This summer, the film adaptation of John Green’s young adult novel Paper Towns will hit theaters, and if the movie holds true to the book, we will perhaps see Orlando—our City Beautiful—on-screen in a truly meaningful way. For years, whenever a director has wanted to convey “Orlando,” we’ve watched stock footage of Osceola County theme parks (and sometimes even Atlantic beaches), athletes and talk-show hosts and sitcom characters high-fiving Goofy. But now there’s a chance that we might finally get to feel what the residents of so many other cities feel when they watch a movie or read a book that cares about the actual place, their home, and that doesn’t feel composed entirely of cliché and stereotype.
Green’s other YA novel-turned-blockbuster, last summer’s The Fault in Our Stars, is of course the author’s crowning achievement, the banner under which John Green Nation marches. Many of his readers are (appropriately) teenagers and high-schoolers, but many more are actual adults who unapologetically enjoy coming-of-age stories, and who follow his social media endeavors the way that die-hard football fans follow the most minor of NFL training camp updates. No matter the box office haul, and no matter the role that setting plays in the film version of Paper Towns (there’s obviously a chance that we could see Orlando reduced to stock footage once again), the 2009 book already has a large readership, and the film will certainly spark greater interest in that version of the story. And as Orlandoans who care deeply about our city’s cultural identity, it’s exciting to finally have honest portraits of our town in the larger literary and cinematic landscape.
But, interestingly enough, Paper Towns is not the only recent novel to have been set in Orlando. In fact, it’s not even the only young adult novel to have done so. Here in the days before the movie’s wide release, I want to look at Paper Towns alongside some of these other YA novels, and explore how the City Beautiful is constructed from book to book: from Paper Towns to Jenny Torres Sanchez’s Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, to Lauren Gibaldi’s The Night We Said Yes, how is Orlando depicted on the page, and what does this say about the city in which we live?
Part 1: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia
A few years back, before the recent explosion of positive articles about Orlando’s hip neighborhoods and eateries, I remember an article from VICE Magazine’s online “Big Night Out” section that tried hard to make our city seem super-lame. Back then, we were an easy target. We were a “small market” that Dwight Howard couldn’t wait to escape, and no one was yet writing listicles about our emerging hip neighborhoods. There was no Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, no attendance record-setting MLS team, just a lot of new suburban development.
“I’ve been a Canadian living on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida as part of a summer internship for the last couple of months,” the author of the VICE piece begins, which to someone in a “cooler” city is perhaps enough to establish her credibility as a cultural critic on Orlando. (But look closely at that first sentence: she’s Canadian: if Canadians are making fun of Orlando, you know that we had a bleak reputation.) She then tells us that this city “is five years behind the rest of the western world,” and—as we embark upon an ill-informed and poorly described narrative—we follow her from a party bus to a place that she calls “downtown”…but the drop-off point is a “Chick-Fil-A” (she uses quotes, by the way, as if this franchise is other-wordly, so provincial as to be hilarious), and there are police on horseback, and the bars are either vaguely described or imaginary (“Zexzoo”?). Maybe I don’t get downtown very much anymore, but I didn’t recognize anything, and couldn’t understand the geography. Through the duration of the article, she takes pictures of weird and/or drunk people at bars, often sounding confused that these drunk people would want to pose for pictures (now who’s five years behind the rest of the western world?); she seems to want to engage in hardcore internet-shaming, both of the people and the city, but she’s just not that good of a writer: “We went to another crowded bar which I also don’t remember the name of. While I was there, I drank some kind of murky green substance. Finally, the bus arrived to deliver me from this hell I’d somehow wound up in.” Any city can be made to seem super-lame when a party bus is involved, and when you travel with a crew of the super-lame to places the super-lame enjoy. The piece was lazy, written with the intention only of smart-ass internet insult, and so poorly constructed that it seemed desperate. Most of my friends read it but were too perplexed to get angry. Really, the whole thing felt like listening to a whiny teenager complaining that “this place sucks!” and “when I get a car, I’m sooooo out of here!”, and it’s shaped my view of VICE Magazine and their efforts ever since.
This, however, brings me to Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, the second young adult novel from author Jenny Torres Sanchez, a book that comes from the same era as the VICE article but stands as a stark contrast. Sanchez doesn’t try to make fun of the city, but rather attempts to understand its growing pains, its angst, its awkwardness, even as the book’s central characters make comments that don’t sound too far off from the “deliver me from this hell” quote above. The protagonist is the acerbic and confused Frenchie Garcia, a high-school girl who drifts in and out of various crowds searching for her role, and—when Frenchie finally feels as if she’s made a connection with a boy (after a late-night adventure across Orlando)—she wakes up the next morning to learn that he’s committed suicide.
The book is masterful in its use of voice, and in how it delves into such dark themes for a younger reading audience without ever condescending, but it’s the setting of Orlando that I found mostly skillfully deployed. The portrait of Orlando that we see in this book is painted by a teenager. It can be as maddening as the VICE profile, particularly because we disagree with Frenchie based on our knowledge and experiences as adults, but that’s what makes the book so great: Sanchez allows us to see Orlando as the characters see it, and never makes them older or more mature just to appease some eventual literary critic. Here is Frenchie Garcia describing Orange Avenue, that bustling strip of bars and restaurants and skyscrapers in downtown Orlando:
Zylos is located downtown, and it’s one of a handful of clubs that make up Orlando’s “nightlife.” Lots of local bands perform here, but we didn’t start coming here until a few months ago when Robyn met Colin, the official ID checker guy at the door. (31)
And here is her initial description of Lake Eola:
Lake Eola is a park in downtown Orlando built around a big sinkhole that was filled with water and dubbed a lake. There’s a big fountain in the center and swans everywhere you look. See, Lake Eola’s “thing” is swans. There are live swans that hang around the park and big plastic swan boats that you can rent and pedal to the middle of the lake with someone as lame as you.
“Hey, you want to hijack a swan?” Andy says. (157-158)
This is bitter teenage sarcasm without disclaimer, the word “nightlife” in quotes even as Frenchie admits that she has only been coming here for “a few months,” the word “thing” in quotes and the park reduced to a cynical “sinkhole” and the supposedly fun activity reduced to lameness. It is a teenager’s view of the city, not tailored to a teacher or a parent who might immediately respond, “You should be thankful to live here! There are so many opportunities!” Or even a twenty-something’s view of the nightlife, which probably begins after Frenchie goes to bed, costs more than she can afford, and includes a “21 & Up” sign that prevents her entrance. Hell, it’s like VICE was taking notes from Frenchie, but didn’t realize that their “Big Night Out” should not come from the perspective of a 16-year-old.
We see Frenchie’s attitude given more depth when, inside the club, she spots Lily, an over-excited friend who fronts a band and bursts with energy:
Lily…hugs Robyn and then me. I cringe when she does. It’s just that some people, like me, don’t like to be squeezed, touched, stood too close to, breathed on, etc. But Lily on the other hand, is a hugger and personal space invader. (34)
In moments such as this, as Torres contrasts two very different types of characters, we are shown the two different views of Orlando amongst the teenage population: those who embrace the tourism and the noisiness and aspire for lives on stage and in the spotlight, and those who are made uncomfortable by it, who rebel against it. It is the latter mentality that Frenchie inhabits, and it colors not just her view of the city’s nightlife, but also her view of the tourists who come to visit her local haunts, as we see in this quick moment at Frenchie’s favorite coffee shop:
I take a sip of my iced coffee and stare out the large glass windows in front of the shop.
Across the street, a young boy with a Goofy shirt runs down the steps of a house and pulls at the locked door of a car. His parents, both with sunglasses on and water bottles in hand, stand at the front door and talk to someone in pajamas in the doorway.
Tourists. On their way to Disney no doubt. Their gleaming white socks and tennis shoes are almost as blinding as the stucco walls of the house from which they just emerged. (43)
Orlando is like the nightclub in the Duff Gardens episode of The Simpsons, the one where the New Year’s Eve ball-drop occurs every hour on the hour. It’s all confetti and champagne toasts and constant excitement. “This must be so fun to work here,” Marge says to a waiter at the club. “Kill me,” the waiter says.
Sanchez is capturing not just the weariness that local residents often feel at seeing the rest of the world always on vacation, but that unique cynicism in all tourist-town residents that they alone can see through the veil. Visitors are a bunch of marks who don’t know they’re being taken advantage of, and we—the residents—are the only intelligent ones. We don’t fall for the “tourist traps.” We, like, get it:
I pity them because here’s the thing nobody says in brochures: Florida isn’t so much the Sunshine State as it is a crematorium. And as you walk down Disney World’s Main Street, as you melt and the soles of your shoes stick to the asphalt, you and ten thousand other visitors will walk aimlessly about in a heat-induced hallucinatory state, wondering how something so wonderful, so promising, could be so absolutely fucking miserable. But you slap on a happy face because “It’s a Small World” plays somewhere and makes you buy into that happiness. And if you can’t be happy here, then where can you be happy? (43-44)
And in the following description of Orange Avenue, Frenchie treats even the residents as clueless:
Colin and I make our way down Orange Avenue and cut through rowdy crowds of half-drunk people downtown. There are homeless people slumped on the sides of the sidewalks, little dirty heaps that blend into the buildings. A tall girl in a shimmery gold top is walking toward us. She links arms with the guy next to her and is close to one of the dirty little heaps before she realizes it, and then just steps right over him—literally. (139)
Frenchie possesses the gift of critical observation, scrutiny; she thinks she can see the world as it truly is, but everyone else is oblivious. Very “teenager.”
Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia also showcases the particularly teenage view that Orlando is a place to be outgrown, that all those other American cities are the real places to be (perhaps they seem sexier due to their depictions on Entourage and Sex and the City, etc. (and here we are, back at that “self-worth” idea!)), that the West Coast is an exotic “happenin’ place,” and that truly successful people leave Orlando for untold adventures elsewhere. Says Lily, the lead singer:
“It’s just, so much is riding on this. If he likes tonight’s show, he might fly us out to California to record a demo. And if he really likes us, he’ll tour us on the West Coast for a while to get us out there. He thinks we have a good West Coast appeal. Isn’t that cool?” (86)
West Coast = cool. Orlando = lame. We see this teenage perception even more clearly in another moment at Lake Eola in which the characters discuss the swans (the live ones that glide across the water and wander the park endlessly, not the plastic paddleboat swans). It’s a moment that mirrors an iconic scene in The Catcher in the Rye:
After a while, he says, “You know, it’s not fair that they keep all these swans here. I mean, why? For our amusement and entertainment? Doesn’t that seem kind of fucked up?”I shrug. “I guess,” I say. “But it’s not like they’re in cages of anything. I mean, they have a nice place, and the city takes cares of them, and…it’s not like they’re in a fishbowl or anything. There’s lot of room here and they wander around wherever they want.”“But it is a fishbowl,” Andy says. “They don’t have a choice.”I look at the swans on the lake. “They look happy enough, though. They don’t even realize they’re stuck.”“That’s even worse,” he says. I laugh, but Andy doesn’t. In fact, he seems agitated by the swans’ ignorance. (160-161).
The idea of being “stuck” in a city like Orlando is laughable to the adult mind. It’s a Top-25 TV market with one of the best airports in the country (something a teenager wouldn’t appreciate but a working adult in, say, St. Louis, definitely would), and—though it can be expensive—there’s certainly no lack of amusements and entertainments, no lack of culture in the city proper. Complain to an adult in Cleveland or Buffalo or Kansas City that your theme parks are annoying and uncool, that (sigh) it takes thirty minutes to drive to the beach. The only thing missing in Orlando is winter, and sensible drivers. For the discerning adult, the choice is simple: if you don’t like it, move to New Jersey. Or Sacramento. Or Minneapolis. Or Cleveland. Or congested Los Angeles. Have at it. Wherever you go, there are bound to be new problems. But to the teenage mind (particularly the teenager who’s lived in Orlando for a lifetime), this is a “prison.” A prison with roller-coasters, of course, and fake snow in Celebration, and a complete re-creation of the Simpsons’ town of Springfield, but alas. The point isn’t to argue with this girl who just got her license. The point is that Sanchez shows us exactly how to avoid crafting a stereotypical view of the city in our fiction, just by choosing characters whose lives have led them to see Orlando in a very specific way.
In the end, Sanchez shows us that it’s way more fun to read a fictional version of the VICE perspective, one in which the author has crafted an ironic narrator and understands that there is a distance between what the character perceives and what is reality, than it is to read the VICE article itself, which doesn’t seem to understand or care that its perception is not reality.
Nathan Holic is an Orlando-based writer. His books include The Things I don't See and American Fraternity Man. He is also the editor of the 15 Views of Orlando anthologies and the graphic narrative editor at The Florida Review literary journal.