Since Paper Towns received an award from the Mystery Writers of America (the Edgar Allan Poe award, no less), then it must be a mystery—mystery writers know a mystery when they see one. So what makes Paper Towns a mystery? We define mystery as fiction dealing with the solution of a crime or the unraveling of secrets. While there's no crime here (except the fashion crime of Confederate Flag shirts), the book is about unraveling Margo Roth Spiegelman's secrets. (More like Margo Roth Secretman. Well, no, she's not secretly a man. Ahem. Anyway…)
Quentin plays Sherlock Holmes and tries to follow the trail of clues Margo Roth Spiegelman has left… even when she swears she hasn't been leaving any clues at all. Hmm, maybe mystery writers make mysteries where there aren't any? In the end, it's elementary, our dear Margo Roth Spiegelman, and Quentin cracks the case—and Margo's formerly impenetrable façade.
As for this being young adult lit, it's about young adults, it's written for young adults, and it deals with young adult problems like prom, the girl next door, and what to name your minivan.
Margo Roth Spiegelman calls Orlando (and most of Florida) a paper town early in the book. When she and Quentin look out over the city from the top of the SunTrust Building, Margo Roth Spiegelman makes her disdain known:
You can see how fake it all is. It's not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It's a paper town. […] All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. (1.6.34)
This is where we chime in and say, takes one to know one, because Margo is just as fake as the rest of them. And she comes to realize this, too, at the end. She says that she thought Quentin was flat—"two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person" (3.22.93)—but then she realizes, "I was made of paper. I was the flimsy-foldable person, not everyone else" (3.22.96). It's a light bulb moment for sure.
What does she mean by this? Perhaps she means that Quentin knows who he is. He's happy in his small town, focusing on school and thinking about college. But Margo Roth Spiegelman is so desperate to be liked that she tries to be friends with everyone, goes on adventures to make herself seem interesting, and really has no idea what she wants. She's folding herself over and over again to fit into so many different situations, and she's getting tired of it. She has to find out who she is and become a little more solid.
Quentin spends most of the novel looking for Alaska… oops, we mean looking for Margo Roth Spiegelman. He finds her… but she says she doesn't want to be found. Well that's a letdown. When he asks her to come home with him, she says no. But he at least gets to make out with her in a parking lot before they part ways. After they kiss, Quentin gives us the last line of the novel:
Yes, I can see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness. (3.22.178)
His staring at her reminds us of when they stared at each other in the darkness when they were kids. And the last line makes us recall another line from earlier in the book: Quentin says, "Margo's beauty was a kind of sealed vessel of perfection—uncracked and uncrackable" (1.5.37). But by the end of the novel, he sees that she isn't perfect. She isn't uncracked and uncrackable, she's in the "cracked darkness" (3.22.178). She might even be the cracked darkness.
But this doesn't scare Quentin away. He seems to accept her for who she really is, instead of trying to make her into something she's not. So while they may be parting ways, Quentin also might finally be her first true friend.
Jefferson Park is "a massive subdivision, because that's what Florida does with land" (Prologue.2). There doesn't seem to be anything remarkable about it at all. When Quentin and Margo Roth Spiegelman find a dead man, Margo wonders "Maybe it was drugs" (Prologue.18), because when a Florida man ends up dead, it's usually drugs.
This town could basically be any suburb. What matters is how the characters feel about it. Quentin doesn't mind suburban life, but Margo hates it—she considers it a paper town (check out "What's Up with the Title?") and decides to leave.
Margo flees Jefferson Park to Agloe, New York. Don't try typing it into Google Maps, though, because it won't pop up. Agloe is "a fictitious village created by the Esso company in the early 1930s and inserted into tourist maps as a copyright trap, or paper town" (2.20.40). Cool trick. And since Margo seems to be unhappy wherever she goes, she goes somewhere that doesn't exist. We guess that way she can't be unhappy with it?
When Quentin tracks her down, she still can't believe that he'd want to go back to Jefferson Park. He agrees that the people are kind of weak there, but the place is fine. She counters, "The people are the place is the people" (3.22.88). Deep stuff.
Do you believe that? And if so, does that make Margo a paper town, too? Is she a copyright trap? A construct to trick people? And if Margo Roth Spiegelman settles down in a paper town, does that mean she doesn't exist either? It's like trying to figure out the sound of one hand clapping.
And after, when
We went outside to look at her finished lantern
from the road, I said I liked the way her light
shone through the face that flickered in the dark.
—"Jack O'Lantern," Katrina Vandenberg in Atlas
People say friends don't destroy one another
What do they know about friends?
—"Game Shows Touch Our Lives," The Mountain Goats
We have two epigraphs serving as a road sign welcoming us to Paper Towns (population: ?).
The first is from the end of a poem in Katrina Vandenberg's collection, Atlas. In the poem, it seems that two people have carved pumpkins and are admiring their handiwork from the road. In Paper Towns, there are no pumpkins—it isn't even Halloween. However, we have the image of a face flickering in the dark, which happens twice in Paper Towns. In the prologue, Margo Roth Spiegelman looks at Quentin through his window, and the novel's last line says how Quentin "can see [Margo] almost perfectly in this cracked darkness" (3.22.178).
So, is Margo Roth Spiegelman a pumpkin (a Margo Jack o'Spiegelman)? She is kind of a man-made construct. No one really knows who she is, and her identity, even to herself, is composed of what other people think of her. So maybe the epigraph is about seeing through this and glimpsing her inner light.
The second epigraph is from a song by Quentin's (and John Green's) favorite band, the Mountain Goats (whose lead singer's novel was nominated for the National Book Award in 2014). Quentin and pals listen to the Mountain Goats (maybe even this very song) in Part 2, Chapter 8, on their first early-morning trip to Margo Roth Spiegelman's mini-mall (the Margo Roth Spiegelmall, home of the Margo Roth Spiegelmall holiday catalog).
The quote in the epigraph is misleading, though. Quentin and his friends never destroy each other, and they only get into, like, one fight that lasts about six paragraphs. Margo Roth Spiegelman, however, tries to destroy people, but you could argue that she never had any friends to begin with, since she's hollow inside like a carved pumpkin. Perhaps what gets destroyed is her ability to live beneath a façade—perhaps, somehow, her friends (or lack thereof) force her to quit being fake and invest in being real.
So we have two epigraphs only loosely related to the actual content of the book. Basically, they're both epigraphs by people John Green admires, and he wants you to read and listen to them, too. So get on it.
Reading Paper Towns is easier than planning a cross-country road trip. But throw out your GPS, because this is a book for those who like to go about road trips the old-fashioned way. You have the destination in mind (Quentin is looking for Margo Roth Spiegelman), but if you're open to some surprises along the way, you're going to find the journey much more rewarding than if you just cruise by on autopilot.
In the prologue, a nine-year-old Margo Roth Spiegelman wonders why the man she found in the park killed himself. "Maybe all the strings inside him broke" (Prologue.32), she says, because nine-year-olds love speaking in metaphor.
She brings up strings again later, saying that "Every paper girl needs at least one string, right?" (1.6.35). When she does, she's talking about her friends—people she doesn't really like—and how they were pretty much the only thing they had left.
Quentin wonders about all the string talk, and thinks it might be Margo's suicidal tendencies talking. If all her strings break, is she going to kill herself? Quentin doesn't want that, so he tries to find her and be the string that she can follow back home. Strings, then, stand for connections, whether they're wanted or not.
All the string imagery ties into Detective Warren's assessment of Margo Roth Spiegelman as a balloon. (No, Margo Roth Spiegelman, this isn't a comment on your weight—put your spray paint away.) He calls her a "free spirit" (2.3.41), noting that "that string gets cut all the time" (2.3.41) in reference to her repeated disappearances. Margo, then, cuts her own string. And without strings, balloons just float away, which is exactly what Margo does. And she doesn't want to come back. You go be you, Margo.
When Quentin is searching for Margo Roth Spiegelman, he thinks that she is leading him to one of the many pseudovisions that are more numerous in Florida than sinkholes. These pseudovisions are similar to the paper towns, "subdivision[s] abandoned before [they] could be completed" (2.8.21). In other words, they're places that aren't really places.
However, it turns out that these are the wrong sort of paper towns. The pseudovisions are a red herring, a clue that isn't really a clue. Margo isn't leading Quentin to them on purpose—but maybe she would if she recognized that she is a pseudovision, too.
Her paper girl speech (see "What's Up with the Ending?") that likens herself to a two-dimensional paper girl makes her seem like a pseudovision, too. She abandons her home before she can be completed, creates a sense of herself for others that isn't really there beneath her surface.
The difference between the pseudovisions and Margo Roth Spiegelman is that Margo Roth Spiegelman wants to be completed. If she stayed in Florida, she, like the pseudovisions, would never be completed. Florida is where things go to die, not to live, and Margo Roth Spiegelman isn't about to let that happen to herself, so off she goes.
If Quentin knows anything about Margo Roth Spiegelman, it's that she's an obsessive planner. And if someone is planning a trip, what do they do? Well, most people would just plug their destination into Google Maps, but Margo wants to go to a place that isn't actually on the map, so she needs an actual paper map.
When Quentin finds Margo Roth Spiegelman's map in the mini-mall (the Margo Roth Spiegelmap), he's able to trace her path. But since Margo isn't actually leaving Quentin any clues, this, too, is a red herring.
However, it's a map that ultimately leads Quentin to her. Well, a mapmaking technique, to be exact. When he finally finds out what a paper town really means (a fake town a cartographer plots to protect his maps from plagiarism), he pinpoints exactly where Margo is: a town that's not on any map. And really, when you think about it, Margo Roth Spiegelman was never on the map to begin with. She's been playing a part all along, keeping her real self someplace no one can find her.
Seven hours into the road trip, Quentin says "the minivan has become a kind of very small house" (3.7.2). There's a den, an office, a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and, sadly, no bathrooms. It's like your average apartment in Bushwick, but larger.
Maybe it's sleep deprivation, or maybe Quentin is thinking about how you can really make a home anywhere. After all, that's what Margo Roth Spiegelman is trying to do because she doesn't call her parents' house or her hometown her home. The difference between Quentin and Margo, however, is that Margo is trying to do it all alone, while Quentin gets by with a little help from his friends. As he says, "You can't beat the open floor plan" (3.7.9). He's enjoying their time together, and that's what home means to him.
Green chose Quentin as a narrator for a very specific reason: He "wanted the reader to be conscious that s/he is only seeing Margo through Q's eyes, and that Q—at least for much of the novel—knows absolutely nothing about the girl he says he loves" (source).
Since this is a mystery, and Margo Roth Spiegelman is the mystery, this puts us in a position to learn about Margo, to try to, in essence, "solve" the mystery right alongside Quentin. What does Quentin end up learning about Margo Roth Spiegelman? And does he still love her after he finds these things out? How would the story have been different if it were told from Margo's point of view?