Paper Towns and the Idolatry of Imagination: Part 1—Strings

“Doing stuff never feels as good as you hope it will feel.”

Part 1: Strings
John Green’s novel, Paper Towns, soon to be a film, can be read as a kind of spiritual parable. With the exception of TFIOS, his three other novels seem to follow a similar formula: Eccentric yet normal teen boy falls for unattainable and eccentric girl because she is such a mystery, and she becomes a puzzle for him to solve as much as a love interest to pursue. Academic references must follow. Were it not for the occasional sexual controversy, Green seems to be begging for his books to be taught in school, pushing aside bulky classics less relevant to teens.

[Paper Towns spoilers ahead]

Paper Towns may be the best of Green’s novels, when it comes to using story and poetry to transcend a typical, contemporary YA lit into a spiritual theme. Green, who sort of spent some time as a hospital chaplain in his youth, may or may not be taking us in this direction, but here is one reader who went there, a reader who identified with Q.

Our narrator is infatuated with Margo Roth Spiegelman—Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose name most be spoken in its entirety, like a divine name—a girl whose significance began with the murder the two of them witnessed together as children. We expect this to be the origins of their friendship, and in a way, it does, but for Quentin Jacobson, this grotesquely majestic moment only seems to be a haunting memory of a girl he gradually comes to un-know. The weight of their shared encounter with death, with reality, with premature maturity, allows him to fashion his connection to her like some well-kept secret. It is death that unites them, the destruction of innocence that binds them.

As children stumbling upon a suicide in a park, Q and Margo are like Adam and Eve under the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. They are cast out of the Eden of being able to have a happy ending. Each of them sews their own layers over themselves to cover the shame of their “nakedness.”

Q remembers that Margo’s explanation about the man’s suicide is that his “strings broke,” his inner connections keeping him moving, breathing, living—they just broke. The inner man become un-whole. At the time she doesn’t mean it that way, but creates a metaphor she will later come to fill.

Then that one night comes, the night when the dream-girl arrives in Quentin’s room, not to fulfill some vain, empty sexual fantasy, but to meet his desire for an adventure with a girl who fell out of his grasp, sharing in nighttime mischief that strikes out against the world that fell since they were children, a world always fallen, a world always fragile, always built upon false hopes and dreams.

She speaks to him in “that small voice tense with excitement of almost knowing things, making me feel like something was happening to me.” If the reader hasn’t identified with Q by this time, he does now. Who doesn’t want to feel important in the universe, and what boy doesn’t want to feel that a girl chose him because he is significant to her?

As Margo advertises to Q, their quest is to restore Eden. “Tonight, we are going to right a lot of wrongs. And we are going to wrong some rights. The first shall be last; the last shall be first. The meek shall do some earth-inheriting.” Her biblical references are a call for the two of them to reestablish their own private jubilee of childhood by wreaking a different time of nighttime havoc, the kind where the innocent just have fun, the evil are payed evil, and nobody gets hurt. They become vigilantes; they become self-appointed angels. They distribute fish, a symbol of life, transformation, calling. Quentin Jacobson is about to become a disciple of the illusion of Margo he has formed.

Margo is the girl with quirky capitalization, the girl who hates yes/no questions because they say life is boring. These little secrets drive Q crazy over her. She is a privilege that he deserves to have, because he appreciates these quirks. And so he cherishes the moments he has with her alone. They mock the paper towns, the places everywhere across America full of fake people, and male readers may recall that one conversation they had with a girl late one night when they thought their mutual understanding of how much the world sucked entitled him to a relationship with her, to hold her hand through the halls of school. Margo laments over the society that creates in her such unrest:

“All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm […] Everyone demented with the mania of owning things […] I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.” 

This is that girl that seems to have suddenly and secretly come across knowledge and wanted to become something other than what she is. For Quentin, this is a blessing, but little does he know that it means peril for his dreams for her. She has an “invisible light,” and she is projecting only a “visible reminder.”

In that fleeting moment, they “Carpe just one more diem,” caught in the pleasure of “seeing our strings cross and separate and then come back together.”

Q yearns not only for a connection with this girl, but the right to have intimate knowledge of her. Although he stands almost like a hero for never wishing to take advantage of her body or treat her like an object, he nonetheless wishes access into her emotionally complex inner world.

No matter how many strings Q imagines in Margo’s self, they are only strings. Strings pulling a paper girl. Q has had the night of his life, but Margo does not belong to him. He still hardly knows her, and his vision of her is still only two-dimensional. As complex as she is, his vision of her is shallow. She has become an idol.

[move on to Part 2—”Grass,”]

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2 responses to “Paper Towns and the Idolatry of Imagination: Part 1—Strings

  1. Pingback: Paper Towns and the Idolatry of Imagination: Part 2—Grass | CALEB COY

  2. Pingback: Paper Towns and The Idolatry of Imagination: Part 3—The Vessel | CALEB COY

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