Margo and the Only Machine That Kills Fascists.
Novel gazing on Paper Towns by John Green .
When I was younger, I wanted to be someone’s miracle. I wouldn’t have phrased it like that, because there isn’t a nine year old alive that eloquent, but that is what I wanted. I never doubted that I was going to grow up to be a strong, successful, wonderful woman. But I was also thoroughly convinced that one day, there would be a man – one I was a little bit mean to– who would be just dazzled by all of my strength, success, and wonderfulness. And then I would be his miracle. And he would love me because I was just so miraculous.
This was an idea that, of course, I got from television.
In the opening lines of John Green’s Paper Towns, the narrator, a lovely Floridian boy named Quentin, expresses the belief that everyone gets a miracle, because, when you consider all of the unlikely, miraculous events in the world, one of them is likely to happen to you. And Quentin knows what his miracle is already; it isn’t marrying the Queen of England or being eaten by a whale. It is that, “out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”
And there it was. If not the exact story I wanted (because what fifteen year old wants to live in a subdivision?) the exact feeling I wanted, captured in words. On the first page this girl, whomever she was, was already someone’s miracle. That the someone wasn’t her, and that he was a boy, and that he didn’t seem to even know her that well, didn’t make a difference to me. She was something special. On the first page, I thought I would love Margo because she’s Quentin’s miracle. It turns out, I love her because she saves herself (and me, and Quentin) from the tragic fate of being someone’s miracle.
Paper Towns, it must be said, is frankly a delightful read. After declaring Margo a miracle, Quentin goes on to crush on her throughout elementary, middle, and high school. He tells the reader breathlessly of Margo’s exploits through their teen years – she organizes gigantic TP campaigns and rejects the bass player of a famous band. She’s….mysterious, delightful, quirky. He thinks she’s the type of girl whose whole life is one long music video.
As senior year draws to a close, one night Margo shows up at Quentin’s bedroom window. They have a glorious, wonderful night of completely ridiculous hijinks. It’s just so much fun to read – the whole sequence captures perfectly what I imagined it would be like to live in a Boys Like Girls music video. Then Margo disappears. She seems to leave a series of clues for Quentin so that he can find her and rescue her. He enlists friends, both his and hers, to help with the seemingly wacky scavenger hunt. Then the scavenger hunt becomes notably less wacky.
As the Margo-less days wind on and the other characters search for her, the story becomes less and less like a movie. It doesn’t move neatly into the second and thirds acts. Instead, there are dead ends. The periphery characters start to loudly insist that they have their own lives to live and have concerns outside of Quentin and Margo. They actually act on those concerns. The story reaches a point where the action rises enough that it seems like a climax at the big dance and a fade-out into an iconic song is coming. But when the exciting moment arrives, instead Quentin is reading Song of Myself alone in an abandoned building. As Paper Towns progresses, the movie script falls apart. The idea of Margo as a perfect movie character goes right with it.
Because it turns out that being Quentin’s miracle isn’t actually helping teenage Margo become an adult person. And it isn’t helping teenage Quentin much either. The romantic, well-lit gaze he’s directed her way has blown her out of proportion, and neither one of them is quite sure what to do about it. She’s so busy being a miracle that she has a hard time just living her life.
“What a shame,” Green writes and Quentin realizes, “to believe that a person is more than a person.” In interviews Green has referred to this idea, that Quentin is gazing at Margo in a way that asks her to be a miracle, a mystery, an adventure, and not a person, as the “romantic gaze”. When Quentin looks at Margo, and Margo looks at herself, they are both wearing movie glasses, seeing evoked feelings and possible camera shots instead of an actual woman doing actual things.
John Green has a reputation as one of the best chroniclers of teenage life. And he is. His characters reckon with love and heartbreak, with pondering who they are and how they fit into the world. Their reckonings are made even more poignant because it is the first time they’re experiencing and thinking about these things. But John Green is also a great chronicler of what it is like to be a teenager right now, in an age filled with more stories than a single human could ever comprehend. And he knows that those stories don’t tend to serve women well. Paper Towns is a story about the first time that a teenage boy found himself in love (or something close). But it’s also a story about finding yourself in love for the first time and having that experience feel like it could somehow be a hazy memory.
When someone describes an experience as ‘like a movie’, it’s usually this feeling they’re describing. A first date isn’t like a movie because you went to a similar restaurant and did similar activities to an actual film you saw Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in. It’s like a movie because the date pushed the same buttons, and gave you the same feelings, that watching a falling-in-love montage in a billion movies does. Having those buttons pushed makes it feel like you have a hazy memory of experiences that you’ve never lived and that you know the plot of a movie you aren’t actually starring in. The culture we live in encourages little boys like Quentin and little girls like me to believe that their lives should be like the movies. It took reading Paper Towns for me to realize what a disservice I would do to myself if I became someone else’s miracle.
Learning to see others complexly goes beyond the disservices stories do to women. After one of the clues involve a famous photo of Woodie Guthrie, Quentin realizes what I’ve come to know; seeing people outside of the movies is the only machine that kills fascists.
It is all too easy to reduce our current events to a movie script. It can be one type of story, one where Trump is a boor and a punchline, and the people who voted for him are even bigger jokes. It can be another, where the rally in Charlottesville is rising action, designed to let us know that the world is getting darker and the heroes are just about to emerge. It can be a story where the politicians are slimy, corrupt villains, whose sole goal in life is to crush the little guy. It can be a story about World War III.
But looking at political situations through movie glasses does just as big a disservice to your fellow Americans as Quentin was doing to Margo. What a shame to think a person is more than a person. Quentin and Margo learned to see people, good or bad, as people. We can too.