Green has justly made a name for himself with poignant tales of adolescents worrying over their place in the world. His prose is clean, and his characters are often compelling. Paper Towns, one of my favorites, depicts a young man whose attraction to an enigmatic (and recently vanished) young woman leads him to undertake a physical and psychological journey of self-discovery. While this novel, along with other Green titles, has been criticized for deploying “manic pixie dream girl” stereotypes (female characters whose primary purpose is to further the self-exploration of their male partners), I have admired how Green generally takes young people seriously, representing their (admittedly often white and middle-class suburban) concerns with decency and care. He doesn’t shy away from big questions either, as The Fault in Our Stars and its teens-dying-of-cancer-but-still-in-love narrative suggests.
More importantly, perhaps, Green has tried to foster young people’s own content creation through the now seemingly defunct Nerdfighters project, and he actively advocates for civic-mindedness and charitable giving through organizations such as the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, which is “100% volunteer operated and exists solely for the purpose of raising funds to be donated to other non-profit organizations.” There’s much to like here. And Green seems to be a fun kind of guy, someone whose YouTube channel, the Vlogbrothers, on which he and his brother Hank exchange glimpses into their daily lives, is filled with humor and occasional sociopolitical commentary. Or, as the brothers put it, they’re attempting to raise “nerdy to the power of awesome.”
Despite this generally optimistic focus, Turtles All the Way Down strikes a startlingly somber note. The epigraph is from Schopenhauer: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” At first blush, such heady philosophizing seems appropriate to the thematic concerns of the novel, whose plot revolves around two intersecting — and emotionally difficult — stories. The novel’s narrator is Aza, a lower-middle-class high schooler who suffers from profound anxiety — in particular, an obsession with intestinal germs. Periodically, she even drinks hand sanitizer. And while she’s receiving psychiatric help, she believes that she’ll never really get better. Aza, victimized by obsessive thinking, seems a prime example of someone who “cannot will what she wills.”
Aza’s potential love interest is Davis, a sensitive rich kid whose businessman father has gone missing after being accused of fraud. Though unsure of what the future holds, Davis and his kid brother Noah at least have material comforts to help them through — for the time being. Completing the trio is Daisy, Aza’s best friend, an up-and-coming Star Wars fan-fiction author (thus checking the box on YA characters with significant ties to the internet and social media). A bit loud and overbearing, Daisy nonetheless does her best to be supportive: for example, she hatches a crazy plan to track down the whereabouts of Davis’s missing dad in order to share the reward money with Aza.
Green’s narrative sensitively explores the suffering caused by both obsessive-compulsive disorder and fiscal malfeasance. Despite the comic nerdiness of Vlogbrothers, Green’s work isn’t all fun and games. He has a serious side too. The Fault in Our Stars revolved around two young cancer patients who forge a relationship and find romantic love before one of them passes. A painful ending, but the book nonetheless comes across as hopeful, showing that love can see us through difficult situations. Turtles All the Way Down (spoiler alert) doesn’t promise or offer much of a happy ending. Our heroes won’t find love, and there’s no suggestion that Aza will ever escape her anxiety disorder. Green is to be commended for keeping our eyes on the tough stuff.
What bothers me about the story, however, is less what we are asked to focus on and more the distance Green maintains between his key themes.
In a complicated twist, Daisy and Aza — while boating down the White River that runs through Indianapolis (the story’s setting and also Green’s home) — stumble upon a clue that could lead them to the location of Davis’s father. Daisy opines, “We are about to live the American Dream, which is, of course, to benefit from someone else’s misfortune.” This statement is played for laughs, yet it’s one that seems too true to be thrown away — and too poignant given not only these characters’ circumstances but also the situation of many likely readers of the book, whose lives have also been damaged by the corporate greed that comprises its background plot.
We learn that Davis’s dad, Pickett, has been keeping a tuatara, a lizard with a long lifespan, and has hired scientists to research how its longevity might be extended to humans, specifically himself. So obsessed is he that he’s arranged to have all his money, upon his death, go to maintain the life of his tuatara. As Aza marvels, “[I]t turns out you don’t have to leave your kids anything when you die. No matter how rich you are — not a house, not college money, nothing.” We then read about how Pickett’s company had bribed its way into a contract to clean up the polluted White River, despite having botched the same job on an earlier attempt.
The developing romance between Aza and Davis, complicated by her unwillingness to kiss him due to fear of germs, is often touching and sensitively rendered. The economic disparities between Davis’s and Aza’s families only momentarily complicate matters. When Davis visits Aza’s house, she “felt embarrassed of our dusty old books and the walls decorated with family photos instead of art. I knew I shouldn’t be ashamed — but I was anyway.” A conversation about the value of wealth versus the value of family ensues, with Davis recognizing his relative privilege. Yet he doesn’t really care about his wealth: he just wants his dad back, something approximating a functional family. The scene is made more touching when we realize that Aza would like to go to college, perhaps away from Indiana, but that she and her otherwise supportive mother have trouble paying even for the applications. Disparities persist.
Despite raising such complex social issues, the narrative’s focus seems more on Aza’s psychological circumstances, her anxiety disorder, and her intense fear of germs. That said, any attention at all to socioeconomic context is relatively new in Green’s work. But issues of class and corporate corruption remain elements of the story’s background, since Green’s main focus, heartfelt and sympathetic, is on Aza’s personal anxiety. As someone who also suffers from anxiety, I could empathize with this young woman. Her thoughts circle and circle in a widening gyre (the Yeats’s references spin only slightly out of control), and Green offers page-long streams of consciousness that render the feeling of being trapped in obsessive thoughts. In one tortured metafictional moment, Aza pleads, “Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this. Anything to be out of this.”
But the specter of the economic lingers, haunting the book. At one point, talking to her psychiatrist, Aza questions her sense of reality, wondering if she actually exists as a person:
But what I want to know is, is there a you independent of circumstances? Is there a way-down-deep me who is an actual, real person, the same person if she has money or not, the same person if she has a boyfriend or not, the same if she goes to this school or that school? Or am I only a set of circumstances?
These are poignant questions, surely, but the reality is that, despite whatever existentially independent existence we might be able to theorize, we are never separate from our “circumstances.” Our “way-down-deep” is always connected to our particular socioeconomic and political situations, and it’s telling that Aza wonders who she is in relation to money.
Again, though, this is a throwaway line — the right question, but one that doesn’t receive much sustained attention. Indeed, what is ultimately missing in Turtles All the Way Down is a clearer recognition of the proximity of the novel’s themes, particularly Aza’s phantasmal anxieties and the very real economic circumstances that at times peek around the corners. I’m not suggesting that the economy is the root cause of her anxieties, but the connections between the anxiety-disorder narrative and the fiscal-malfeasance narrative beg for critical attention from the author that they never really receive.
To be fair, Green comes close at times. Late in the story, after a traumatic car accident, Aza struggles to keep her thoughts under control, worrying over the germs she is exposed to while in the hospital. She reads on Wikipedia about the “gut-brain axis” and how our intestinal biome involves a complicated set of inputs and feedback. Aza freaks out, realizing that bacteria in her intestines are actually providing some of those inputs — or, as she puts it, “I realize that […] my bacteria were affecting my thinking — maybe not directly, but through the information they told my gut to send to my brain.” She isn’t separate after all: her way-down-deep is part of a “set of circumstances,” a cycle, an interconnected system.
But Green doesn’t fix our attention on the presence of this system — of any system really, economic or otherwise. Instead, Turtles All the Way Down moves toward a mystified acceptance of things as they are — a move made all too clear in Green’s explanation of the book’s title. Aza’s core problem, it turns out, is that she’s trying to find the last turtle — or at least that’s what Daisy thinks. Daisy tells her (and us) a story about a scientist, lecturing on the history of the Earth, who is interrupted by a woman in the audience who claims that the Earth is really a flat plane on the back of a turtle. What’s holding up that turtle? Another turtle. And beneath that, another. Turtles all the way down. Or, to put it another way, the system is unfathomable, so why bother trying to find root causes? Why bother trying to understand the system, however provisional or tentative your theory might be? You just need to accept what is.
So, instead of overtly connecting anxiety and economics, the novel falls back on platitudes such as “the world is also the stories we tell about it” or “[y]ou never really find answers, just new and deeper questions.” In the last pages of the novel, Aza’s mother expresses shock that Pickett left all his money to the tuatara: “The madness of wealth […] Sometimes you think you’re spending money, but all along the money’s spending you.” Yes, indeed. But her proffered solution seems less than satisfying: “But only if you worship it. You serve whatever you worship.” She marks out the system that collectively constrains us, but then returns us to a personal choice. And Aza picks up this rationalization, asserting that “I could still be anybody.” The problem, of course, is that economics plays a huge (if ultimately unreckoned) role in the construction of her circumstances, and thus in the range of her life options.
I can’t speak to what anxieties may motivate or complicate John Green’s life. The acknowledgments at the back of the volume mention, in gratitude, the work of some mental health professionals, so perhaps the novel emerged out of struggles with anxiety close to home. To be sure, we need books for young people that smartly and sympathetically represent the spectrum of mental health and illness, and this book does that. But whatever its origin, a book goes into the world to do the work that it will do. I wanted — and still want — this book to be more than it is, to risk the connections it only hints at. Ultimately, the tensions enacted in the story between personal anxieties and socioeconomic realities deserve a better accounting than it’s only turtles all the way down.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor, Department of English at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (2017).