"Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”
Paper Towns is a novel about imagining people complexly. For much of Quentin's childhood and adolescence, he has admired Margo from afar. A one-dimensional, skewed version of her true character. In doing so, Margo ceases to be Margo. She becomes a product of Quentin's imagination, a mirage of the real thing.
Quentin later realizes the treacherous nature of this, and he is able to see Margo as her true self: an uncertain, lost girl. Everyone, he finds, sees a slightly different side of Margo, though none truly depict her actual self. He imagines each of Margo's different "reflections" as if looking into a funhouse mirror: a reflection for her parents, for Quentin, for her friends, and so on.
"That’s always seemed so ridiculous to me, that people would want to be around someone because they’re pretty. It’s like picking your breakfast cereals based on colour instead of taste."
This quote is ironic for two reasons. One, it describes the superficiality of Quentin's love for Margo. He knows little of her personality, but what he sees on the outside -- what she falsely projects -- is what he falls in love with. He falls in love with color rather than taste, looks rather than depth.
Secondly, Margo is the one who says this, yet she cannot stop herself from projecting a one- dimensional image of herself to others. Her relationships are shallow and meaningless; even her boyfriend, Jase, knows next to nothing about her. Her first instinct is to create different personas which is what she hypocritically advises against others doing.
"I liked routine. I liked being bored. I didn’t want to, but I did."
Herein lie the fundamental differences between Margo and Quentin.
Quentin is a person of routine. Pretty much his whole life consists of the same patterns: school, home, thinking about Margo, romanticizing Margo. Margo infiltrates just about every one of his waking thoughts. The act of loving Margo becomes less about Margo herself, but the comfort in the routine of it -- the thought that he has something to fall back on, a place where his thoughts can always return.
Margo, contrariwise, needs to fill her time for fear of allowing herself a moment to think. While Quentin exerts all of his energy and time into loving one person, Margo cannot bring herself to truly need anyone. This impulsivity and often-selfish behavior hurts others in the process, preventing anyone from becoming truly close. Her reaction is to hold others at arm's length, while Quentin's is to cling almost obsessively.
"It’s a paper town…all those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm…Everyone demented with the mania of owning things…I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters."
Margo has a pretty cynical perception of propriety and how it motivates people. With a hint of condescension, she points out the flaws of society, the shallow nature of suburbia.
Her tendency to find fault in others prevents her from looking at herself, at the one-dimensional "paper" figure she has become. While Quentin once finds this sentiment wise, he later realizes that Margo surrounds herself with wit and cynicism as a shield. That the faults picks out in others are truly ones she sees in herself.
"I like the clues more than you."
Radar, whose nickname implies his ability to detect people's true selves, is the first person to see Margo in an honest light. The thrill of the chase, the ambiguity and the mystique, becomes more enticing than the girl behind it all. Radar's brutal honesty is what Quentin chose to ignore all along, when in reality his perceptions of Margo were the most accurate.
"I'm a big believer in random capitalization. The rules of capitalization are so unfair to words in the middle."
Margo is someone who wants to assert herself as different. While others mostly describe her eccentric beauty, she attempts to assert this to herself and others through eccentric use of writing - an intelligent and even poetic way to be different. Furthermore, Margo attempts to wield this differentness for certain kind of equality - though not a common or necessarily practical cause, Margo is stretching her wings of social activism.
“Did you know that for pretty much the entire history of the human species, the average life span was less than thirty years? You could count on ten years or so of real adulthood, right? There was no planning for retirement, There was no planning for a career. There was no planning. No time for plannning. No time for a future. But then the life spans started getting longer, and people started having more and more future. And now life has become the future. Every moment of your life is lived for the future--you go to high school so you can go to college so you can get a good job so you can get a nice house so you can afford to send your kids to college so they can get a good job so they can get a nice house so they can afford to send their kids to college.”
Like Quentin makes up a present for Margo that isn't really based on her but on his wishes, expectations, and perception of her, Margo creates a false history of humanity that fits with her cynical view of the world. The average lifespan in the world was 30 in the Paleolithic age, Classical Rome, and all the way up past 1900s. This is a massive amount of time for Margo to understand or make statements based off. Furthermore, calculations of life span are unduly biased by infant mortality, and other calculations of life expectancy often omit infant mortality and become much higher (meaning people died on average in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s as early as Classical Rome). Margo's quote, though convincing, is therefor based on her own views of life planning as a negative effect of modernity, not on fact.
“It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.”
The car game that Quentin and Radar play called "That Guy is a Gigolo" is a classic example of sonder. ‘Sonder’ was a word made up by John Koenig for The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words with the aim to fill a hole in language. Sonder's definition, as Koenig describes it, is "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground"(dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com). Likewise, Quentin thinks this quote while looking at the people passing in cars, attempting to imagine their lives. Quentin and Radar collectively realize that while the game is fun, it really reflects what they want to see, even what is most entertaining to see, rather than what's real. This realization parallels Quentin's attempts to understand Margo, though still unable to truly comprehend her humanity.
“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 website 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 late, but you always show up eventually.”
Again, Radar's name implies his ability to pick up cues about people and thinks accurately. In this quote, he zeroes in on one of Quentin's crucial flaws - wanting people to be the way he imagines them rather than the way they are. This is Quentin's problem with Margo as well, and he recognizes this to some extent, but Radar helps the reader to see that it is paralleled in his relationship with Ben.
"I know it's impossible for you to see peers this way, but when you're older you start to see them - the bad kids and the good kids - as people. They're just people, who deserve to be cared for. Varying degrees of sick, varying degrees of neurotic, varying degrees of self-actualized."
Green, as an adult and a parent himself, wishes to impart this message directly to the young adult reader. As demonstrated by the book's beginning with early childhood and the book's overall theme of coming of age, Green puts emphasis on a reading of the book and the book's characters as children learning and struggling with how to be good, intelligent people.
Paper Towns Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Paper Towns is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.