Turtles All The Way Down by John Green: hopeful realism YA writers should strive for
Acknowledging the difficulties of loving someone with a chronic mental illness is both ethically noble and, with this novel, skilfully done
YouTube celeb John Green remains a terribly talented author first and foremost. Photograph: Ton Koene
Turtles All The Way Down
John Green is a frustrating entity for book reviewers – a successful vlogger with substance, whose commitment to literary fiction outweighs the need to promote a new mascara or indeed cater to his “brand” in any way. It may even be unfair to group him with the vlogger community – he was a Printz-award-winning author before his series with brother Hank (novel forthcoming) became an internet sensation. At the same time, it is disingenuous to pretend that his appeal is entirely unrelated to his popular persona, all the more so with his latest novel – a title that explores a mental illness with which Green acknowledges his own experience.
Sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes struggles both with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a yearning to figure out what kind of story she is in, a metafictional struggle that at times gets painful (when the sidekick explicitly states “My whole life I thought I was the star of an overly earnest romance movie, and it turns out I was in a goddamned buddy comedy all along”, we have already got the message).
The kind of story Aza is in is, of course, a John Green story – a world where teenagers are hyper-articulate about their particular brand of existential angst and highly versed in both philosophy and literature. It is essential to buy into this conceit, and important to note it is not new to Green; the adolescents of noughties teen dramedy Dawson’s Creek exhibited a similar tendency to expound at great length about their emotional lives with phrasing far more fitting to a graduate student that nevertheless enabled a representation that was authentic if not strictly realist.
Aza experiences her often-intrusive thoughts “not as a choice but as a destiny. Not a catalog of my consciousness, but a refutation of it”. This is not how teenagers – or indeed any of us – think, but it is a heightened and more intellectual take on how we experience the world. And we must remember that Green’s characters are heightened in this way, including love interest Davis Pickett – a deeply sensitive young man who (I do hate to be cynical) is in no way representative of teenage boys. His fondness for quoting significant figures and his self-conscious quirkiness immediately establishes him as a successor to Augustus Waters, Green’s last “manic pixie dream boy”.
But then everything changes. This is most emphatically not The Fault In Our Stars take two. Green sets us up to believe that we are reading and decoding a predictable quirky-mystery narrative with a heart-warming love story at its centre – and then reminds us he is a fiercely intelligent and innovative author deeply committed to his craft (with a delight in subverting genre expectations).
The mystery is not the point. The love story is not the point. This is about Aza and an illness that seems all-too-rational – “Worrying is the correct worldview,” she asserts at one point. “Life is worrisome.” – but is destroying her inside and out.
Most powerfully presented is her friendship with the charismatic and dramatic Daisy, whose seemingly-trivial obsession with Star Wars fanfiction serves to illuminate the frustrations with being the best friend to someone who “had the moral integrity of someone who’d never been hungry” and for whom “easy living was the only kind of living she’d ever known”.
Acknowledging the difficulties of loving someone with a chronic mental illness is both ethically noble and, with this novel, skilfully done. Its glimpse into the future for the narrator offers up a brand of hopeful realism all YA writers should strive towards. YouTube celeb John Green remains a terribly talented author first and foremost.
Claire Hennessy is a YA writer and critic.