Have you ever found a book character who helps you to realise something about yourself?
Paper Towns by John Green is one of my favourite books I read last year. It is by no means perfect – its middle is a little slow and if you’re not a fan of Green’s continued use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in his novels it’s probably best to avoid this one. But it is well-written and thought-provoking.
What I liked best about this novel was the character of Quentin Jacobsen. Specifically, how real he is. He takes his friends and family for granted, thinks almost exclusively of his own wants and a lot of the time makes you want to shake him for being so selfish. But he’s also funny and intelligent and has a good heart.
In Quentin I found a character I was particularly able to relate to in one way: his skewed expectations of his best friend Ben. For pretty much all the novel Quentin constantly wants Ben to change. He wants him to stop being so crass, to stop using the word “honeybunny”, to stop being obsessed with finding a date to take to their prom and to stop being too busy or too tired when Quentin wants to talk again about Margo Roth Spiegelman or play Resurrection.
Ultimately, Quentin wants Ben to be exactly like him. He spends an overwhelmingly majority of the novel never truly accepting Ben for who he is because he is blinded by who Ben isn’t.
There is a particular passage in the novel that really struck me. It happens just after Quentin has bemoaned Ben’s failings to their mutual friend Radar. Radar tells him:
You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves. I mean, I could hate you for being massively unpunctual and for never being interested in anything other than Margo Roth Spiegelman, and for, like, never asking me about how it’s going with my girlfriend – but I don’t give a shit, man, because you’re you…And I like you. You’re funny, and you’re smart, and you may show up late, but you always show up eventually.
Radar then goes on to tell Quentin:
Just saying: stop thinking Ben should be you, and he needs to stop thinking you should be him.
Reading Radar’s speech helped me to realise something. I have the same problem Quentin has.
I want people not to be themselves.
I want them to be nicer, happier, friendlier, less self-involved, more sincere, more understanding, more enthusiastic, more interested in the things I’m interested in and a whole host of other things it isn’t fair for me to want.
I want them to be what I want them to be.
I often replay conversations with friends and family in my mind and imagine whole, spiralling scenes attached to them in which they somehow knew that I really wanted to dispose of the everyday talk and speak of ideas, random thoughts and things that are real. And at the time I am convinced that if they had just said those words I wanted them to, just thought about things the way I wanted them to think, it would mean they truly knew me and I could feel secure in our relationship.
But I don’t just do this with people. I do it with everything. I constantly crave everything in my life to be better, to be more exciting, to be more meaningful than it really is.
I think this is because I can’t help but imagine all the awesome and amazing possibilities of what someone or something could be. Sometimes, this can be a good thing. When I start a new project or meet a new person I am filled up with excitement and bursting with the extraordinary promise they hold.
But a lot of the time, this is a bad thing. Compared to my frenzied imaginings reality can’t help but be left decidedly lacking. How can a person or book or anything compete with all the impossible possibilities of what they could be?
The worst thing is is that I know this is self-inflicted. But I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember and I have no idea how to stop.
Just as Quentin seems to finally start to accept Ben after he has proven his courage by taking control of the Minivan and steering them all into safety, I hope I can do this too. I hope I can learn to accept people and things for they way they are and not wish they were the way I want them to be.