John Green searches for the end of the spiral with ‘Turtles All the Way Down’
The author’s fifth novel crafts a narrative of mental illness, humanity, nerdy conversations
It has been five years since beloved author John Green released “The Fault in Our Stars,” and readers have been waiting patiently for the author to share his next work. On Oct. 10, his publication-hiatus finally ended as his fifth solo novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” hit shelves.
The novel follows Aza and her friend Daisy, two teenagers living out their high school days in Indianapolis. Aza has obsessive compulsive disorder, and Daisy…well, she has her ‘Star Wars’ fanfiction. When a local billionaire goes missing after being charged with fraud, the two set out to hunt him down with his hundred-thousand-dollar ransom in mind.
The story that follows is simplistic and perfectly-paced, like so many of Green’s novels, yet flavored with an abnormal sense of adventure that makes it so exciting. Yes, a lot of teenagers have OCD and write fan fiction, but how many of them will sneak onto a billionaire’s estate to search for evidence? The mystery does not overwhelm the plot ─ it simply acts as a reminder that this is, in fact, a work of fiction.
For without the looming billionaire, this novel, at its core, is a character study. Green has consistently proved his ability to tap into the teenage mind, but Aza might just be his most brilliant character yet. The rawness of her narrative might have something to do with Green’s personal struggle with mental illness; in which case, Aza could be seen as a manifestation of her author stripped down to his barest feelings. The times her mind begins to spin with intrusive thoughts and repeated actions are quickly followed by times she cycles through her routine. She goes to school, worries about contracting C. diff at lunch and continues home to do homework. Normalcy, anxiety, normalcy and repeat.
This cycle is what makes Aza so interesting: her ability to constantly feel everything and nothing all at once. Green has found a way to describe his experience with mental illness; the conditions do not cause constant turmoil but, instead, a never-ending cycle that contracts and expands throughout the day. It’s like entering a spiral where no bottom seems to exist. To quote the title, “it’s turtles all the way down.”
Beyond his characters, Green also shows off his strengths as a 21st century story crafter. He pulls from his nerd-background with thought-out pop culture references, ranging from ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jupiter Ascending’ to Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf quotes. His insertion of real-world pieces even ventures into the reptilian category when he gives a pet tuatara the spotlight. The novel really does have something for everyone.
Like Green’s other books, there is no shortage of quotable lines from ‘Turtles All the Way Down.’ He delivers his character’s thoughts and opinions with a flare that would fit a poet or philosopher. Some make you think if Green has thought or heard them in his real life. Others make you wonder how this author can so easily change your whole perspective about life or about your relationship with others, or even about the scientific value of the tuatara.
Perhaps the most vital part of Green’s continued success lies in his ability of acknowledgement ─ remembering that everyone has spirals, thoughts, flaws and questions about the big world we live in. He does not sugar coat what it means to be alive, and he never has. ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ is not a happy novel, but it is a real one. Green and Aza know what it means to exist. We might never know if it is turtles all the way down, but it is surely human all the way down.