“Forever is composed of nows.”-Emily Dickenson
Quentin Jacobson had been searching for Margo Roth Spiegelman, but he had yet to go on a journey. Like Whitman, he needed to travel across the country, become exposed, truly listen for Margo. He needed to experience and understand that paper towns existed all over, with paper people living in all of them. “The world is full of people,” he comes to say, “full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently mismanaged.”
In order to do this, Q would need a vessel and a crew.
As for the crew, we have three characters who exemplify these paper stereotypes, only to thwart them, growing into slightly more complex human beings that, nonetheless, still exist somewhat trapped in their otherwise typical young suburban lives:
- Ben, a band Geek who hooks up with a pretty, popular girl.
- “Radar,” A black nerd with parents who collect Black Santas.
- Lacey, a long-time friend of Margo who barely knows her (and becomes Ben’s girlfriend).
They exist as typical teenage characters despite their oxymoronic quirks, perhaps existing only to contrast the mysterious Margo. Ben’s quest has been for girls, but now that he has found one his true quest is to find maturity. Radar believes his quest is to rid himself of his parents’ black Santa collection, but his true quest is to come to terms with it. Lacey seems to tag along, but realizes that this quest is as much hers as anyone else’s.
All metaphors have implications. The naming of the vessel as “the dreidel” may merely serve as an inciting incident and a joke to an otherwise dull journey. Green had to have some way for the teens to face an actual danger on this journey, physical peril, behind having to pee in bottles. The nick-name may also be a thematic allusion. It is a gambling toy, and our teens are taking multiple risks on this road trip to find a girl who they fear may commit suicide in just a few hours. Furthermore, it is a Jewish symbol:
- The symbols, נ , ג , ה , ש , stand for “a great miracle happened there,” as in surviving a near run-in with a cow intact, as well as the “miracle” of Margo Roth Spiegelman, herself the destination.
- Hannukah, the feast of the rededication of the temple (as we’ll explore in a minute)
- being given a Jewish name and being referred to as a vessel, and the most famous temple vessel in Jewish lore is the Ark—not Noah’s ark, but the Ark of the Covenant.
The obtaining of a vessel and the opportunity to rise almost happens by luck, or even divine providence, in our story. Q discovers the most significant clue as to Margo’s exact whereabouts with just enough time to rescue her, right when he is given a mini-van as a gift from his parents, and moments before graduation. It all falls in to play: The last item needed for the quest, the last revelation before the final destination, and the typical, paper event that the youngsters ditch in order to embark on a more daring, risky, revealing rite of passage—a road trip to “nowhere,” a paper town that exists on a map, yet never existed. They embark for a false utopia, taking the ark back to the Garden of Eden. Quentin, at the helm, is trying to regain the innocence of his childhood, to reunite with Eve in the Garden before the curse of the Apple takes its toll.
Quentin realized before that Margo, like Whitman, yearned to be everywhere and nowhere, unsatisfied with not only one town, but any town, and whatever kind of creature she was, she just had to leave. He just needed to know why. He just needed answers. But when he finds her, he doesn’t find answers. He finds more questions.
“I and this mystery here we stand.”
Q and his friends find the most anti-climactic thing ever: Margo is just sitting in a chair, writing. And yet, as an author, Green is telling us that this is no less significant than any epic stumble-upon. Margo is just sitting there, being Margo. This is the revelation. Quentin is understandably upset.
Recall the vessel, again. The Ark of the Covenant was never meant to be a container for God, but a container of relational items to his people, and a place where his presence would be made known. All the items that Q browsed, collected, read through—these were not Margo. Only by piling friends into a vessel of movement would he discover Margo. Only by bypassing the typical ceremony of high school graduation and braving the road could he find her.
Q had been trying to contain Margo in little increments, not let her fingerprints speak for her. But then again, maybe she wasn’t even allowing him to see the all of her. He has assumed her clues were meant to give her away, when in actuality his pursuit was so strong that he happened to stumble upon her as herself, as if he had peeked behind the curtain. Although she had approached him at his window, sneaky as a ninja, she had never invited him to go through her room after her presence was gone. Besides, if she was gone, why would he expect to find her?
The answer: Margo Roth Spiegelman had become mythic. With all that she left behind, Quentin gave himself permission to construct his own version of her, “[cultivating] a paper girl.“
Thus it is almost a miracle that he does actually find her. But his disappointment was initially crushing. “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person,” writes Green. The truth is that Q had idolized Margo Roth Spiegelman. He had, in a way, violated her past in order to imagine her in the present and control her future. His search was a selfish search. It was not a search to find her, but a search for him to be the one to find her.
Like the manic pixie dream girl, the paper girl in Q’s mind served not as an actual person, but as a tool for his own fulfillment. This was not the Margo that had chosen to leave everyone behind. “Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.” That’s not the ending we’re hoping for, as readers. We feel Quentin’s pain. We want that ending where she meets the mold of his imagination, where he sweeps her up in his arms and they ride off into the sunset. His fantasy of being with her, though not pornographic, was still a violation of who she was, and therefore profane.
Q has a theory that imagination, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, is the machine that kills fascists. It has the power to destroy the fake, paper towns we build ourselves and tramp perpetually in the orange groves. This is not the imagination of a board of directors building a franchise of movies, toys, and theme parks, but the raw human imagination that solves puzzles, takes risks, falls in love. It’s vulnerable, but it’s alive. It exposes itself; it listens.
(One almost wonders if Paper Towns is a subversive critique of Disney World, an elaborate land of fantasy and entertainment built over demolished natural wetland. We have no fairy tale ending where the girls absolutely must be rescued by the prince and fall in love. What if Disney is fascist?)
And unlike in Disney fairy tales, Q must confront the truth: His hero’s errand is not to rescue her, but to let her go. He must let her be her. He must mature and become a more complex and complete self by choosing not to follow Margo. He is a part of her, and she is a part of him, and that was true since the beginning, since they first encountered evil and suffering. They are interconnected, and that is enough. Their capacity for imagination unites them, but also prevents them from being tied down. They cannot be together for the both of them to have a happy ending.
Quentin’s concept of Margo is and always will be an illusion, and so he must accept her as she is. He must love Margo Roth Spiegelman on her own terms. She is a paper girl. And he is a paper boy. And this pop-up storybook is too full of interconnected strings to to ever close, because if it does, the strings will break, the grass will wither, and the vessel will crack.
(Eat it, John Green. I just burned you on all three metaphors.)
It’s wrong to objectify a person, make them into less than a person. It can be equally wrong to idolize a person, to set them up as more than a person. Either way, we refuse to accept people as they are, to give them what they are owed, to let them live as they ought.
Paper people are paper, and cannot be real. Real people are real and, being in the image of their God, they cannot be contained.