First Chapter of Turtles All the Way Down

All quoted text is from John Green’s video reading, on the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, of the first chapter from his new novel Turtles All the Way Down.

It begins with an epigraph from Schopenhauer, a fairly defeatist quote along the lines of when man makes a plan, God laughs. Epigraphs are strange because they can set the tone for a book, and they’re not even the author’s words. John’s choice, to me, reveals a dark tone for this book, which is an impression that the first chapter only deepens. (Bonus: One of my favorite, and I think most effective, epigraphs is from To Kill A Mockingbird. Attributed to Charles Lamb, it says, “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”) The first line is a classically John Green opening. I’m pretty sure if you mapped out all of his first lines, they would have the exact same format: long-winded, contains a semicolon, condemns some sort of monotony. Where’s the mystery, John? Where’s a snappy first sentence that is no more than 15 words long and doesn’t contain a lengthy description of high school just in order to not say “I was in high school”? (Side note: Do I resent the fact that his characters are always 16 because I feel more removed than ever from my sixteen-year-old self? I kind of feel like the problems 16-year-olds have are largely the same as college students. It’s not like you figure out your identity when you graduate high school, you just have more words to talk about how you know nothing. Maybe that’s the point of the Schopenhauer epigraph.)

There’s a mention of the arbitrary start and end times of high school periods. Life was lived in 41 minute increments, and John dives into that arbitrariness with heavy-handed existential dread. By the end of the opening paragraphs, I’m thoroughly depressed. There’s no break from the darkness, just several metaphors detailing how we do not control our own life. The narrator, 16-year-old Aza, says that life is really a story told about you, not by you. We’re apparently the canvas, not the painter, and “We all believe ourselves to be the hero of our own personal epic” as if that is some sort of mistake. We’re introduced to some secondary characters: an artsy boy and another fearless friend for another anxious protagonist. Our narrator is quick to inform us that she fills a role too: the sidekick. She’s “somebody’s something,” but never her own self. While all of this description is happening, Aza’s anxiety-driven thoughts are spiraling in the background. They soon become the main action of the lunchtime scene, as she is listening to her stomach digesting and is consumed by the thought of how much of her body is made of up bacteria. She has a tick, pressing her thumb nail into the pad of her index finger, and she does so as she rereads Wikipedia articles about the possible illnesses brewing inside her. By far my favorite moment in this chapter comes when she tries to reassure herself of her own health: “I reminded myself, you don’t have a fever, and myself replied, you don’t have a fever yet.” The chapter’s details of anxiety are startling. John writes a thought spiral for his character with disconcerting accuracy as he describes how “If you follow a spiral inwards, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.”

Ultimately, I was not totally impressed by this chapter. It felt a little self-indulgent, which frustrated me because I really wanted to like it. I couldn’t tell if the incessant quality of the “nothing matters” trope was part of Aza’s anxiety and it just wasn’t being explicitly pointed out to us the way her other thought spirals were. I struggled with hearing that I was the canvas, not the painter, but Aza’s struggling too, so maybe that empathy was the point. Largely, I’m conflicted because I think John Green does a great service to undoing the stigma on mental illness. His portrayal of thought spirals felt real to me. It was honest and clearly came from someone who intimately understands that feeling. If I had read about Aza listening to her digestive tract while I was in high school, I might have felt a little less alone in my own circuitous thoughts.  

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