Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Club: Paper Towns by John Green

In this feature I construct a fake soundtrack (or, I suppose, a real soundtrack) to a book I have recently read. I read very slowly. Songs chosen are either songs that felt like they were intertwined with the text or merely songs I was listening to at the time that I forced meaning into. But in this case, it's mostly the former.

I'll admit, the reason I'm a Nerdfighter is because I found out that one of the inscriptions in Paper Towns was one of my absolute favorite lines from my absolute favorite Mountain Goats albums. “People say friends don't destroy one another/ What do they know about friends?” For years I've carried that line from “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” around with me like a badge. A bad for bad relationships and dead friendships and the reasons therein. That line was my truth, and for it to pop up in a book was too coincidental to ignore. Wikipedia linked me to Amazon, Amazon led me to Google-searching John Green, which led to Vlogbrothers, which led to the only web-entity I strictly follow. Webcomics and blogs tend to get forgotten, but Vlogbrothers is this little light of good in the world that has helped me become less of an asshole and has set to restoring a power of positive thinking inside my cynical and burnt out brain.

I have been waiting for Paper Towns to show up at Half Price Books for a solid six months, maybe more. Ever since I read that it mentioned the Mountain Goats, one of my top 3 favorite bands (position varies, but always within the top 3). Looking For Alaska showed up first, and it wasn't even in the Young Adult section. I found it on a fluke, took it home, read it, and it opened my eyes to the wide and fascinating world of Young Adult Fiction. It wasn't a book I would have thought to read when I was actually of-age (see: 15-18) but I feel like I appreciate it more now that I'm a more grown-ass man/boy (see: 25). I liked it more than I like The Catcher in the Rye now, which for all intents and purposes was the book that taught me to read. My guts have this longing for a great bildungsroman, and Looking for Alaska was of the brutal variety. The hard growing up variety. The dealing with shit you shouldn't have to deal with when you're a teenager, and I loved how honest it was. And how, despite the fact that it's for teenagers I was able to take so much from it that moved me and continues to move me.

An Abundance of Katherines came next, snagged from the Westport store on a jaunt to Kansas City. I read half of it and stopped because of a number of reasons. Mostly it just wasn't as deep as Looking for Alaska. It was fun, there was a goofy best friend (who I mostly couldn't stand) and Colin just never grabbed me. And then I put the book down for three months. When I picked it up again and finished it, I learned to like it more. The last 30 pages I kind of loved it and it hit me in the same place as Alaska. I even learned to love Hassan and the stupid shit he would say that I thought a teenager would never say but then, as it wore on, realized that maybe kids DO talk like this. Who knows!

And then Paper Towns, which happened in the earlier part of this week. At first I thought it was An Abundance of Katherines Part II, since it has the same characters. Overly analytical protagonist boy with a goofy best friend and a crush on some painfully too cool girl that he'll never have a chance with. Well, sort of the same. I mostly just hated the way Ben talked and thought “No one calls girls honeybunnies, not even if they're 18.” But as soon as Margo drags Quentin along on her midnight revenge mission, I was hooked, and in the end I felt like Paper Towns was even more excellent than Looking for Alaska. Or they're equal, I can't decide, but the adventure of it from camping out in abandoned minimalls in subdivisions that were never built to all the Walt Whitman stuff and having characters who sing along to the Mountain Goats on their way to class with the windows down to show everyone what great taste they have. It was all so spot on. I'll never be a literary critic, because I don't know how to criticize books like this. Books that, when I'm finished, I clutch to my chest like I'm saying some emotional goodbye. “I'm sorry I cracked your spine,” I say. I don't know how to criticize that, other than the nitpicky stuff which was made up for by things like Radar's parents having the worlds largest collection of Black Santas or the way Green turns the stereotypical preppies from other books into real characters with their own problems and wants and wishes and fears and all that stuff they should have but never seem to get in books.

Anyway, long story short, I really liked this book. I was very moved by it and it made me want to write young adult fiction. I actually wrote a novel when I was 17 and 18, over the course of a summer, the best summer ever. I'd wake up every morning at 10 sharp, go to Einstein Brothers and read and write, then ride my bike around the trail on Indian Creek, then go to Pizza Street for two hours and write and eat pizza and then maybe go work at AMC or watch movies in my bedroom. It was a great summer, and the manuscript is terrible but I now feel like there's something worth salvaging. Songs kept popping up while I was reading this. Mostly Mountain Goats songs, since that was the sort of prepackaged soundtrack, but ones I didn't expect. And other songs that fit in with various turns of phrase or scenes or characters. It's easier, though, when a book provides a soundtrack for you. A really great one at that.

Guided by Voices - “Paper Girl”

There's a part towards the end of the book, when, spoiler alert, Quentin is talking to Margo in the field in the paper town and she talks about being this paper girl and it's the part in the book that made the book work for me and made me love it. It's when Margo becomes a real person rather than a mythical creature. I love this song because it works just as well from both Quentin's image of Margo and Margo's image of herself. It's such a perfect companion piece to Paper Towns. Now that I think of it, Guided by Voices were referenced in the text! Totally forgot about that. Margo has GBV in her record collection, so maybe she had a copy of Self Inflicted Aerial Nostaligia tucked away in the Gs, gathering dust and value.

The Mountain Goats – “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”

“People say friends don't destroy one another/ What do they know about friends?” as I mentioned, is my favorite line off of Tallahassee (favorites 2-5 are all probably from “No Children” or “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”). I think it captures what John Darnielle is best at, which is saying things plainly but giving them this amazing, insightful depth with the way he says them. I can see where John Green gets it. There's no point in explaining what that line means, because you KNOW what it means, and if you are a normal person who has interacted with other people, you probably have a specific example of what that line means to you.

The Mountain Goats - “See America Right”

For the third act. Five teenagers in a minivan blitzing north to New York from Orlando in 21 hours. It's insanity, and this is the song you listen to when you're burning a trail to some destination and don't even have time to stop. Something in Peter Hughes bass line that just drives you straight down into oblivion. Wait, that's a line from “Game Shows Touch Our Lives.” Shit. Also, holy shit is JD dressed as Batman in this video I THINK SO.

The Mountain Goats - “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton”

The lead-off track from one of my ultimate road trip records: All Hail West Texas. This is the song I imagine Ben, Radar, and Q singing along to at that one part where they sing along to the mountain goats. It's THEE Mountain Goats song to sing along to. Well, that seems to be the general consensus, at least, from the times I've seen them play this at the end of sets and everyone screaming along with so much love for their fellow man, especially at the “HAIL SATAN!” part. It's just such a fun song to sing.

The Lemonheads - “Bit Part”

This is going on because I love the Lemonheads, and when thinking of songs that fit with the book I defaulted to the Lemonheads because they're the last band I really, truly fell in love with that I'd never known I would fall in love with. “Bit Part” is the sweetest song on “It's a Shame About Ray,” which is by turns funny and sad and moody and all the things that make it a masterpiece, but “Bit Part” always kind of made my heart a little fuzzy. It's not like the guy in the song pleading for a bit part in girl's life gets girl or anything like that, but it's the purity of his intent.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - “Walt Whitman's Niece”

Referenced in the book, where Q says Billy Bragg has a more pleasant voice than Woody Guthrie, whom he finds unlistenable. It's a sweet and honest admission. The song feels rowdier than most of the book feels, but it seems to fit really well in the adventure sequence in the beginning, and the line, “And it takes a night and a girl/ And a book of this kind/ A long long time to find its way back” is you know, just exactly it. Right there, in song form. A perfect fit to the soundtrack.

No comments:

Post a Comment