Arts and Entertainment

Turtles All the Way Dab

Reviewing John Green’s latest novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” as someone very familiar with his work and life, and through the lens of someone who also deals with mental illness.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Sunny Bok

I started reading “Turtles All the Way Down” by John Green a few days after receiving it in the mail on its release date, October 10, 2017. I had pre-ordered a copy (signed in green Sharpie) the day after I heard about it, because I am a White Girl (as in while writing this sentence, I literally pushed up my clear Warby Parker glasses and took a sip of my Tangerine La Croix Sparkling Water boss-level white). I am in fact so white, and so openly obsessed with the idea of John Green, that my father, who is in the habit of surprising me with books, also pre-ordered a copy he then had to cancel.

As the epitome of Green’s demographic (emotional white teenage chicks who read), my opinion of his new book is expected to be positive. But I don’t think you should read it because it’s “beautifully written and just breathtaking” or “EMOTIONAL,” (lines I stole from reviews of Green’s previous and most popular book, “The Fault In Our Stars.”) You should read it because it tells a story that is important for teenagers to hear in the midst of an epidemic of depression and anxiety: what it is to be someone or love someone who lives with debilitating mental illness.

“Turtles All the Way Down” focuses on Aza Holmes, a highly anxious high school junior in Indianapolis, Indiana. It satisfies everything you’re looking for in a Young Adult (YA) novel. There are teenagers in it. They go to class, and they fall in love, and there’s holding hands and some kissing. The characters are awkward and young in a real-feeling way, and they go on comedic adventures, where they piss off Holly, the Applebee’s waitress, by coming in every week to use up an excessive number of “Two Burgers for Eleven Dollars!” coupons. There’s clever banter about interspecies romance between Chewbacca and Rey and tender moments of emotional sharing. Bonus: Aza and another character, Davis, both have one dead parent for extra angst and emotional connection because absentee parents are a YA tradition. Spoiler alert; Davis is the romantic interest. Wow. What a shocker.

What makes “Turtles All the Way Down” unique within its genre however, is its very real portrayal of mental illness and obsessive thoughts.

I started reading “Turtles All the Way Down” in the middle of a mental breakdown. I was trying to get myself to stop crying. It was 11:00pm, and I hadn’t finished a single thing that day. There were no lights on in my room, and I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the carpet and treading frantically as my thoughts tried to drown me. I was convinced that the world was caving in, that everyone would be disappointed in me, and that I wasn’t living up to the expectations everyone else had for me. I picked up the book from my bedroom floor and turned on my reading lamp, hoping to find solace in its pages. I just wanted to stop crying.

Aza’s struggle with OCD does not feel romanticized; it feels crunchy and difficult and frustrating and awkward. Aza experiences mental health the way my friends and I do, and as I was reading it, I constantly heard our words in hers. I read Aza’s explanation, “I don’t know, I don’t like the feeling of having to take a pill to feel like ‘myself,’” in my best friend’s voice. When Aza talks to and about her therapist: “I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: it was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story you tell in the past tense,” I read in my own.

I’ve always been a fan of Green’s work; beyond novels, he and his brother Hank Green run an internet empire centered around their YouTube channel “vlogbrothers.” Part of what draws me to their online work is how Green has always been public about his mental health, and in the last year, has been increasingly candid about his OCD. “I experience these obsessive thought spirals in which intrusive thoughts, that is, thoughts that I don’t want to have that seem to come from outside of me, sort of hijack my consciousness,” he said in a vlog published this July, titled “What OCD Is Like (for Me).” “If I can’t choose my thoughts, and I am at least partially made up of those thoughts, am I actually the captain of this ship I call myself? And the more you think about that, at least for me, the more it becomes like… the premise for a horror movie.”

The veritas of his experience and the eloquence with which he translates it into fiction is what makes the book rich and valuable, rather than just entertaining. This novel is warm, satirical, and romantic. It is a comfort food for the YA reader. But as a young person in an increasingly emotionally-tumultuous age, it is recognition for my experience.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been made aware that for people who haven’t experienced mental health, it can be incredibly difficult to empathize. “I never viewed PTSD and stuff as real,” a girl in my English class shared. “I never got why that wasn’t something you could just get over.” Another friend confided in me that when her sister was dealing with severe anxiety and depression, her family didn’t really understand what was happening — to them, it seemed like something she should be able to get over. And I’ve even had those thoughts myself: the painful thing to ask myself is why I won’t just do my homework. It’s difficult to understand that sometimes the problem is bigger than yourself. Reading “Turtles All the Way Down” is valuable because it creates empathy links, either helping neurotypical people understand neurodivergence, or reminding mentally ill people of the importance of self-forgiveness.