By Jason Garshfield
There is a quote, from G.K. Chesterton, commonly rendered as, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
The actual quote is somewhat longer, but amounts to the same:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
And yet there are a set of modern authors who affirm the dragon but not St. George, chief among them young adult novelist John Green.
Green writes for adolescents – not children – and so the dragons of his novels are both less tangible and more frightening. The angst of adolescence, maligned as it may be by those older and supposedly wiser, comes from a very legitimate source.
As Green himself said, “I like to write for and about teenagers, because young people are thinking about so many important questions, about love and meaning and justice. And maybe in part because they are new to those questions, teenagers tend to approach them without much embarrassment or ironic distance.”
Now, there is a set of truths that every self-respecting teenager has figured out: that life is fleeting and terminal; that much of what one was told about the world as a child, from Santa Claus onward, is untrue; that one’s teachers and parents are, in most cases, not much smarter than oneself, and may even sometimes be stupider; that much of what one learns in school is only peripherally useful, at best; that the world is an unfair place where saints often suffer and villains often prosper; that many supposed paragons of morality are, in fact, rank hypocrites; that there is no group of wise elders at the helm making sure that everything is okay; that there is no easy solution to life’s greatest problems.
Teenagers do not need to be told by John Green that life is hard, fleeting, and unfair; teenagers already know that. Teenagers need to be told that the difficulty of life can be overcome; that in spite of all the great and undeniable tragedies in life, there is room, however small, for the triumph of good, for the defeat of darkness on both the micro and macro scale.
This is what books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – albeit in settings removed from our daily reality – make some attempt to do, and this is what John Green’s books fail to do. They confirm the existence, for the adolescent, of the dragon, but give the adolescent no blueprint on how to defeat that dragon.
Green’s most recent novel, Turtles All the Way Down (2017), is perhaps most emblematic of this. The novel tells the story of Aza Holmes, a teenage girl with OCD (although as best as I can tell, “OCD” and related terms do not appear in the novel once). Holmes tasks herself with finding a missing billionaire, although she quickly becomes too consumed by OCD to focus on the mystery at hand.
The first sentence of the novel, perhaps without intending to be so, is blatantly Kafkaesque:
“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.”
This is well-articulated modern alienation: the sense of being at the mercy of great, impersonal societal forces, of having little control over the circumstances of one’s life. The difference between John Green and Franz Kafka, though, is that the latter wrote for adults (and did not even intend for much of his writing to ever be read). Kafka’s stories – of characters who struggle with, and are ultimately crushed by, momentous bureaucracies – are a cry for help from a troubled man, one who deep down wants nothing more than to be disproven in his worldview. John Green’s stories are an attempt at proselytization of the youth into that same worldview.
The first chapter of the novel goes on to reveal that Aza (like many OCD sufferers) is paranoid about bacterial infection, to the point where she can barely concentrate on the art project being proposed by her friend Mychal – “The Artsy One” – who wants to merge together 100 photographs of people with his name. Aza’s other friend, Daisy, tells him instead to merge together 100 imprisoned and exonerated men, because “then it’s not just about names but about race and class and mass incarceration.” (But not sex, apparently, despite their all being men.) This, perhaps, is the modern teenager’s attitude towards liberal politics: little genuine conviction, simply a cynical playing of the system to hit on the talking points of which they know their woke teachers will approve.
At the beginning of the second chapter, Aza’s mother – who is also a teacher at her school – tells her to put her phone away; thus is the soft authority of the parent combined with the hard authority of the school system, to form a benevolent, all-consuming umbrella under which Aza lives out nearly every moment of her waking existence. Perhaps it is no wonder she has OCD. Aza’s mother is a deeply irritating presence throughout the novel, constantly hovering around her daughter and prying into her business, never giving her a moment’s freedom. At one point, Aza even calls her mother out for “helicopter parenting,” but the issue is never confronted directly.
It is later revealed that Aza is haunted by the sudden death of her father, several years before the story begins. Were I a depth psychologist – a Freudian perhaps, or something of the sort – I might posit that Aza’s OCD is a defense mechanism against a frightening world, perhaps even a self-crippling technique by which she forestalls her own independence so that she can be there for her mother, a lonely woman who has nothing left but her daughter, and for whom her daughter abandoning her for the full actualization of adulthood would be a major blow. Perhaps her OCD is a psychological hurdle, rather than a biological one. But I have been reliably informed by the likes of John Green that OCD is merely a chemical imbalance in the brain, nothing more, nothing less, to be cured by medication rather than self-examination, so such musings are apparently beneath me.
Of course, this is a common modern affliction: the belief that mental health is a mere brain state, and so the solution to a mental health problem is not to figure out what is wrong, to “have much ado to know myself” as Shakespeare’s Antonio says, but to fiddle with one’s neurochemistry, thus placing one’s mental strife utterly outside the realm of reason. As the Doctor said of Lady Macbeth, tormented with guilt, “More needs she the divine than the physician.” John Green would give us only the physician. To reduce mental health problems to the interplay of serotonin and norepinephrine and those other brainly dancers is to reduce a murder to the physics of the bullet leaving the chamber of the gun; it focuses on a snapshot while ignoring the bigger picture. Yes, the brain chemistry for OCD is there, but why is it there? The car is moving because the engine is on, yes, we know, but why is it on?
At the climax of the story, Aza becomes distracted by an argument with her friend and gets in a car crash, after which she is taken to the hospital and suffers her most severe OCD attack yet. After that, she does not change, she does not improve, she gains nothing of value from the experience, no post-traumatic growth or anything like it, and the very idea of her doing so is disparaged within the narrative:
“The arc of the story goes like this: Having descended into proper madness, I begin to make the connections that crack open the long-dormant case of Russell Pickett’s disappearance… I focus only on the mystery, and embrace the belief that solving it is the ultimate Good, that declarative sentences are inherently better than interrogative ones, and in finding the answer despite my madness, I simultaneously find a way to live with the madness. I become a great detective, not in spite of my brain circuitry, but because of it.
“I realize that life is a story that I’m telling, and I’m free and empowered and the captain of my consciousness and yeah, no. That’s not how it went down.”
And after that? Nothing. Aza breaks up with her boyfriend, with whom her OCD prevented her from having any physical contact. The story ends, the mystery of the missing billionaire (remember him?) is “solved” in the lamest way possible, but not before the above-mentioned “art”-cum-political-propaganda project of the 100 mugshots is displayed at an exhibit consisting of: “big abstract paintings of hard-edged geometric shapes, an assemblage of old wooden chairs precariously stacked to the ceiling, a huge photograph of a kid jumping on a trampoline alone in a vast harvested cornfield” and the like.
If this part sounds trivial, it is not. Green’s sense of aesthetics, or lack thereof, is integral to the story he is telling. Ugliness forms a consistent backdrop to the story. Artwork intended to depict beauty, as articulated by the late Roger Scruton, is conspicuously absent. This is John Green’s work: nothing to inspire, no transcendent ideal, no hope, not even for teenagers for whom hope is a rare and precious commodity. Teenagers are starving for bread and fish; John Green gives them stones and snakes.
In a way, Aza’s name itself is symbolic of her story. She goes from A to Z, and then back to A, and the story ends much where it started. “Holmes” is merely a cruel parody, intended to mock the idea that every quirky person is a potential Sherlock. There is no change, no progress, no growth, not a single uplifting moment in the entire novel, only grim resignation to the realities of a life with OCD.
As Aza says early in the story, “[L]ife is a story told about you, not one you tell.” But Aza’s story is indeed being told by John Green; what does that say about him?
This all matters because we live in dark times, spiritually and emotionally, and it is the duty of artists, most particularly novelists, to provide hope even while acknowledging the dark reality. Once all the evils have been let loose from Pandora’s Box, only hope makes them bearable to the mortal. This is a duty that Green has abdicated, and he has done so with one of the demographics who need hope more than anyone.
Writers are powerful; writers are magicians, superheroes, and, as a certain superhero’s uncle once reminded us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” John Green, who is a New York Times bestselling author and whose YouTube channel has over 3 million subscribers, has as much power – albeit in a more roundabout and less direct way – as a high-ranking politician, and it is incumbent upon him to use that power for good, to create St. Georges as well as dragons.
Green himself may be a troubled man; his own struggle with OCD may have informed the travails of his main character. He has no imperative, however, to tell young people that life is a story told about them. For my part, I am glad that I did not encounter any of Green’s works when I myself was a lonely teenager struggling with obsessive-compulsive thoughts; his books would have given me no solace and only affirmed my worst fears about the world. With a few years of adult experience now under my belt, if I could speak to a smart, cynical teenager, I would give them the exact opposite guidance: your life is indeed a story you tell, individual choices matter – perhaps they are indeed the only things that matter – and the ending of that story is up to you.