Thursday, October 23, 2008

John Green's "Paper Towns," And Then Some

(above: Paper Towns covers)

Any discussion of John Green almost invariably includes his brother, Hank Green, and the project they started on the first of January in 2007. The project was called "Brotherhood 2.0." The two brothers made a video blog entry every day, alternating each day, for one whole year. The result was a conversation had in public about what it means to grow up and to be brothers and what it means to be in a community. The result was a fellowship of young people, self-named Nerdfighters, with the common goals of thinking and appreciating each other and appreciating themselves. This unintended result of the project is likely the most impressive.

But another stated impetus for the project, the one on which I wish to focus, was for these two brothers to get to know each other as adults. Hank and John really only knew each other as their younger selves, the two brothers who grew up together. This project was a way to learn how each of the brothers had grown up, what kind of adult person each one had turned into.

It's a lofty goal, and it's one that the brothers Green took seriously. The project lasted the whole year, and Hank and John still make videos to this day. Over the course of these videos, the full architecture of each of their personalities came into full relief, and we got to know them as well as they got to know each other.

That brings me to John Green the young adult author. He's written some award winning books (An Abundance of Katherines! Looking for Alaska!), and over the course of his videoblogging project, he has been writing his newest book. It's called Paper Towns, and I'm here to discuss a really important thematic similarity between the book and Brotherhood 2.0.

In essence, a teenage boy called Q finds himself drawn into the enigma of a teenage girl named Margo, his next door neighbor and the object of his desire. The two share a night of pranks (inarguably a classic "night of passion" without the classic trappings of a "night of passion"), and then, as in all of John Green's books, we make camp inside of our male narrator's mind and examine what happens when an important figure in his world disappears.

Also as in Green's previous works, the absent female cornerstone becomes far more important in our protagonist's mind than in the narrative. Put differently, the male lead's conception of the absent female leaf is far more important
throughout the novel than the actual female lead. In point of fact, calling Margo a female lead is pretty hugely misleading, as she is thought about more in this novel than she is actually in it.

That said, Paper Towns can be seen as a capstone on some of the important ruminations in John Green's previous works. In Paper Towns, more so than in those previous books, people are misunderstanding each other, and it's having serious consequences for their development and interaction. People have these thin versions of each other in their minds, and the book chronicles those thin versions filling out.

Paper Towns is an engrossing, witty, real-feeling book.
It crackles at times with the same intensity and clarity that characterized Alaska and Katherines. But it finally grabs some of the side themes of those works and hammers at them. It describes something we have all done. We have all deified or vilified others. We have all underestimated the complexity of those around us. The book shows us, in a pretty visceral way, the effects of this kind of drastic misapprehension.

This is clearly the textbook that informs all of Brotherhood 2.0. John Green and Hank Green had these thin versions of each other in their minds, and throughout their video project, these versions filled out.
Maybe even more impressively, the thin versions of the band geeks, literature nerds, and D&D dorks inside of us all fill out, and we learn to appreciate each other more completely through the connection of good books, inside jokes, and even charity projects. I recommend the book highly, but I recommend the Brotherhood 2.0 and Nerdfighting experience even more highly.

If you believe that people are complex and important and awesome, and thinking otherwise is dangerous, check out Brotherhood 2.0. If you need more proof of that danger, read Paper Towns.

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