ThoughtsFromBooks: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

True terror isn’t being scared: it’s not having a choice in the matter.

-John Green

 

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The reason I start with this quote instead of any other is simple. TATWD is a frightening read. But not in the way Stephen King is frightening. There are no tangible monsters in this book. No balloon wielding clowns peeking out of sewers, no deranged axemen on the other side of doors. It is terrifying in a much deeper sense. For monsters outside can be dealt with, with wit if not with strength. But how do you deal with something you can’t distinguish from yourself? How do you kill a monster which doesn’t exist outside of your mind?

Aza Holmes, the protagonist of the story, suffers from an extreme form of OCD, which means that for hours, days or even weeks, she is not in control of her thoughts. This doesn’t give her any superpowers though (which is incredibly important to note because mental illness often ends up being romanticized in literature and film) and the novel is more about her struggle with these invasive thoughts inside her head than it is about solving a mystery (a billionaire has gone missing and there’s a 100,000 Dollar reward for finding him).

Aza thinks a lot about the idea of the “self”. If she isn’t her thoughts then who is she? Is she her circumstances? Is she ‘I’, a singular, or ‘We’, a collective? There are more bacteria in the human body than there are ‘human cells’. So in the end, are we actually human? Who decides who I am?

Reading the story feels like drowning. Aza is drowning too and since she can’t come up for breath, neither can we. And that’s the thing about mental illness: it is not something that can be turned on and off. It’s not a quirk. And it most certainly isn’t fun. Since ages we have romanticized the idea of tortured genius; that creativity is one of the ‘perks’ of mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression, sometimes going as far as to say that great art stems from poor mental health. TATWD holds up a mirror to such ideas. It is brutal and honest and dark and indubitably bewitching. If there is only one book you read this year, let it be this one. We owe it to the people around us who live through this nightmare. We owe it to ourselves.

Until next time.

*

Interesting links and other stuff:

1. Here’s a super-short video in which John Green talks about OCD and TATWD

2. You can listen to the first chapter of the book here.

3. If you aren’t sold on the book yet what is wrong with you here are two of my favorite passages (which you’ll probably not find quoted that often):

(No spoilers)

“…how we all believed ourselves to be the hero of some personal epics, when in fact we were basically identical organisms colonizing a vast and windowless room that smelled of Lysol and lard.”

“Like the world is billions of years old, and life is a product of nucleotide mutation and everything. But the world is also the stories we tell about it.”

 

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