“Turtles All the Way Down” helps explain the inexplicable
October 19, 2017
The world of young adult literature is littered with cross-country road trips, life-changing midnight kisses and existential moments of self-examination. John Green’s novels are no different, but “Turtles All the Way Down” sets aside these tropes in favor of a deeper reader experience.
Released Oct. 10 to much anticipation, Green’s newest and most personal novel yet centers around 16-year-old Aza Holmes as she tries to solve the mystery of a missing billionaire evading arrest. With the help of her fearless best friend and the billionaire’s dreamy son, she embarks on a madcap adventure involving sewage art shows, phished reporters and plenty of Star Wars fan-fiction.
Except, as readers eventually realize, the Sherlockian plot is set dressing to the real heart of the novel: Aza’s mental health journey.
Aza is living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an affliction leaving her with a deep-seated fear of disease and contamination. She’s plagued by “thought spirals” which make something as innocent as kissing a massive ordeal.
These are not the cliched thoughts of a teenage girl worried about making out with a boy she likes. These are ever-combative thoughts built on and fed by fear—gut-wrenching, all-consuming fear.
What if his bacteria invades her? What if she’s contaminated? What if she’s just microbes and bacteria and not a real person? Aza cannot rationalize these thoughts any more than she can unthink them, and so she finds herself giving into the compulsions temporarily relieving her anxiety. She’ll obsessively reread Wikipedia entries on bacteria or hand-sanitize the cut on her finger until her inner-demons tell her it’s safe to stop.
Reading her thoughts as she battles back and forth with herself is a visceral experience. And as she splits herself in two—an Aza who can wade through dirty rivers and an Aza who afterward has to scrub herself raw—she wonders which of the two parts she really is. Or if she’s either at all.
John Green has touched on the question of identity before—some would say with quasi-philosophical self-indulgence. But here, it feels natural and intimate in a way that could be unsettling for some readers as they become privy to the immovable force of Aza’s thoughts. Green knows first-hand what’s it’s like to live with OCD, and it’s remarkable to watch him patiently (but unflinchingly) make sensorial a pain that’s largely inexplicable.
“Part of what’s terrifying about pain is that it’s difficult to access or describe via sentences,” Green said in an interview with “Entertainment Weekly.” “It’s what’s so frustrating for me and what’s scary about my own mental health problems. I wanted to be able to show people what it is really like. I wrote the book in the hopes that people who go through this would feel less alone and also in the hopes that people who don’t go through it can maybe glimpse something about it.”
Equally interesting is how the people around Aza react to her OCD. Her mother— overbearing but well-meaning—contributes to the pressure causing a guilty Aza to hide her compulsions. Her best friend, Daisy, struggles to understand that what she perceives as Aza’s self-absorption is really self-imprisonment. And Davis, her love interest, feels kinship with a familiar broken thing. But his patience with her is a Splenda kind of sweet. He’s only willing to wait for her when he thinks there’s something to wait for. As if there is some not so distant future in which Aza will be totally cured.
Despite the hand they all have in Aza’s downward spiral, no one is explicitly painted as a bad guy. Because, ultimately, John Green wants readers to understand how isolating mental health can be for the person living with the disorder and also how difficult that isolation makes communication with the people they love. Their love does help Aza define herself as something other than microbes and contaminated thoughts, but love itself is not a magical cure.
With so much weight put on the mental health journey, the ending could have easily felt disingenuous and egregious. Just know John Green is not interested in tying everything up in a bow—nor should he be. He, like anyone living with a mental health problem, knows there is no riding off into the sunset.
“For me, it’s not something I expect to defeat in my life,” Green said to “Time.” “It’s not like a battle I expect to win. It’s something I expect to live with and still have a fulfilling life.”
“Turtles All the Way Down” is not perfect. The plot is scattered—although I’d argue that’s the point—and the characters sometimes feel more like archetypes filling a purpose rather than real people. But this novel carefully scaffolds a sense of empowerment and hope desperately needed around mental health.
What’s encapsulated in these 286 pages is but one part of Aza’s life and the book’s ending reaffirms that. Aza Holmes will go on. John Green will go on. Life, in its imperfections, continues.
Contact Perla Luna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.