John Green’s heartbreaking ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ invites us into mind of mental illness

Dutton Books for Young Readers/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Editor’s note: The Daily Californian typically obtains copies of the books it reviews from the publicity team for the publisher. Because a press copy could not be obtained, and given the importance and relevance of the novel, the writer reviewed a purchased copy of the book.

Everyone has heard the name John Green. Whether you scoff at the phrase “Okay?” or you ardently whisper “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” to yourself in dire times, most are aware of the author, whose blatant metaphors and quotable romanticism have become fodder for teens and adults alike. His first books follow teenage girls and boys, struggling, usually for the first time, with love, heartbreak and mostly importantly, identity. His fifth solo novel, released last Tuesday, is different.

Keeping to Green’s theme of quirky literary titles, “Turtles All the Way Down,” fits in the genre of its predecessors. It follows a teenage girl, Aza, and her best friend, as they investigate the disappearance of a local millionaire whose now-orphaned son is an old friend of Aza’s. After a series of awkward but romantic dates, they begin to date. Sounds like typical John Green right? Wrong.  

Despite its surface-level similarity to them, this novel reads unlike any of Green’s previous literary successes. “Turtles All the Way Down” is at its core honest and thoughtful account of mental illness, particularly Green’s own — obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Aza is sick, or more specifically, terrified of getting sick. She applies and reapplies a Band-Aid on a self-inflicted cut, convinced it is infected. She reads and rereads Wikipedia articles on various illnesses, convinced she has contracted one. She discovers the amount of bacteria exchanged in a human kiss and is compelled to sanitize herself by drinking hand sanitizer. Yet these are sensorial level compulsions, and though heart-breaking, are not the complete story of OCD. Green also exposes readers, perhaps for the first time, to the underlying obsessive consumptive thoughts.

As per any Green novel, “Turtles All the Way Down” is steeped in beautiful, and at times cheesy, metaphors. Yet Green provides a stunningly simple and beautiful explanation for his literary symbolism — metaphors are the only way to describe our existence to others. Pain is deeply unique experience that inherently cannot be experienced in the same way by anyone but ourselves. Literally, metaphors are the only way we can bridge this communication gap and let others in.

Reading Aza’s narration is an empathic experience because her inner dialogue is incredibly honest. Green has not hidden the fact that this novel is a literary account of his own illness and exploration of his identity.

“I experience these excessive thought spirals in which intrusive thoughts… hijack my consciousness,” Green explains in a video on his video blog. “Turtles All the Way Down” is his attempt to “find form and expression for this weighed down non-sensorial experience of living inside of thought spirals,” to which he is ultimately successful.

In brilliantly composed prose, Green allows the reader to enter into Aza’s mind and experience the loss of control that her illness causes. Because she narrates the novel, Aza’s self-dialogue becomes at times incredibly heartbreaking, as we become trapped with Aza, inside her own head. Though Aza’s compulsions revolve around contamination and sanitization, Green shows us that they are deeply rooted in a struggle with identity.

Aza obsessively worries: If you cannot control your own thoughts, are they not yours? More importantly, are you not you? If you are not the driver of your own consciousness, who is?

Readers of previous Green novels will expect a humorous reprieve during these difficult to read lapses of mental-self-control. Yet in “Turtles All the Way Down,” Green offers no such escape. His message is clear — if Aza cannot escape, neither can we.

This is not in an effort to dramatize or tone down the novel but instead because, as Green explains in the same video, “mental illness is highly stigmatized in our culture, but it is also sometimes romanticized.” Obsessive compulsions often become quirky talents for protagonists or suicide the basis for a pseudo-treasure hunt. Green doesn’t speak for everyone, but he makes it clear he doesn’t believe that his “mental illness has any superpower side-effects,” and neither does Aza’s.

There is no happy ending where Aza is cured, in fact, throughout the novel, Aza does not really make any forward progress toward “recovery.” Despite this, at its close, the novel is still incredibly moving. Hope is found in the fact that she survives. She will always wrestle with her own mind, sometimes self-destructively, but these thoughts do not define her and do not prevent her from living a rewarding life.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].