|Photo by Daniel Nixon|
Part 2: Paper Towns
John Green’s Paper Towns has a similar structure and explores some similar themes, and its voice is also important in crafting a nontraditional view of the city, but here, we see an even greater focus on how identity can be shaped by the place in which one lives.
Paper Towns follows Quentin Jacobsen (“Q”), a boy who grew up as friends with the most popular girl in school, Margo. He’s always pined for her, and he’s always watched her enter into relationships with boys whose cool-athletic facades make them better suited for her. With this premise alone, you might think that we’ve seen Paper Towns on ABC Family at some point, that it’s just another example of the same old high school dramedy. But John Green is a smart writer; while the premise doesn’t necessarily sound new, it doesn’t need to. This is a book about clichés and stereotypes, focusing upon Margo’s decision to rebel against the stereotype bestowed upon her. She’s the beautiful girl in school, the one destined for big things at big colleges. In fact, she and Q live in a perfect Orlando neighborhood, a place based loosely on the blindingly perfect Baldwin Park area. This description comes from the first chapter of the book, and immediately sets the tone for how our characters will encounter and then subvert or flip the stereotypes:
Our subdivision, Jefferson Park, used to be a navy base. But then the navy didn’t need it anymore, so it returned the land to the citizens of Orlando, Florida, who decided to build a massive subdivision, because that’s what Florida does with land…
Before Jefferson Park was a Pleasantville, and before it was a navy base, it belonged to an actual Jefferson, this guy Dr. Jefferson Jefferson. Dr. Jefferson Jefferson has a school named after him in Orlando and also a large charitable foundation, but the fascinating and unbelievable-but-true thing about Dr. Jefferson Jefferson is that he was not a doctor of any kind. He was just an orange juice salesman named Jefferson Jefferson. When he became rich and powerful, he went to court, made “Jefferson” his middle name, and then changed his first name to “Dr.” Capital D. Lowercase r. Period. (3-4)
(For the uninitiated, this is a reference to Orlando “mover and shaker” Dr. Phillips, whose real name was Phillip Phillips, but who actually was a doctor.)
The bulk of the book chronicles a single night in which Margo takes Q across town to try to break him out of his shell, one last act of senior-year kindness for her old friend, and then she vanishes the next morning. Was she kidnapped? Has she run away? Has she committed suicide? No one knows. With just a few weeks before high school graduation, what has become of Margo, the perfect girl with the perfect life?
The book’s setting of Orlando, then, serves as objective correlative: Margo is the city. What happens when you’ve lived under the illusion of perfection your entire life? What does that do to you? In Orlando, what happens when everyone expects a theme-park experience wherever they go? What does it feel like to grow up in a city that is a “paper town,” a place seemingly constructed only for the amusement of others, but never viewed as real by the world, its citizens never acknowledged as real human beings with real problems? Orlando is a New American City, tentative about its decisions, over-worried about its identity, and trying too hard to assert itself on the national scene; with both the city and the characters in Green’s novel, we see a search for identity, we see feelings of inadequacy, we see and feel the frustration of façade and persona and the everyday grind of trying to move beyond it.
As we saw in Sanchez’s novel, such a childhood can create a sense that your city isn’t viable. And as we’ll see in some of these examples from Green’s book, the teenage voice once again approaches disdain. Here is Q’s look at the same downtown stretch of Orange Avenue that we saw in Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia:
Tourists never go to downtown Orlando, because there’s nothing there but a few skyscrapers owned by banks and insurance companies. It’s the kind of downtown that becomes absolutely deserted at night and on the weekends, except for a few nightclubs half-filled with the desperate and the desperately-lame. As I followed Margo’s directions through the maze of one-way streets, we saw a few people sleeping on the sidewalk or sitting on benches, but nobody was moving…
Margo pointed happily, and yes, there, before us, was the Asparagus.
The Asparagus is not, technically, an asparagus spear, nor is it derived from asparagus parts. It is just a sculpture that bears an uncanny resemblance to a thirty-foot-tall piece of asparagus—although I’ve also heard it likened to:
1. A green beanstalk
2. An abstract representation of a tree
3. A greener, glassier, uglier Washington Monument
4. The Jolly Green Giant’s gigantic jolly green phallus
At any rate, it certainly does not look like a Tower of Light, which is the actual name of the sculpture. (53-54)
Viewed from any other point-of-view, this characterization sounds just…wrong. The “desperate and the desperately lame,” as decided by a teenager? Hey, I get it: there are a lot of douchebags in downtown Orlando, but let’s talk after you’ve graduated from Taco Bell as your restaurant of choice, okay? And remember: earlier, we saw how a self-made millionaire was made to sound lame, too. Just as in the Sanchez novel, these are the sorts of descriptions that only a spoiled teenager could give, akin to “This $5000 wall-length 3-D TV sucks, because the remote won’t work from a hundred yards away.” The teenage critique of “lame” truly is illogical, but it’s also emotionally honest, and it’s consistent, and it doesn’t apologize or become over-intelligent to please finger-wagging adult readers.
The voice, then, is essential to helping us see the city in a new way. Through the eyes of a typical tourist family, or a typical vacationer, the city of Orlando remains the same static stereotype. The veil is never lifted; the view never changes. Through the eyes of a high-schooler, we’re suddenly forced to ask questions about what it is like to live here, to grow up here. Even if this high-schooler spends a day at a typical theme park, we suddenly ask: how strange must it be to have a theme park in your backyard, to grow up with it and think that this is “normal,” to go to Disney and Universal and Sea World so often that other entertainments cannot possibly compare? To (perhaps) even feel like your city itself is a theme park, something not real, a “paper town,” a collection of consumer-driven facades…What a strange and warped childhood that actually is. Check out Q’s description of the College Park area, which is factually inaccurate but right in line with Q’s worldview:
We drove through College Park, a neighborhood that passes for Orlando’s historic district on account of how the houses were mostly built thirty whole years ago. (62)
And I-Drive, whose reputation for fakeness is second only to Walt Disney World:
We turned onto International Drive, the tourism capital of the world. There were a thousand shops on International Drive, and they all sold the exact same thing: crap. Crap molded into seashells, key rings, glass turtles, Florida-shaped refrigerator magnets, plastic pink flamingos, whatever. In fact, there were several stores on I-Drive that sold actual, literal armadillo crap--$4.95 a bag.
But at 4:50 in the morning, the tourists were sleeping. The Drive was completely dead, like everything else, as we drove past store after parking lot after store after parking lot. (71)
And after we’ve viewed these various facades around town, these places that our teenage narrator claims to be able to “see through,” we finally arrive at something in the Orlando area that is unexpected, that has the power to change his viewpoint…a dead façade:
We drove all the way out Colonial Drive, past the movie theaters and the bookstores that I had been driving to and past my whole life…And finally, after twenty miles, Orlando gave way to the last remaining orange tree groves and undeveloped ranches—the endlessly flat land grown over thick with brush, the Spanish moss hanging off the branches of oak trees, still in the windless heat. This was the Florida where I used to spend mosquito-bitten, armadillo-chasing nights as a Boy Scout. The road was dominated now by pickup trucks, and every mile or so you could see a subdivision off the highway—little streets winding for no reason around houses that rose up out of nothing like a volcano of vinyl siding.
Farther out we passed a rotting wooden sign that said Grovepoint Acres. A cracked blacktop road lasted only a couple hundred feet before dead-ending into an expanse of gray dirt, signaling that Grovepoint Acres was what my mom called a pseudodivision—a subdivision abandoned before it could be completed. (138)
We then enter an abandoned souvenir store in a long-forgotten commercial development, which changes the tone of the sparkling tourist experience that we often expect:
Strangely, though, there’s still some merchandise: there’s a Mickey Mouse phone I recognize from some way back part of childhood. Moth-bit but still-folded Sunny Orlando T-shirts are on display, splattered with broken glass. Beneath the glass cases, Radar finds a box filled with maps and old tourist brochures advertising Gator World and Crystal Gardens and fun houses that no longer exist. Ben waves me over and silently points out the green grass alligator tchotchke lying alone in the case, almost buried in the dust. This is the value of our souvenirs, I think: you can’t give this shit away. (147)
This leads us to a journey of self-discovery for the narrator, one in which he slowly begins to realize how much he doesn’t know. And while there’s no apology to Orlando, Q does begin to view the people around him differently, particularly Margo, the character who parallels the city:
Margo Roth Spiegelman was a person, was a failure of all my previous imaginings. All along—not only since she left, but for a decade before—I had been imagining her without listening, without knowing that she made as poor a window as I did. And so I could not imagine her as a person who could feel fear, who could feel isolated in a roomful of people, who could be shy about her record collection because it was too personal to share. Someone who might read travel books to escape having to live in the town that so many people escape to. Someone who—because no one thought she was a person—had no one to really talk to. And all at once I knew how Margo Roth Spiegelman felt when she wasn’t being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty…Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl. (199)
She’s just a girl. And Orlando: it’s not a “miracle” or an “adventure”; it’s a city, a collection of real people living real lives and experiencing real problems.
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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.