Turtles All the Way Down
Dutton Books, 2017
Geek Rating: Helios worthy (4 out of 5 stars)
Eisenberg Rating: 1,700 out of 2,000 stars
The story goes like this: after a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, Harvard professor William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“We live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,” said the lady.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him,” replied the little old lady.
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “Sir, you don’t understand – it’s turtles all the way down!”
It was the story that the troubled Indianapolis teenager, Aza Holmes, heard from her best friend Daisy which she described as “something akin to a revelation.” In Turtles All the Way Down we meet Aza, a teenager suffering from mental health, who, together with Daisy, will embark on a journey to solve the mystery of a missing wanted billionaire, all for the $100,000 reward money. For Aza this will mean reconnecting with the billionaire’s son Davis, her childhood friend. It is a story that will lead readers to a mansion and its accompanying wealth (rare paintings, modern tech, a private cinema) and meet a dinosaur, but also take us to the familiar world of teenagers: the cafeteria, school classes, after classes moments. All of this while being trapped to the inner world of Aza, in her repetitive, intrusive thoughts.
“Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”
The opening sentence of the novel was chilling “At the time I realized I might be fictional” which tells us that Aza is aware that someone is telling her story. What made this chilling was the realization that while we are reading her story, someone else might be reading our story too.
This is a perfect opening to the story and its focus: Aza’s mental health. Introducing herself as the sidekick, she is tormented with the belief that she was not in control of her life, her thoughts going down on a spiral while trying to live a “normal” life.
In a way, it’s like reading your own story, for every one of us is Aza on different levels in the spiral. There is no happy ending in the story, but we have been here for so long that we know that the stories with sad endings are the stories that make sense, that those are the stories that felt real to us.
That’s not to say that stories should be all sadness. In Aza, Green writes a life filled with normalcy and chances to be happy, or if not, to be normal. He ended Aza’s story not so much with an ending but rather with a sad parting, but dashed with hope. In parting with Davis she said “maybe I will never see him again, and I’ll be stuck missing him, and isn’t that so terrible.” Green would end the story with the realization that would help Aza, and the readers, go on with life: “I, a singular pronoun, would go on, if always on a conditional tense.” Aza would go on to believe that there will be better days to come, and a future to look forward to “but you don’t know that yet”. It mirrors our own stories: surrounded with sadness but trying to be happy at the same time, with a dash of hope for a future in the horizon.
“And why are you using the past tense?”
“Because all of this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Holmesy. You always use the past tense when talking about Star Wars. Duh.”
As with other John Green books, we are again treated to another parade of Goodreads-worthy (and tweet-worthy) quotes courtesy of the teenager characters that makes us wonder if teenagers really have that kind of wisdom and we are really just dumb when we were in high school OR Green is just being his usual wisdomy self. This is the flaw of his stories and other decent YA novels for that matter. Either way that is one of the reasons why we love his book so no complaints there, not when it voices the things that we think, that we feel, deep within ourselves.
I don’t want to make this issue long, but case in point is when Aza tells us about not being interested in dating “I know people often say that when secretly looking for romantic partner” she said but she explained the process of dating in an in-depth way, enumerating parts of a romantic relationships and ending with “you’re actually thinking about how cows could literally not survive if it weren’t for the bacteria in their guts…so you’re ultimately forced to choose between lying and seeming weird.” See that’s a Goodreads quote for you.
But the reason why we love Green’s stories is he is exceptionally good in telling about teenage life. YA novels tend to bring to you that high school feeling, a big reason why we love such stories. But Green’s stories are special. He brings to life in poignant details the teenage story: the classes, the lunch breaks, after school activities, and yes, Star Wars.
What is unique about this teenage story and how he depicted (and which is absent from his other stories) is the use of technology and social media and how teenagers used it to their own advantage. A clever narration which is effing scary on some level because it shows that teenagers, and millennials for that matter, have skills that other generations don’t have.
Green’s stories is so like something written straight from a teenagers thoughts that readers will, at times, tend to believe that they are listening to a teenager’s voice. That is what set Green apart from his contemporaries.