Rock, “Paper Towns”, Scissors…Dynamite

When I was a kid, a common way to end a stalemate on any given issue was with the tried-and-true “Rock-Paper-Scissors” method. The game was the best tiebreaker our mushy, five-year-old minds could muster at the time. Of course, like with anything, variants on the original formula were bound to surface – mainly as a way of circumventing defeat. The most common in my neighborhood was “Rock-Paper-Scissors-Dynamite”. Needless to say, Dynamite trumped the other three by a fair margin.

It was cheating, but it was lazy, elegant cheating. And – by proxy – became an indirect philosophy I’d follow throughout my young adult life. Why take the assured path to success when you could circumvent it entirely, or not play at all?

In 1994, I had three high schools under my belt in three years’ time. I was a part of no extracurricular activities. I could count my best friends on one hand. And my greatest achievement up until then was having no picture in any yearbook. At all. My grades were poor, I never did homework, and teachers often didn’t know my name. I was less than a geek, less than a nerd; I was invisible and proud of it.

I remember one instance when I was walking down Senior Hall with a friend – minding my own gloom – when I heard a squeaky voice to my left.

“Hi! My name’s Jenny,” she said chipperly. She was seated on the floor, kinda cute, and her hand was extended. It was a simple and sympathetic gesture.

My response?

“You’re worthy enough to shake my comb,” I said flatly. I was standing above her, glowering, and my worn black comb was in my hand. It was a mean-spirited, unsympathetic gesture.

She recoiled her hand in disgust, and I continued on my way with a smirk.

That pretty much summed up how I dealt with most situations. Save for a notable exception – a youth fraternity I was a part of – I wanted little to do with high school as possible. I felt (or at least hoped) there were better days ahead. Not to say that opportunities to advance my station never emerged, I believed that I possessed some “geek cred” if my profile remained low.

Funny thing happened in later years, though. While I refused to admit it, I was drawn to things that reminded me of high school. A song would chime in on the radio – Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow’, perhaps – and my eyes would glaze over nostalgically. In 1998, a little movie called Can’t Hardly Wait was released. It was the first of a string of teen comedies that would glut the movie market for the next half-decade. I loved the stupid flick.

The dilemma only got worse from there. I hunted down movies from my childhood, songs that made me choke-up (Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”, anyone?), or any media that brought on a vague, yesteryear tug. What was weird about this was I should’ve had no attachment to my early teen years. Especially not high school. I had no defining memories to speak of. The whole travail was a blur. That didn’t stop me from reminiscing on a make-believe could’ve-been. I even wrote stories about it. Not very good ones, but they were jotted.

All this culminated a few weeks back with the acquisition of a library card. There was an author I’d meant to sample the wares of, a man-child my age by the name of John Green. I followed the adventures of him and his brother, Hank, on YouTube. They were efficient and proficient vloggers that covered subjects ranging from nerd culture to the elimination of – as they called it – “worldsuck”.

When John Green mentioned he was a writer of young adult literature, my curiosity led me to a mandatory perusal of the Almighty Wiki to learn more. Of the four novels to his credit, one particularly caught my eye – Paper Towns, the story of a girl’s disappearance and the clues she left a boy who liked her. It sounded like Goonies meets Road Trip with sprinklings of The Adventures of Pete & Pete thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, this meant sifting through the “Teen” section of the library. I was…oh…sixteen years outta high school. And the time I went to look for the book, I was sporting a not-creepy-at-all! five-o’-clock shadow. I justified the venture by telling myself, “The author is my age. The author is my age.” Luckily, I didn’t have to spend too long in there. The Gs were right by the entrance. I was in and out in two minutes.

(Sidenote: I did notice that not too far from “Green” was another name I would’ve never associated with “young adult literature”. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a mere two subsections down. Now, I did read that book when I was in high school, but I would be hard-pressed to call it teen lit. Just sayin’.)

Normally, I’m a slow reader, but I plowed through Paper Towns in two days. Unheard of for me, even if it is teen reading. I owe that mainly to Green’s conversational prose. The story is simple enough – boy likes girl, girl sneaks into boy’s house, boy and girl go on an all-night caper, girl vanishes, leaves clues for boy…okay, maybe not so simple. I guess he kept it captivating enough to hold even my attention span at bay.

Simply put, the story is told from the POV of Quentin Jacobsen. No other way to label him except to say he’s the Marty Stu of the story – the author made manifest as a teenager. Quentin – or “Q”, as he’s known – has a childhood crush on the girl next door (as they often do). Said girl, Margo Roth Spiegelman, is best described as the “manic pixie” archetype. Everyone’s seen this character in one fashion or another. The most prominent examples I can think of are Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Natalie Portman from Garden State. They’re interesting characters but cut from the same mold. But I digress.

Q learns that Margo has disappeared. According to her parents, this happened often and she always left clues to her whereabouts. This time, though, she only left clues for Q. With the help of his two best friends, he begins to understand that the Margo he thought he knew may have barely scratched the surface. And for some reason, this story hit me like a brick sh*thouse.

Q may have been a Marty Stu/author-in-protatonist’s-clothing character, but I could relate to him. Margo may have been a manic pixie, but I’ve known girls like her. Plus, the stage Green built to let his characters roam was a new one. In teen stories of prior readings/viewings, the dorky protagonists were inhibited by (and about) their lack of status. Not the case with Paper Towns. If it weren’t for the teeny-bopper treasure hunt put before them, Q and his “crue” would’ve gladly sailed through their senior year playing videogames and B.S.-ing. I’ve never seen any author explore that angle. Well, no one American, anyway.

In an odd way, I found parallels between some of the scenarios in Paper Towns to another unlikely story of teen angst – an anime based on a novel, no less. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is told from the perspective of a cynical teen (Kyon) who begrudgingly accepts his monotonous life for what it is. A small part of him desires an interesting change, but only a smidge.

His “world” is shaken with the arrival of a student that valiantly declares she wants nothing to do with “ordinary humans”. Her life goal is to prove the existence of extraterrestrials, time travelers, and ESPers (people with mental abilities). The eccentric yet beautiful oddball is Suzumiya Haruhi. Through a series of events Kyon can’t quite explain, he is thrust into her oft-foiled efforts to prove the mysteries of the universe. He also learns that Haruhi herself is one such mystery – one capable of unraveling the fabric of existence by her very whim.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. That sounds nothing like Paper Towns. Hear me out. Quentin bears similarity to Kyon in the fact that he is somewhat content with the cards he’s been dealt. A part of him does desire a shift in paradigm, but he’s too unmotivated to exact that change. Kyon, likewise – albeit more nihilistically – is accepting of his lot in life and sees change as an inconvenience.

When their prospective worldviews are tested by women [it’s always by women], both are reluctant at first to surf the tide. They do their damnedest to prevent change from occurring. However, that li’l part of them that thirsts for excitement takes over eventually. With a bat of a lash, they’re hooked.

I draw this parallel because both pieces – diametrically opposed genres, though they are – spoke to the part of me that sacrificed a casual high school experience for anonymity. Unlike those two lucky protagonists, I never had a manic pixie muse to challenge my reverent redundancy. The desire to seek out literature and movies that speak to that inner pubescent is proof of that. I guess I’m making up for lost time, encapsulating it as best I can in whatever medium I can.

If you – fair reader – aren’t familiar with the works of John Green, I seriously recommend checking him out. And by extension, seek out the anime or light novel versions of the Suzumiya Haruhi series. They are deceptively simple on the surface, but will breathe life to a part of you long thought dormant. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a fart joke to laugh at.

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Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 Musings

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