In Praise of John Green’s New Novel Turtles All the Way Down
I admire the diverse works of John Green. I enjoy the insightful and humorous video blogs he makes on his Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, which he runs with his brother, Hank. I also like the fun and educational Crash Course videos John collaborates on. And I admire the novels of his that I’ve read, partly because Green imbues his young characters with respect and dignity. Unlike certain adults I’ve come across who dismiss the experiences of young people as the side effects of growing pains, Green never talks down to his characters, never belittles them because they’re young. Instead, he conveys their capacity for deep thinking, their concern for profound matters, and their numerous struggles—with intimacy and vulnerability, purpose and meaning, loss and grief—as those that many people, regardless of age or background, share.
I’m also thankful for Green’s courage in sharing vulnerable details about his personal life; he’s discussed, among other matters, his experiences with OCD in various speeches, videos, podcast episodes, and interviews. I’ve written about my OCD before, but what I haven’t mentioned is that I try to find examples of older people who have OCD or other mental health conditions, whose successes help me get through my lowest moments. On my worst days, I despair about my future, questioning how I’ll make it through life when I’m overwhelmed by my compulsions. I wonder: How can I ever be physically intimate with a romantic partner if I have an intense and irrational fear of germs, one that compels me to wash my hands for way too long? How can I ever hold a job if it’s hard for me to focus because of my anxiety? In these moments, I think about how older people who have similar conditions manage to live decent lives, and I tell myself that if they can do it, then maybe I can, too. John Green has been one such role model for me, thanks to his bravery and openness.
In Green’s latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, he tells the story of Aza Holmes, a high school student who struggles with OCD, which, in her experience, often centers on anxiety over contamination and bodily illness. Aza tries to manage her daily life of studying and spending time with friends while dealing with her condition, which often causes her pain both psychologically and physically. The book, however, manages to be beautiful and hopeful because it unflinchingly grapples with the hard truths of living with a mental health condition, and of living in general, without falling into despair. Green’s depiction of Aza’s psychological turmoil gives us readers a sense of what she goes through but also reminds us, through Aza’s thoughtful and reflective narration, that language is inadequate in conveying the full extent of pain and that we can only ever fully understand our own consciousness, never someone else’s. I’ve enjoyed the lively and sharp voices of Green’s previous narrator protagonists, but here, Aza’s voice during moments of intense anxiety breaks into several internal voices that swirl in a frightening, chaotic cacophony. Yet, in Aza’s other moments, when she’s happy or sad, experiencing something new, or thinking about someone significant from her past, she speaks with beauty. There are similes and metaphors in this book that moved me, that made me mutter, “Wow,” under my breath as I read.
The book also allows readers to meet complex and layered supporting characters, who show us how, in some ways, aspects of Aza’s crises echo the dilemmas of others. For example, Aza often wonders who she is and where her identity is located: How can she be her thoughts if she can’t control what she thinks? How can she be her body when she shares it with millions of microorganisms? In a different but somewhat parallel way, another character, a wealthy young man named Davis, questions his own identity during his talks with Aza and in his blog entries: Do people relate to him only because of his riches? Is who he is dependent on his wealth? Would he be a different person if he were born into a different socioeconomic class?
In Turtles, Green uses a wide scope to encompass the breadth of life, in all of its ugliness and beauty. He shows us how Davis, Aza’s best friend Daisy, and Aza’s mom try to navigate the difficulties of their lives as Aza navigates her own. Through these introspective characters, Green’s novel looks at life’s messiness and ambivalent complexities. He doesn’t sugarcoat the truth to make it easier, but he also doesn’t exaggerate the truth to make it harder, either. Green’s book reminds us that we are alone in some ways and connected in other ways, that life involves suffering and happiness, that things get better and things get worse and so on. The trend of life is an oscillating line, not a fixed slope that curves up or down.
The novel starts off like it could be a mystery. A billionaire from Aza’s town disappears to escape arrest, and there’s a large monetary reward for information about his whereabouts. Aza and Daisy attempt to solve this mystery. But as the novel unravels, it becomes a character study of Aza, and it’s a rich one at that. Green develops a main character who feels real and carries a powerful story about mental health. Mental health is something that we need to talk about more in our society, and novels like Turtles encourage us to begin these important conversations.
I love this book. I love it more than I thought I would, for the simple fact that it became, for me, the best novel by John Green that I’ve read. I needed to read this story about a young person afflicted by OCD who strives to live a decent life. I hope this book finds a wide readership and resonates with many people.