Well, actually, first of all. graphite lent me his copy of John Green's Paper Towns, which I finally read this weekend! I'm not sure how many of you know his work, though I've been told he and his brother have fun, educational Internet videos; and I know more than a few of you have read and loved his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars.
Paper Towns is about a high school boy and his girl next door.
John Green's characterization and dialogue are really, really good; 'nuff said. I'm hesitant about portrayals of children and/or teenagers in fiction because, since most of the things we read are written by adults, sometimes that distance gets in the way and the kids just aren't. Kids! It's the reason I don't generally read Weechester fic in Supernatural fandom, and the reason I never finished Dorothy Allison's Cavedweller. And it's not because my childhood just happened to be out of the norm, or too normal to be featured in a book, or on television, or whatever (although it was). The high school experiences in Paper Towns don't bear particular resemblance to my own, either--not even for the backgrounds kids, who aren't part of the actual story and therefore doing zany impressive plot-worthy things. But it still felt like reading the adolescent experience I never had, because I bought every minute of it, every line of dialogue, every assignment, every mention of how the school day got broken down, how early you got to school and why, what you did on the weekends.
I mean. You can watch High School Musical and know that under no circumstances is anyone's life at all like that. And even if you chalk up HSM's unbelievability to Disney Channel escapism, you can watch The Breakfast Club and still know that no one's experience was like that, either--people clearly delineated into convenient archetypes and their adolescence a traceable string of life-moulding events. Even though Paper Towns has the Bullies, and the Nerds, and the Band Kids, and the Cheerleaders, etc. the things they get to say sound like they're coming straight out of the mouths of people you actually know (or knew in high school, depending on how old you are).
I was sitting around my university's Literature building the other day, and overheard one of our professors--he's teaching a lecture on Adolescent Literature this quarter--explaining a theory that the apparent simplicity of the YA novel (reliance on stereotypes and archetypal characters) is potentially the truest possible representation of the young adult. Because at that age, you're still figuring out your identity, and the identities of your peers; lots of people think in terms of those classifications (influenced by the media, fascinatingly). That is how the world really looks and seems, and it's how many adolescents actually do perceive the world. The world based on archetypes becomes real from the perspective of the YA storyteller, and the subjects of his/her story. I'm really taken by this idea, actually, and I think that sort of thing plays out well in Paper Towns. The classifications exist, and the characters tend to self-select--I'm a band kid, you're a cheerleader, etc.--even while acting and living and speaking outside of the convenience of these roles, like the full people they are. Realizing this process and making 'paper children' into real, tangible high school graduate kids forms the core of this novel.
And no, not in the contrived Glee sort of way, where everyone is a stereotype but look! They are so much more!
There's an organic way to present this, and there's an overly self-aware, commercial way to do this. One guess which one I think Glee does, and which adjective I'd give to Paper Towns. (Sorry, Glee.)
The other thing Paper Towns does is go beyond stagnant dramatic conflicts. I feel like a narrative structure that is too typical follows thusly:
friction between friends --> resentment and fighting --> disaster/break-up and/or apology, based on realizing that their fight really wasn't that big a deal, or that they're over it now, for x, y, or z reasons
It creates conflict based on people being self-absorbed (which we all are, a lot of the time) and resolves it based on some kind of eye-opening apology from either or both parties. Depending on how important this conflict is to the plot, this is either quick and inconsequential, or drawn out and messy. I feel like these two things are taken as givens and not that many narratives expand outward from them latitudinally.
Which is what makes this beautiful:
"Can we brainstorm over video games?"
"I'm not really in the mood."
"Can we call Ben then?"
"No. Ben's an asshole."
Radar looked at me sideways. "Of course he is. You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves. I mean, I could hate you for being massively unpunctual and for never being interested in anything other than Margo Roth Spiegelman, and for, like, never asking me about how it's going with my girlfriend--but I don't give a shit, man, because you're you. My parents have a shit ton of black Santas, but that's okay. They're them. I'm too obsessed with a reference Web site to answer my phone sometimes when my friends call, or my girlfriend. That's okay, too. That's me. You like me anyway. And I like you. You're funny, and you're smart, and you may show up lat, but you always show up eventually."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't complimenting you. Just saying: stop thinking Ben should be you, and he needs to stop thinking you should be him, and y'all just need to chill the hell out."
Paper Towns, pg. 194-195
We need more moments like this in our stories. It's very simple, but it breaks those binaries and really sells it.
And on a final note, two words: Road trip. As perhaps you've gathered from my fandom and my personal travels, I have an insane weakness for them. This book contains one of the greatest, most amazing road trips scenes I've ever read and you should read it for that alone, if for nothing else. The entire trip is fabulous, but I think the ending really makes it. When you're driving, a small world creates itself in your car; and the longer you drive, the further that world gets from whatever's going on outside. And when the trip ends? It's like that world falls apart a little. You can see the outside, and even if you were really, earnestly driving toward something, your residual momentum shakes you and you wonder, is that it?
You can take the feeling down to cliches, it's the trip and not the destination, but you know there's more to it than that.
This commentary is spoiler-free. :)
* Also, because I can't live my life without at least one more SPN reference per entry. wrt the quote I referenced above: It's my strong opinion that if the Winchesters and Castiel read a few more YA novels (that they've certainly never heard of, in the downtime they don't have), their lives would be that much more livable!