I actually hung out with (and was) in high school. His books have a very contemporary feeling, compared to many I read in the ’80s (and reread now). Like, any book involving boys this age is going to have boys talking about sex; yet few older books would have a line like this one (the ludicrous character Ben is speaking):
“Bro, I saw your mom kiss you on the cheek this morning, and forgive me, but I swear to God I was like, man, I wish I was Q. And also, I wish my cheeks had penises.“
You’re just not too likely to find that, outside of, say, Melvin Burgess’s DOING IT (which is also, incidentally, the one of his books that I’ve actually enjoyed; but then, I have a strong aversion to the lurid drug abuse books that became so much in vogue with Burgess and, Christ, Ellen Hopkins, who’s still hitting this pipe like it’s crack and she’s one of the lost souls in her own damn unreadable novels).
I think this is why John Green’s books speak so strongly to a lot of people — there’s no denying that the man’s got some seriously enthusiastic fans — the books and the videos and the blog posts are expressing a subculture that a lot of smart, verbal, well-educated and somewhat alienated middle-class kids experience and rarely see represented in the popular culture targeted at them — because most books are either too sanitized or not smart enough or both. Green’s got the nerdiness and the crudeness all rolled into one. God, I would have thought these were the coolest thing in the world when I was 15.
It’s also Green’s biggest problem: if you don’t happen to be one of the kids who’ve been waiting for a book with just this tone, all the cleverness comes across more as cliquishness. That’s why, even though I do like the books, I feel complaints like this one, from an anonymous commenter at bookshelves of doom:
It’s not that I’m averse to his characters, it’s just that while I read his books I find myself thinking, this is funny, right? I should really be laughing here. I wonder why I’m not? Why AREN’T I? Is something wrong with me?
I think sometimes the characters themselves seem to try so hard to be original, funny, and above all, carry-the-theme-at-all-costs-even-if-their-actions-don’t-make-sense, that I feel preached at, and it seems I’m reading the same novel over and over.
I went to nerd camp when I was 13-15 (after years of bouncing between normal camps I hated), and one reason I loved it is that there was a palpable feeling of relief, among the friends I made, at being there instead of at home. Kids who were closeted at home came out at camp; we made up strange rituals and minutely documented their history like self-conscious anthropologists of ourselves; we dressed like lunatics and talked fast and loud and made up ridiculous songs about crayons and international relations and bizarre sexual practices we pretended to understand.
And some of my friends talked starry-eyed about how here was a place without cliques and judgment, and it was no different than in any other setting where someone declares confidently that there’s no real in-crowd: it just tells you they’re of it.
John Green has succeeded in building around him a fervent base of kids who, I gather, think they don’t quite fit in in their schools’ mainstream culture, but get to feel like The Cool Ones for reading and loving his books. He is my nerd camp. Although I have no doubt that he genuinely enjoys and respects his readers, it’s also a brilliant marketing strategy.
And it’s off-putting to those who just don’t quite get it — not because they have different taste, but because they can tell that what’s really being felt by his fans is that they’re not as cool because they have different taste. I’m supposed to find this funny is not ever a particularly fun impression to get, and it might be even more annoying when it seems to come with the self-satisfaction of being above that sort of thing. That’s one way to look at the John Green Phenomenon. But another way is: aww, man, can’t the nerds just have their day?
COMING UP: I somehow actually managed to write all this without returning to my obsession with girls and boys and John Green, but that will be rectified in an upcoming series of posts. Hence the new category “Boys, girls, and nerds.” Oh yes, I have so much to say.