The Young Adults of John Green

First of all, I loved Turtles All The Way Down. I think it’s probably one of those loved books I’ll keep thinking about and talking about and writing about in pieces. Because I feel like a “review” as a whole concept is really difficult. Reviews are so results driven; the point is to make someone pre-see a book in a certain way that will make them capable of making a decision to read it or not, or read it with a particular tint.1 But when you finish reading a book and you don’t really care about other people, you just have feelings and thoughts about it? That’s really a reflection, not a review. And I think I generally reflect over a long period of time, as memory bounces off the universe, and the book settles itself into my cosmos of references, a constant and therefore forgotten star, only to be called on when navigation demands it.

But I digress.

One of the things that people always say is that John Green’s teenagers talk like little adult aphorism machines or some variation on that. Which is not untrue. But it’s also not exactly a complaint I comprehend, because books can be true without being accurate. And that’s the actual complaint, that it’s inaccurate to portray teenagers speaking like adults. That no teenager talks that way. Which is a ridiculous complaint in fiction, because it’s fiction.2

So, setting aside that no teenager talks this way (because many teenagers definitely do perceive themselves to be this articulate, which is perhaps why it feels true even if it is inaccurate) I actually do wonder what the purpose (and effect) of writing teenage characters who think this way might be. Outside of how they speak, the teenagers in John Green’s books are remarkably self-possessed, reflective, intelligent, etc.

It’s a minor point, but I think it’s an important one. You could have a teenager with high language and immature thinking: vocabulary doesn’t create depth of meaning. But it’s the thinking that reads to me as too adult, and the language and references are incidental. (Again, I mean “too adult” to be accurate in some ethnographic sense, not “too adult” to be compelling or meaningful.)

I wonder how I would have read this as a teenager. You know when a book was written for you? This was one of those ones for me. Obviously I saw myself in Aza.3 But the me that is also Aza is an adult. I might have thought I was this insightful and clever at sixteen. I wasn’t. And I wonder what that me would have thought of this book. If my relation to this character would have been very different.

Despite the fact that she shuts down several times, there’s a worldliness to Aza’s compulsive introspection, and a generosity that seems above most teenagers’ abilities.4 Not every teenager, and not always in the same way, of course. Experience gives us all different gifts. In the very least, she seems an unlikely character, and I’m curious how she ended up that way, and how all these Young Adults of John Green end up that way. And why.

Anyway. Turtles All The Way Down. Many feels. It’s really good.

  1. If you’re cynical, the point is to extract a sum of money from a magazine in which your review appears.
  2. Sidenote: Recently I saw It and I got totally thrown out of the storyline because I kept wondering where the hell all the adults were. I kept thinking, “Go get a grown up!!!” And it was explained to me that in some of Stephen King’s novels, there are no adults. It’s kid world. And that’s basically the same complaint.
  3. I guess to say that I see myself in Aza is ungenerous to myself and to the author, because what made this book so sad is that I feel for Aza because I understand her, and that’s part experience, and part good writing. There are plenty of characters one doesn’t see one’s self in, but that one feels for. Aza just happened to be both.
  4. You could probably also argue that it’s her world that’s worldly, not her. That she’s swimming in a worldly sea courtesy of the author.