Paper Towns and The Edge of Experience

I watched Paper Towns, an American film adapted from a book. I’ve overheard arguments about this book among my friends years ago. Is it worth reading? Are the characters developed? Is it like all other John Greene books? This post is not any of those questions. This is an existential look at tourism and experience. We’ll get to that in a minute.

At first I was along for the ride of the film. The music is catchy and who doesn’t enjoy a little high school nostalgia for high school experiences you didn’t have? The premise is a teenage boy, Quentin, travels cross-country to find the girl of his dreams, Margo, after she mysteriously disappears.



I felt satisfied that he wouldn’t find her. He’d learn some life lessons. People aren’t there for you. Everyone has their own life. Some people are fake. Go live your life for yourself.

BUT HE DOES FIND HER! Are you kidding me? This was my first problem with the movie (I can’t say book because I haven’t read it). If the 75% of the movie criticized American life as meaningless, superficial, paper-thin and fictitious (like “paper towns” Wikipedia it), why does it turn into a boy-kisses-girl movie? Like all other block-buster, mass-driven, gender-normative, stereotypical media. Why does he need to kiss her at all? After supposedly realizing he doesn’t know her and she doesn’t add meaning to his life (his own experiences do), this brief romance ADDS MEANING TO HIS LIFE.

He could’ve learned Margo cared for no-one AND never found her with his heart broken. But the movie wraps up with him getting the girl (as much as she is to be “had”) and, after a few other knots are tied, ends with a smile on his face. She could have stayed a mysterious dream. Greene had to make her come out and say she was mysterious and unknown, instead of letting the audience realize it for themselves.

Then I got to thinking. The movie ends with a monologue about our lives have meaning when we live in the present moment and “notice” everything around us. But this whole movie itself is a paper town. Greene wrote a book with an empty plot and empty people and real people idolize it as a real thing. With a big ‘ol message about the meaning of life shoved down our throats, making us think we learned something and got something out of this watching experience. The book is a metaphor for our empty culture of realty-TV, self-help books, and ego-driven stories (hey look a blog). He made an empty book about emptiness.

Now here’s the travel part. I’m reading an anarchist book called Incognito: Experiences That Defy Identification that’s a collection of anonymous, biographical short stories by people living in hiding by personal choice, political exile, or to escape persecution from their home country. It’s originally an Italian book, with most (or all, I haven’t finished yet) stories based in Italy, translated by Barbara Stefanelli. I found it on a table at a zine fair, but I think it found me.


One story “Travel Notes” brings up the idea of tourism as protected bubbles of thinking we’re experiencing culture, when really we’re still very much oppressed by and in the trap of it. We think “ooh I’m doing something new and out of my comfort zone” just for us to go back to work and work all year for another vacation. This author focuses on the tourist industry and pre-planned destination trips. However, I think this is true for every mode of travel. I lived with Italian families. And I still carried all of the messages of my cultural upbringing, compared what I saw to my own experiences, and returned home. Tourism is another way of keeping people docile and not thinking for themselves.



Paper Towns is like that.

We go “ooh we got out of our comfort zone watching people go out of their comfort zones and we all learned something.” But really we don’t. Quentin will go on to be a smiling doctor (seriously that was the extent of his character development) and we go on with our lives, because we watched and experienced a fake nothingness.

“Today, all over the the world, what gives a meaning to one’s existence is consumerism: consume, consume and consume again. It doesn’t matter whether the product is material or intellectual, and it doesn’t matter about the quality, what counts is that our purse can afford it. The most important thing is that the economic machinery producing and commercialising goods that are basically useless and harmful, but are tempting in the market and can represent a goal to be achieved, keeps on functioning”  “Travel Notes”. Paper Towns is a movie about adding meaning to existence, that pretends to add meaning to a fictional character’s life and our own. We’re supposed to feel good and changed after we watch it. But I feel like I watched nothing.

Do we need to add meaning to our lives? Shouldn’t life be meaningful intrinsically?

If we consume travel, the feeling of “experiencing life,” and each other, I’m not sure what the other mode of living is.


I’m scared that I don’t know and scared to know.

Through all the negativity and struggles the authors of Incognito experience, repeatedly they say they are living their most authentic, most free lives. That when they chose to or had to live in hiding and cut out everything (including pieces of themselves, relationships, connections to home, and personal history as a form of protection) they found a powerful, concentrated way of living. That’s not nothing.

Catch ya later,


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