No laughing matter: John Green’s new novel about OCD tells it as it is
There is a tendency to romanticise mental illness in popular culture. Often it becomes a source of entertainment. Depending on the genre, it bestows either uncommon brilliance (think of the aspergerian Sherlock or Sheldon Cooper) or results in laugh-out-loud moments (remember Monica Geller’s obsessive cleaning in Friends), and sometimes both (like Adrian Monk, the genius detective battling OCD). You could publish a directory if you were to list all the damaged detectives in fiction whose depression and subsequent dysfunctionality makes them indispensable to crime fighting.
In real life, however, all of it sucks. It does not make you special and is not even remotely funny. Aza Holmes will tell you that. The 16-year-old high schooler from John Green’s newest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, lives with crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even when wonderful things happen to Aza, her exhausting illness makes it impossible for her to enjoy them like a regular teenager.
Aza constantly thinks about bacteria in the human body and fears she will die of a bacterial gut infection. She obsesses that the cut on her finger will get infected and eventually kill her. When all this fear makes her sweat, she worries about sweating too much. Besides this constant worrying, romantic relationships make her anxious and panic attacks frequently sneak up on her. Her inability to control her thoughts makes her obsess about the idea of free will and self, and whether she is fictional. Her thoughts aren’t hers. Forces outside her control are telling her story, she tells her therapist. “Am I only a set of circumstances?”
If you were to meet Aza at school or outside it, you would not be able to tell what goes on inside her mind for she does not speak much (even on dates). But as the reader you are privy to the ceaseless monologue inside her head and more than agree with Mrs Holmes, when she tells her daughter, “Your brain seems like a very intense place.”
But there is more to Aza than just her illness and in between thought spirals, she lives her life. She is funny and smart though she rarely articulates this dry wit. There is an instance where Daisy and Aza go on a double date and Aza sits through it all, listening, thinking and being acutely aware of her inability to participate in the conversation.
It is exhausting to be Aza’s mother, to be her best friend, to be her boyfriend, her therapist, and in this first-person narrative, it is exhausting to be her reader. But most tiring of all, is to be Aza.
Green, who too has OCD, moves beyond the stereotypical portrayals of it being a fixation with cleanliness and compulsive behaviour. He emphasises the obsessive side of it and how terrifying it is to live at the mercy of invasive, often frightening thoughts, every waking moment. To have no control in the matter and to constantly tire out yourself and those who care for you.
The dysfunctionality her OCD causes comes into glaring focus when Aza’s best friend Daisy decides they will investigate the disappearance of a fugitive billionaire, Russell Pickett. The reward for information leading to his arrest is $100,000. The subsequent amateurish sleuthing leads Aza to renew her friendship with a childhood playmate Davis, Pickett’s son.
If her condition does not give her any extraordinary talents, it also does not make Aza suicidal. Green steers clear of another popular trope of bumping off the mentally ill protagonist. He has said in interviews that he manages his OCD with medication and therapy and that is the message here too. It is not easy but not impossible either to live a good life despite having a mental illness.
Be warned. Turtles All The Way Down does not have the narrative agility of The Fault in Our Stars, the book that made John Green a literary star. Aza and Davis do not possess the charm and wit of Gus and Hazel and will not sweep you off the page. Theirs is a story rooted in reality and like life it offers no closure or happily ever-afters. It was brave of Green to attempt such a subject given the pressure he must have felt after the spectacular success of The Fault in Our Stars (2012).
This is not an easy book to read, but if books that accurately portray mental illnesses interest you, it is totally worth the effort. Hopefully, the next time you notice someone exhibiting signs of obsessive-compulsive behaviour you’ll empathise and not snigger.