There are some writers who have such a distinctive style that, no matter what the topic of the book is, you have no doubt who wrote it. In some ways that’s a great credit to the author, a sign of the strong voice that MFA instructors expound upon. Stephen King is one such writer. Whether he’s writing his trademark horror (The Stand; It; go read them right now if you haven’t), fantasy (The Dark Tower series drags a little near the end, but the first three books make for a stellar trilogy) or realistic fiction (yes, he writes it: “Stand By Me” is nostalgic brillance). John Irving, Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, and Amy Tan have all mastered the ability to write with a strong voice. But, as much as that can be a boon to a writer, it can also be to his detriment. With the exception of King, most writers with a strong voice stick to one genre, one type of book.
What is the point of that diatribe? John Green is one of those writers with a startling strong voice. The danger for Mr. Green is that, unlike the other writers listed above, whose books are marketable because of strong characterization, thematic significance, or keen cultural insight, John Green’s books are marketable because they are written from tehs tarkly ironic, deadpan delivery of disaffected youth. If you’ve read one, you’re kind of read them all.
Don’t get me wrong — I love John Green. I cried for the entire second half of “The Fault in Our Stars.” I devoured “Looking For Alaska” and I bought “Paper Towns” and read it on a plane ride when I should have been finishing a monster of a novel by Murakami. But when I put down “Paper Towns” I felt mildly disquieted. . .like I’d just reread a book, instead of having discovered something new.
It’s another take on Green’s seemingly favorite odd couple pairing — a girl and boy, one an outsider, one not. It’s a love story that isn’t. It’s a take on the “girl next door” — Quentin is our narrator, and he speaks with the droll, understatement that is so characteristic of Green’s narrators. He lives next door to Margo, the vivacious, adventurous, oh-so-popular girl that he’s been in love with since forever, or at least since the night that they discovered a dead body in the park. She takes him on a crazy midnight adventure, playing pranks and wreaking revenge on anyone who has “wronged her” — and then abruptly disappears. The remainder of the book features Quentin and his friends searching for her.
It’s a simple coming-of-age story — Q doesn’t want to figure out what’s going on in his own life, so he focuses on Margo’s disappearance, while at his side, his two best friends quietly continue becoming more “real” than he is. If this sounds reminiscent of “Looking for Alaska” it’s because it is. That novel, too, dealt with a main character, introspective and slightly neurotic, telling the story of the larger-than-life, beautiful but unstable woman. In a way, it even mirrors “A Fault in Our Stars,” although there, at least the gender dynamic is reversed.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Certainly, it is a great thing in the young adult market, which thrives on consistency. I would far rather that preteens and young teens be reading the highly intelligent writing of Green than yet another story of witches, vampires, or wizards at boarding school (no offense to Harry Potter, of course). Still, I can’t help but notice that the argument over whether young adult books can be “literature” plays out in Green’s idiosyncratic voice. Though the books aren’t necessarily “dumbed down,” it is the narrator’s tone that carries the novels, rather than cogent themes, or insightful character development. That being said — I will absolutely finish my John Green education by picking up “An Abundance of Katherines” for my next plane ride.