Somehow, I had never read any John Green. In fact, I had never even really heard of John Green, except for posters on the tube, which pretty much pass me by in a goldfish like blur of “I knew there was something I saw that I wanted to remember’. So when I posted on Facebook that The Fault in our Stars made me cry, I didn’t expect the ourpouring of response that appeared. Somehow everyone had heard of John Green but me.
I am still not sure about how everyone else heard about him, or more to the point, how I didn’t. But I can tell you one thing for sure: you should give him a go. I have read a couple of his books now, and though I love them I can tell they wouldn’t be for everyone. They have a very specific style: philosophical, wry, a little emo and voiced as a teenager. I am still not 100% sure if he writes for teenagers or adults, but then again, if I can’t tell, does it matter?
John Green’s books live with you long after you have finished reading them. Not only is The Fault in our Stars the first book in as long as I can remember that made me cry, but I dreamed about it for the next two nights. I think somehow he captures something that so few books really get about being a teenager: the fear and elation (rather than just the confusion, that so many focus on) of being on the edge of discovery. The sense that somehow the world is both fresh and already irreparably broken. The feeling of discovering much-debated philosophies with shining eyes.
He somehow writes about sad, morose things in a way that makes them feel almost like a movie. Picture Juno or Perks of Being a Wallflower and you are along the right lines. He sees the quirks in everyday life, and makes them humorous, or at least finds their pathos. As the protagonist says in The Fault in Our Stars: ”You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.”
A lot of his work seems to focus on two themes: memory and superficiality.
The Fault in our Stars is mostly about memory.
Without giving away the story, the book looks at whether loss fuels or undermines memory. As the characters lose things (friends, partners, senses) it is about how they rebuild and what happens to their sense of self and memories of the past. It’s about what happens to you when you lose something or someone, and what happens to them, and the memories you made and what you leave behind.
“It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before”, emphasises the protagonist.
But at the same time it stresses that humans are too concerned with making memories, with making their mark and sometimes forget to just live:
“We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths… the real heroes anyone aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”
Paper Towns is more about superficiality, or how what we believe to be real gradually becomes real over time.
This is the case of the paper towns, but also of the people in the story. The novel argues that – in High School particularly – what is believed about you almost becomes true, until you notice the gap between truth and reality.
“High school is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship – nor, contrary to popular belief, an anarchic state. High school is a divine-right monarch.”
We construct this gap, hiding our own failings, and masking the failings of others building them as our own image of what we want them to be.
“A Margo for each if us – and each more a mirror than a window.”
And it is this gap, once you understand it, or at least acknowledge it, which makes life feel fragile, like you live in the “paper town” or are connected to the earth with a piece of string, or are in a boat with a continually cracking hull (all metaphors Green uses in the novel). But Green argues it is once we start to see these cracks, or string, or papers that we really start to understand others’ humanity, as we understand our own.
“The light can get in, the light can get out.”
It is just by chance that I read An Abundance of Katherines third of Green’s books. But interestingly, it ties the above two themes together.
The protagonist, Colin, is obsessed with memory, and making his mark, turning from a (child) prodigy, to an (adult) genius – having his “Eureka” moment. Other people are, he claims, the tortoises, now overtaking his hare.
“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”
But in the end he realises that everyone is remembered, in one way or another, through the interactions they have had:
“Even if it’s a dumb story, telling it changes the other people just the slightest bit… and that infinitesimal change ripples outward – ever smaller but everlasting. I will get forgotten, but the stories will last. And so we all matter – maybe less than a lot, but always more than none.”
Lynsey, another key player in the story, is both as caught up in, and as confused by, superficiality as Margo in Paper Towns. Just as Margo is popular, but also perturbed by the notion, so is Lynsey. Both seem world weary and hyper-aware, yet also unclear on how ‘cool’ happened to them.
“I don’t even know how ugly and pretty got decided – maybe there’s like a secret cabal of boys who meet in the locker room and decide who’s ugly and who’s hot, because as far as I can remember, there was no such thing as a hot fourth grader.”
“It’s so easy to get stuck. You just get caught in being something, being special or cool or whatever, to the point where you don’t even know why you need it.”
She claims to have just one day understood that being cool is easy, once you find the right combination of “naughtyandnastyandnice.”
And again, the novel queries what happens when people find the real you.
“If people could see me the way I see myself – if they could live in my memories – would anyone, anyone, love me?”
In the end, each of these novels, though sometimes morose, are redemptive. Green emphasises that although at times, we feel deeply alone, we are all fundamentally similar and share hopes, dreams and fears. We are all fundamentally connected.
There are more John Green books for me to read. But I am taking a break for now. Not because I am not enjoying them, because I am, but because the themes do get a little repetitive after three in a row, and An Abundance of Katherines ended on more of a high than the others, so feels like a nice place to take a breather. But oh how I wish I could send these books back in time to my teenage self, and so many other awkward, alternative, over-thinking teens, to show them they are far from alone.