Book: Turtles All The Way Down
Author: John Green
Summary: We follow the mystery of missing billionaire, Russell Picket, through the eyes of young Aza Holmes, struggling keep herself afloat in the stifling grasp of intense anxiety.
‘”But the really scary thing is not turning and turning in the widening gyre’ it’s turning and turning in the tightening gyre. It’s getting sucked into a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks and shrinks your world until you’re just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you’re not actually in a prison cell. You are the prison cell.”
-Aza Holmes, Turtles All The Way Down
Wealthy Tuaturas! Star Wars Fanfiction! Painting Theft! There are so many good things I can say about this book. If you haven’t read the it, the story basically goes like this. There are kind of two plots happening at once. Aza vs. Aza’s Brain and The Mystery of The Disappearing Billionaire. Aza’s best friend, and polar opposite, Daisy wants to try and find this missing rich guy, because of the reward the police are offering. Aza was once friends with his son, and they reconnect. Then there’s more plot and lots of metaphors and poetic stuff about Chewbacca, go read the book.
The thing that I was most deeply moved by is the accuracy with which Aza’s OCD is written. We are not reading about her spiraling, self-destructive, anxiety, we are inside of it, in a completely immersive experience. Sometimes you read a book and relate to a character. It is less common that you read a book and feel like the author has performed invasive surgery to examine your brain as writing research. I am a total nerd, I’ve related to lots of characters in the time I’ve spent consuming media, but few have hit me like Aza Holmes. And yes, of course a great deal of it has to do with the fact that we share the same anxiety disorder. The experience of reading the book as someone who has similar experiences every day was…weird? Unsettling? Cathartic? Amazing? Uncomfortable? Probably all of those things. Overwhelmingly a positive and deeply relatable experience, but still, reading something that nails the patterns of your brain so spot on is a bit eerie.
I really appreciated how despite everything, she is just so human. She laughs at her own issues, she thinks about where she will go to college, she annoys the Applebee’s waitress with her obnoxious number of coupons. Aza is kid who has friends and watches Star Wars and hangs out with billionaires’ sons trying to solve mysteries. You know, like your normal, average, high school kid. But, because the book is in first person and we are always in Aza’s head, we know that even when she is having fun the worries are there. They lurk in her mind, whispering treacherous uncertainties, “Are you sure? What if?”. What makes this so real, and so incredibly frustrating for the readers and Aza alike, is that most of the time it doesn’t completely freeze her life, but it gets in the way. She’s just trying to live, that’s all, and her OCD isn’t romanticized or used to make her into some poor damsel who needs saving, it’s just damn inconvenient.
In the book, Aza sees a spiral painting by the artist Raymond Pettibon*. The image, combined with a phrase she takes from a W.B. Yeats poem and tweaks to suit her needs, become the ongoing metaphor that she uses to describe her anxiety. See, Aza’s OCD, OCD in general, is insatiable. You give into it once and perhaps you are relieved for a few seconds, but soon it offers up another compulsion. You continue to obey, a marionette on strings of diamond, and the spiral tightens and tightens inward upon itself, crushing you. You are trapped in an experience you know is irrational, but once the spiral has you, fighting it just gets more and more difficult. This book completely nails that experience, better than anything I have ever read. At the end, Aza isn’t “cured”, or whatever. This isn’t a simple “I’m sick and now I’m healed” thing. Aza learns more about how her mind works, and what she needs to do to make it a more hospitable place to live. It is not a simple story, and it does not have a simple ending, but the open-ended finale is hopeful, and for this story that is a better finish than any contrived happily ever after could dream to be.
So…by now of course you’re thinking, “Um, where do the turtles come in? You haven’t mentioned any turtles”. Well, I’m not going to just tell you! If I had to read the book, waiting patiently, constantly on edge, anticipating the appearance of a turtle, then so does everyone else!
*Painting used as featured photo by Raymond Pettibon