John Green really knows how to make t-shirts. No, the acclaimed author has not suddenly become involved in the textile industry, nor has he received a degree in graphic design. However, his novels are a cache of short, quotable moments, phrases that would look good on any graphic T. The merchandise alone from his international best-seller The Fault in Our Stars is proof enough of his commercial success. His 2017 novel, Turtles All the Way Down, is no different. Walking through this book one encounters dozens of idioms, quotes, and embroider-able phrases. The novel follows the story of Aza, a high school student with a Star-Wars-loving best friend and an obsessive anxiety disorder that causes her to fear infection constantly. One of the things that John Green does exceptionally well, is to make his phrases feel not like pointed philosophical statements, or dramatic authorial interjections, but like part of Aza’s story.
“Illness is a story told in past tense,” Aza remarks to the reader. She is explaining her reluctance to be truthful with her best friend about her ongoing (and, to her, losing) battle with mental illness.
“I think I might be a fiction,” (165) She reluctantly confesses to her therapist, in trying to maintain her grasp on her own existence. This confession of her own fictionality, a theme found throughout the book, is all the more disturbing to the reader because they know that Aza is, in fact, a fiction. Green seems to be tapping on the fourth wall just enough to get his reader’s attention, to make them uncomfortable.
“Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.” (9) Here Aza explains in a single sentence why a boy she knew years ago in summer camp still means so much to her, even after not having seen him for years. John Green is to the point without being indelicate, explaining complex, often oversimplified teenage emotions with impressive clarity. Coming from a middle-aged man, Green’s understanding of both the inner workings of a teenage girl’s mind, and the bearing and texture of teenage girls’ speech (a clear example being the dialogues between Aza and Daisy) is equally impressive.
Another element that Green expertly handles is the presentation of Aza’s anxiety throughout the book, as she disintegrates ever so subtly. There is a voice in her head that is constantly worrying about the bandaged cut on her finger if it might be infected. At first, this voice is quite clearly her own. “I reminded myself that I didn’t have a fever, and my self-replied: You don’t have a fever YET.” (5) However, as Aza’s mental situation deteriorates, the voice in her gradually becomes more powerful, more menacing, more other, so by the end it seems as though she is fighting with an entirely separate entity. There is a page-and-a-half-long argument that Aza has with herself in the latter part of the book, a stunning, unsettling, rapid-fire demonstration of thoughts run wild, “please fucking think about something else stand up I HATE BEING STUCK INSIDE YOU you are me I am not you are we I am not you want to feel better you know how to feel better it’ll just make me barf you’ll be clean you can be sure I can never be sure…” (228) Green’s portrayal of a mind teetering on the edge of a mental break is vertigo-inducing, but not deliberately harsh. The delicate way in which he handles Aza’s condition gives the reader a view of mental illness that overcomes the stereotypes of psych wards and scribbles on the wall.
There is one aspect where Green falls just short of excellent, and this would be his plot. For most of the novel the plot is engaging and compelling; Aza becomes involved in a missing person’s case that brings a boy from her past back into her life. The mystery hangs over the teenagers menacingly, almost as a background to Aza’s personal journey with her mental health. However, in the denouement, when Green is wrapping up his loose strings, there is a pile of convenient “deus ex machinas” that make the rushed resolution of this missing person’s subplot hard to swallow for a reader who has become invested in the authenticity of the characters involved.
The quality of Green’s characters, however, is indisputable; a reader is pulled in by the complexity of the relationships in this novel, again, with no teenage stereotypes to be found. Turtles All the Way Down takes place in only a few months but gives the reader a view to a lifetime. The wisdom that Aza dispenses feels like the wisdom of a worn old woman, telling stories to her grandchildren from a porch rocking chair. However, one doesn’t question this age, or suspect the author’s interference with his young protagonist, because the reader has followed Aza on a journey that has made her old, in a sense, and one may get the feeling that Aza is writing this from many years in the future.
“You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in this world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person, and why” (285).