An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

The Carls just appeared. Roaming through New York City at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship – like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour – April and her best friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world – from Beijing to Buenos Aires – and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the centre of an intense international media spotlight.

Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carl’s are, but what they want from us.

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I am predisposed to resent people who have what I perceive to be a disproportionate amount of talent. I almost want to dislike their creations because it seems deeply unfair to me for one person to have so much ability in multiple different areas when I am flailing in all of them. Hank Green is one such person. One half of the Vlog Brothers in addition to like a thousand other things, Hank is one of those people I am inclined to blame for my personal failings because he took all the talent before I had a chance to grab a piece. But he is also an adorable man I think it is actually impossible to dislike, so when I heard he was releasing a novel (an intimidating endeavour, I imagine, when your brother is one of the most popular authors currently publishing work), despite his unfairly large piece of the talent pie, I wanted the best for him. In projecting my own imagined inadequacy onto him, I forgot for a moment that Hank Green is good at everything.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank Green’s debut novel, is really fucking good. A book about Queen-loving aliens that isn’t really about Queen-loving aliens at all; it dissects the dehumanising effect of fame (by others and ourselves), how the power that comes with fame can be used and abused, how we use rhetoric to progress our agenda and how that rhetoric can spin out of control.

Hank Green has written a novel for 2018 – as culturally relevant as it is resonant with the polarising politics of today. When the Carls arrive, April May unexpectedly finds herself at the centre of the news cycle of aliens making first contact with earth – by accidentally making first contact with them. She’d never much thought about fame before – she was barely even on social media – but once in the eye of the media storm she puts all of her energy into remaining there. In April May’s journey from regular Joe to tier five fame we really see the corrupting potential of that fame, as April May even starts to see herself less as a person than a brand. I suppose the work of building your own identity is less when you let everyone else define it for you, and once April May has that and the relevance and attention that comes with it she is utterly unable to let go – at the sacrifice of pretty much everything else in her life.

But the Carls are also the first contact between aliens and Earth and though it may not always seem that way from her perspective, the story is much bigger than April May herself. As time goes on and the Carls remain (doing, it is important to note, nothing at all, for the most part), the world seems to split into two camps. Those who agree with April May, that the Carls are a force for good and promoting togetherness – and those who look at the Carls and see a threat. Led by right-wing media pundit Peter Petrawicki, this group comes to be known as The Defenders (as in, of Earth) from what they perceive to be the alien threat. As the novel progresses the politics of fear espoused by Petrawicki and his Defenders grows, slowly becoming ever more toxic and out of control. Even as a reader seeing the story firmly from April May’s perspective, you are not immune to their rhetoric. For a lot of the novel, the Carls aren’t really doing anything definitely good or bad – they simply exist in a way that was heretofore impossible. But it is in the absence of action that both factions project ideals onto them, and as they fail to live up to either they have, throughout, the potential to be both. Though I can’t get behind the extremism to which The Defenders descend as the book goes on the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder if they had a point.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a novel about a special snowflake – April May, the first human girl to make contact with aliens – that resists that narrative in a really interesting way. As the novel progresses, April May starts asking herself what the Carls saw in her in the first place. What made her so special? Why did they choose her? When she finally has the opportunity to ask the question, the Carls don’t respond – because, I think, there isn’t an answer. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing isn’t about a special girl seeing her specialness finally recognised – it is the opposite. April May is a girl desperate to feel special and worthy of something and so willing to believe in that narrative when it arises – and there is really nothing much more normal than that. Even when there are aliens involved.

There is so much more I could write about this book. I haven’t even touched on April May’s relationships, particularly with her girlfriend, Maya, and how her interactions display a deep and relatable level of insecurity she does a really bad job of hiding. I haven’t talked yet about her monstrous agent, and how certain at times in this book you wonder whether April May stands for her actual beliefs, or simply the stance that gets the most likes on Twitter. But we don’t have all day.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is just that (an absolutely remarkable thing) – this book is packed with questions, compassion and a pacey sci-fi story I will absolutely return to in the future.

Yep. Hank Green is good at everything.

 

Turtles All the Way Down

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

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I am a huge John Green fan. I started watching Vlog Brothers, the Youtube channel he has with his brother, Hank, a little before Paper Towns came out (9 years ago. NINE YEARS AGO. Oh my god. I need to go recover from that realisation…), and at first I didn’t even realise he was a writer. Then Paper Towns blew my mind – I had the part where Radar tells Quentin that he has to stop expecting everybody in his life to behave as Quentin himself would tacked to my bedroom door throughout the rest of high school. I went to see John and Hank on book tour when they stopped in Swindon, of all places, to promote TFIOS. I have a Pizza John shirt. He is one of a very limited number of men whose opinions I have any interest in.

I’m a fan.

So it kind of figures that Turtles All the Way Down would be my kind of thing.

And oh, it was. Turtles All the Way Down is a stunning achievement. It’s a deeply introspective novel about living with a mental health problem that avoids all of the tropes and ‘fixes’ that so often plague stories on the subject. Aza struggles with OCD, which Green has himself, so that helps with the representation.

While the story did have what I have seen referred to as trademark John Green whimsy – his characters are super smart and definitely manipulate scientific fact to create metaphors about their lives (this time they are very into space) – it felt like a departure from his previous work. In Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska and TFIOS in particular the story is very much a vehicle for an idea, whereas Turtles All the Way Down is a deep exploration of Aza’s mental health, with her mental state functioning as the primary driver in the story.

While most stories about mental health incite some conversation about romanticising unhealthy behaviour – To the Bone, that Lily Collins movie about Anorexia springs to mind – there is nothing romantic about Aza’s situation – and not just because her OCD interferes with her love life. That’s not to say that the novel is hopeless, but it is engaged with the particular struggles of Aza’s life that at times make for hard reading – for example, Aza is plagued by the thought of getting an infection, and this thought that she can’t shake leads her to start drinking her hand sanitiser. She understands rationally that drinking pure alcohol is poisonous, and will seriously harm her body in the long run, but she can’t overcome the part of her brain telling her that drinking the hand sanitiser is the only way she will survive. The compassion and skill with which John Green navigates these especially difficult scenes of the novel means that as a reader you’re falling down the spiral of Aza’s anxiety with her even as you stand on the outside desperate to help pull her out.

One of the aspects of the novel that felt most important to me was the new challenges Aza faced when trying to have a romantic relationship, in particular the physical side of things. Physical relationships are really difficult for some people for a whole variety of different reasons from mental health issues to trauma to all of the nuances in between and don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I’ve seen that represented before. Sex positivity is absolutely wonderful, but it’s contributed to the taboo surrounding having any kind of sexual issues – which a lot of people have. Though Aza does not have sex in this book, she does find that her intrusive thoughts do mean that she can’t be physical with her boyfriend most of the time as making out with him makes her to anxious. Yet she and her boyfriend still have a very positive relationship in which he is understanding, kind, and never shames Aza or tries to push her into doing more than she is comfortable with. And he’s also still like, crazy into her. It’s such a positive view on a situation in which a lot of people feel a ton of shame, and I am so so happy that it exists.

Turtles All the Way Down is a difficult, painful and deeply compassionate novel that tears to shreds the romanticisation of mental health problems. In his typical style, John Green navigates Aza’s internal life in a way that never feels anything but emotionally true. It is a stunning novel about friendship, loss and surviving your own unique challenges, whether that be your OCD or your millionaire father leaving his entire fortune to a reptile.

It was totally worth the wait.