John Green tackles mental illness in his new book

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

Typical of a John Green book, “Turtles” is immensely quotable. It’s a tribute to Green’s writing that “Turtles” is also very much relatable, regardless of whether the reader shares the lead character's condition or not.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — John Green took on the emperor of all maladies in the acclaimed “sick lit” cancer drama “The Fault in Our Stars.” In his new novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” the best-selling young adult fiction writer tackles a different sort of illness: the mental kind.

The protagonist and narrator of “Turtles” is Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s no coincidence that she shares a last name with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, considering that the nominal plot of the novel sees her turning into some kind of sleuth. But whereas the famous deerstalker-donning detective’s obsessiveness aids him in his cases toward a state of astute observation and mindfulness, Aza’s pretty much inhibits her from solving the mystery at hand.

As in Green’s passable third novel, “Paper Towns,” the mystery in “Turtles” involves a missing person. Here, a fugitive businessman from Indianapolis is being sought by authorities for fraud and bribery. As it turns out, said runaway tycoon is the father of Davis, with whom Aza had gone to “Sad Camp,” a summer program for kids with dead parents. (Dad in Aza’s case; Mom in Davis’.) There’s also a $100,000 reward for information leading to the vanished billionaire’s whereabouts.

And so Aza calls on Davis, at the behest of her best friend, Daisy, who is the latest in the John Green tradition — which began with the title character in his remarkable debut, “Looking for Alaska” — of hyper-articulate girls who talk as though their lines were co-scripted by Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino. Daisy, who writes “Star Wars” fan fiction about an interspecies romance between Chewbacca and Rey, laments: “Nobody complains about male humans hooking up with female Twi’leks! Because of course men can choose whatever they want to bone. But a human woman falling in love with a Wookiee, God forbid.”

John Green For “Turtles All The Way Down,” bestselling author John Green seems to have followed a more challenging exhortation: “Write what you really know.” As someone who has long been open about his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he really knows how it’s like to be in constant battle with a mind that seems to have a mind of its own. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Predictably enough, Aza and Davis strike up a romance of their own, albeit a rather complicated one. Wise and world-weary beyond their teenage years, they’re apt to engage in philosophizing under starlit skies (another John Green trademark) and dispensing plaintive literary references (ditto).

But there’s the problematic matter of Aza calling on Davis in the first place, in hopes of getting the bounty, which only feeds his melancholy with the gnawing doubt that he and his wealth are all but inextricable. “I used to think you should never be friends with anyone who just wants to be near your money or your access or whatever,” Davis writes in a text to Aza. “But maybe the money is just part of me. Maybe that’s who I am.” And then there are the panic attacks that she is prone to have during an otherwise regular activity in a romantic relationship: kissing. On one occasion, while she’s making out with Davis, Aza pulls away and pulls out her phone to Google, “do bacteria of people you kiss stay inside your body.”

The human microbiome is but one of the various things that Aza’s uncontrollable thoughts are only too pleased to torment her about over and over again. If half of the cells in and on your body are parasitic organisms, then are you still you? These thoughts fuel Aza’s own existential crisis, making her realize she might be fictional. “And if you can’t pick what you do or think about,” Aza tells Davis, “then maybe you aren’t really real, you know?” In the manner of someone pinching himself to make sure that he’s not dreaming, she digs her thumbnail into the tip of her middle finger to convince herself that she’s real, except she does this repeatedly.

Unlike, say, the peculiar preoccupation with anagrams and dating girls named Katherine that’s harbored by the main character in “An Abundance of Katherines,” Green’s sophomore (and sophomoric) novel, Aza’s obsessions and compulsions are no mere quirks. They are anxious apprehensions and urges that perpetually plague Aza and people in the real world who suffer from the same anxiety disorder that she has. As it happens, one of those people is none other than Green.

 

“Write what you know,” dictates the old maxim. But for “Turtles,” Green seems to have followed a more challenging exhortation: “Write what you really know.” As someone who has long been open about his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he really knows how it’s like to be in constant battle with a mind that seems to have a mind of its own. This much is proved by the many trenchant passages in which Aza attempts to confront her repetitive, intrusive, rendered-in-italics thoughts. At times she is besieged by taunts from within her head, such as “You will never be free from this” and “You are dying, and there are bugs inside of you that will eat through your skin.” Often she gets caught in a vicious spiral of infinite regress where one thought leads to another that leads to another that leads to another.

Typical of a John Green book, “Turtles” is immensely quotable. It’s a tribute to Green’s writing that “Turtles” is also very much relatable, regardless of whether the reader shares Aza’s condition or not.

Aza’s thoughts come “not in lines but in knotted loops curling in upon themselves, in sinking quicksand, in light-swallowing wormholes,” Green writes with a metaphor count that should’ve been one too many. But as he later posits, perhaps metaphors were invented because “we needed to give shape to the opaque, deep-down pain that evades both sense and senses.”

Typical of a John Green book, “Turtles” is immensely quotable. It’s a tribute to Green’s writing that “Turtles” is also very much relatable, regardless of whether the reader shares Aza’s condition or not. For all its apparent particularity, the novel contains universal truths about love, friendship, loss and identity. But by no means is it a collection of truisms ready-made for Facebook posting, Tumblr reblogging and Goodreads sharing. If anything, it’s an urgent invitation to understanding mental illness in a world where individuals and societies are given to misconception and stigmatization. Its arrival, too, is opportune: In Green’s America, it has become evident that more and more teenagers are suffering from severe anxiety, and here in the Philippines, there has been a renewed interest in the topic of depression, with which anxiety commonly occurs.

“Turtles” may not be Green’s best book — for one thing, the mystery plot seems incidental rather than essential to the story, and for the most part, the novel reads like a diary — but it may very well be his most important work, not least because it makes a most important assertion: To lose your mind is one thing, but to get lost in it is quite another.

***

Turtles All the Way Down” is available in all National Book Store branches.