“In some ways because [Hazel]’s been sick for so long, she’s never been able to imagine adolescence any other way than being, sort of, you know, inherently ostracized and feeling other, but pretty much every teenager feels that way. Pretty much every teenager feels ostracized, feels other, and feels like they can’t not be whatever it is that they are that they wish they weren’t…”
This is John Green, aged 40, talking about the protagonist of his last novel, the best-selling The Fault in Our Stars.
Here’s Hazel, aged 16, offering her own perspective: “There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows, that’s what everyone else does.”
Around the time the book came out, critics began taking Green to task for writing characters who were more sophisticated and mature, and specifically spoke more sophisticatedly and maturely, than any plausible teenager and most plausible adults. Green had published four books before TFiOS, all featuring teen protagonists who are in touch with their emotions, have a clear view of the world and their place in it, and talk to each other in full sentences peppered with wit, gentle irony, and compassion. (Sample banter from his Printz Award-winning An Abundance of Katherines: “Dude, you’re such a geek. And that’s coming from an overweight Star Trek fan who scored five on the AP calculus test. So you know your condition is grave.”) TFiOS was a huge hit (Green’s online fan base sent the book to number one on the bestseller list months before its release), and detractors got their knives out. For several months Green patiently answered questions about the articulateness of his characters with variations of the acknowledgment that of course no one talks like his characters, and if he wrote dialogue the way it actually sounds, it wouldn’t make any sense. (It would read, in other words, like the above opening quote.)
Next week Green releases his eagerly anticipated follow-up to TFiOS, Turtles All the Way Down. He has said that the book, whose main character, Aza, suffers from an anxiety disorder and experiences obsessive thought spirals, is based on his own experience with mental illness, acknowledging that “while the story is fictional, it is also quite personal.” Advance copies of the book were not available, but from the very first sentence of an online excerpt, which appears to be the very first sentence of the book, it seems that Aza is no exception to her Greenian brethren: “At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time — between 12:37 p.m. and 1:14 p.m. — by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.”
In the excerpt, Aza has a mild panic attack while eating lunch with her sympathetic, quirky, and vivid friends, talks to her understanding yet mildly overwhelmed mother, and fully immerses the reader in her singular worldview. Critics may say Green has done it again: another winning, yet perhaps implausible protagonist who talks and thinks unlike any human being ever.
“The problem with actual human speech is that it does not take place in the form of sentences,” Green told an interviewer around the time Fault came out. That is the problem with human cognition, too – most of us aren’t elegant speakers because most of us aren’t elegant thinkers. The challenge of capturing actual human speech and thought in all its complexity, beauty, and non-linear inefficiency has plagued and inspired writers for centuries. Modernists like Woolf and Joyce tried to recreate on the page the rambling, nonsensical blizzard of words, images, sensations, and sounds swirling in our brains in that ether we call consciousness, resulting in books such as Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, which are dense – many readers claim, impenetrable – with impressionistic narration. Realist J.D. Salinger similarly strove to recreate the rhythms of speech on the page, in Catcher in the Rye, presenting a narrator who stumbles, repeats himself, and qualifies every statement, sounding much like the inarticulate teenager he is.
Green’s books, with their textured detailing of the lives and detritus of modern teens, may seem utterly realist, firmly planted in the world of Holden Caulfield (a patron saint of modern Young Adult fiction.) But the writer sounds a lot more like a modernist when he says he’s uninterested in quantifiable reality. “The reality of experience is ultimately a lot more interesting to me than what I think is sort of wrongly called ‘objective reality.’ Because I don’t actually think objective reality is a thing — certainly not a very interesting thing for fiction, I don’t think,” he said. Rather, he believes that the way he represents his characters on the page is the way they see themselves in their heads. “Certainly, teenagers don’t sound [like my characters] when they talk to us… But they do sound that way to themselves. And that’s what interests me. I’m not really interested in capturing how they actually sound, because that’s not their experience.”
Green has an active online presence, and in the between book releases produced an online video series called Crash Course in which he sometimes adopts characters based on versions of himself from different time periods, for example, ‘Me from the Past.’ This idea that there are several versions of ourselves – the dumb one, the smart one, the one we miss, the one we hope to become – plays well with the framing device of many of his novels, and, based on descriptions, Turtles is no exception. Just as Hazel takes a break from being Cancer Girl and for a brief time is allowed to just be a normal teen in love during a trip to Amsterdam, and in An Abundance of Katherines Colin escapes his child-prodigy persona on a cross country quest, Aza, we can imagine, finds solace from her spiraling thoughts when she teams up with her best friend on a road trip in search of a missing billionaire.
These vacations from reality give Green’s characters the opportunities to be the best versions of themselves, to be witty and eloquent and empathetic and wry, to understand each other perfectly and say exactly what they mean, exactly when they mean it. They are windows when, perhaps, the way the characters experience themselves in their minds matches perfectly with what they sound like on the page and to each other. Green’s books provide glimpses of harmony in a cacophonous world, and if the music of his characters is not always exactly faithful to human speech, the meaning behind the words is true.