“As I sat beneath fluorescent cylinders spewing aggressively artificial light, I thought about how we all believed ourselves to be the hero of some personal epic, when in fact we were basically identical organisms colonizing a vast and windowless room…”
Do you enjoy wallowing in gloomy existential musings and pondering the meaning of life? Then you’ll love John Green’s new book! Two pages into Turtles All the Way Down, and Green is already indulging in bleak ruminations on the miserable mess that is human existence. This is precisely what I signed up for.
It has been five years since The Fault in Our Stars permeated the world of young adult literature and became a fully-fledged global phenomenon, and Green has admitted that he struggled to write a follow-up to the book that made teenagers everywhere cry. But he did it, and The Guardian has declared it “a new modern classic,” which piqued my interest to say the least. Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza, a sixteen-year-old girl who gets tangled up in trying to solve the mystery of a fugitive billionaire with her best friend Daisy and said billionaire’s son Davis, while simultaneously trying to control the spiralling, suffocating thought processes that are characteristic of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which she has been grappling with since she was young.
This book is not the detective mystery story it is sold as. The storyline is structured around their solving a mystery, but their investigation is merely a thin thread that is used to string introspective passages together. The mystery becomes merely a background for Green’s character studies, thoughts on human nature and exploration into the debilitating illness that is OCD. While there are one or two clever clues here and there, it was not the puzzle-filled, dashing-down-dark-streets-chasing-after-criminals kind of story I expected based on the blurb. I am all for character-based novels over plot-driven ones, but it is misleading.
Instead, this book probes into the charming idea that “a skin-encased bacterial colony is all a person is”, which I, for one, think makes for quite interesting reading. A crowd of people is described as “a flow of bodies filling the hallways like blood cells in a vein,” highlighting a hyperconsciousness of the nature of humanity and of who we are at a cellular level. It pervades every page. It leaks into talk of whether Chewbacca is a person or not, prompting the question “what even makes you a person?”
It even extends to how the very book itself is having an existential crisis of sorts. There are refreshingly direct references at regular intervals throughout the novel to what a “proper heroine” is and what “the arc of the story” should be, and the book wonders whether it is “an overly earnest romance movie” or “a goddamned buddy comedy.” Towards the start of the book, Aza, the narrator and protagonist, deems herself to be “the Sidekick,” simply the best friend of the bright, vivacious Daisy. This is just one of the ways in which Green is clearly trying to subvert expectations and avoid the conventional.
Another refreshing aspect of this book is that the romance: It is understated, and not the fulcrum of the story. Aza and Davis are not star-crossed lovers. Davis is gentle and patient with Aza, and they deeply like each other in a way that is not disturbingly melodramatic. The friendship between Daisy and Aza is given equal, if not more, weight, and there is also a moving look into brotherhood, with Davis and his younger brother Noah trying to figure out how to deal with the disappearance of their father. There is also a refreshing acknowledgment of how crazily expensive college fees are in America. Basically, this book is refreshing.
Green’s teens conduct deep discussions amongst themselves through text messages;
“Him: Then what am I? What is anyone?
Me: ‘I’ is the hardest word to define.”
It is at moments like these that Green is unable to resist making his teenage characters weirdly philosophical, his characters’ laughable eloquence something he has been slated for in the past. Here, it is not so much eloquent as it is mildly ridiculous. Memorably absurd quotes such as “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once,” and “maybe okay will be our always” are the foundation of every John Green novel- Turtles even comes with a limited-edition dust jacket that features a whole collection of them on the inside. To my surprise, Turtles isn’t saturated with cringe-worthiness, besides the occasional questionable line. On the whole, however, Turtles is infused with that Green’s wit and the awkward lines are far outnumbered by extremely intelligent, and yes, quotable, ideas.
The novel is almost scrapbook-like in style, with poems and art appreciation and scientific notes about bacteria and mortality, all stuck together to try to come to some conclusion about our place in the grand scheme of the universe. It tends towards almost being curation rather than creation at times, as Green gathers quotes from writers, from Shakespeare to Salinger. You could almost accuse him of falling back on these to give his own book emotional weight. “My good lines are always stolen,” says Davis. Green combines all of these ideas from others in a way that creates something new, mixed with plenty of his own sharp theories, concepts and witticisms.
Green drags the reader through Aza’s anxiety-ridden, paralysing “thought spirals,” placing us in her mind so they we understand just how painful Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is, with page-long punctuation-less stream-of-consciousness-style internal arguments. “Adolescent sanity is so twentieth century,” Aza says mockingly at one point. Too often we hear people say things like “my desk has to be really neat or I freak out, if my room is messy, I can’t concentrate, I’m so OCD”.. That kind of trivialisation and simplification does nothing to help the people who suffer from it. Aza’s bedroom is “cluttered,” and it doesn’t bother her. Turtles All the Way Down is a welcome and positive contribution to conversation about mental illness and the stigmatisation of it, showing us that OCD is far more complex than it is often perceived to be. It is not just a cute personality quirk.
One of Aza’s fingertips is callused from her pressing it to convince herself that she is real, and she cannot escape from the incessant paranoia that it has become infected, so she digs her thumbnail into it to drain it of blood, and she puts hand sanitiser on it until it feels like it is burning. This is a recurring problem throughout the novel, with extensively-detailed, methodical descriptions of her picking at the callus and being sickeningly worried that she has contracted a terrible bacterial infection. It is given a significant amount of page-time. This is what her battles look like. They are not romantic, they wouldn’t appear to be monumental, they are irrational, it isn’t the kind of conflict we are used to novels being centred around, but they are battles nonetheless. Green completely combats any romanticisation of mental illness with his portrayal of just how poisonous and isolating OCD can be, and how it interferes with her life and relationships. It is also good to see the practicalities of mental health treatment and medication being brought up in the book.
This book is probably more helpful in showing the reality of the it to others. For those who suffer, it might be too much. It deals with how it can be difficult for a parent to know how to help their child who is struggling with their mental health, and how it can be difficult for their friends to understand.
A Proustian ending poignantly closes the story. This book is not as soul-crushing as The Fault In Our Stars or the devastating novel that was Looking for Alaska. Turtles All the Way Down might never escape the inevitable curse of being ceaselessly compared to John Green’s other novels, but it is special in its own right. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a new modern classic, but Turtles All the Way Down does have a lot to offer; a skilfully illustrated depiction of mental illness, a life-affirming look into why we are all here, and a careful portrait of teenage girl just trying to understand who she is.