John Green’s new book is not a quirky sad romance. It’s an existential teenage scream

John Green is popularly perceived as “the sad teen book guy.” He writes books about quirky sad teenagers who fall in love and then die, goes the general pop culture osmosis understanding in a post-The Fault in Our Stars world, and then the teenagers who read the books get sad too, and it’s all extremely adolescent and self-indulgent.

What can get lost in that image, though, is the fact that Green is a genuinely good writer for teens. He hooks himself into the questions that consume adolescence — Who am I? What is my purpose? Am I a disgusting monster, or the single most important being in the universe? — and worries through them with the kind of single-minded intensity that would do a teenager proud.

It’s true that Green’s books are about teenagers, that they’re often sad, and that they can be self-indulgent — but they’re self-indulgent in their sadness in the way that teenagers are self-indulgent about their own adolescent angst: innocently, as if they are unaware there could be another way to feel.

In his new book Turtles All the Way Down, out this Tuesday, Green turns his single-minded intensity to the question of what it is like to be a teenager struggling with an anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The result is deeply claustrophobic and resolutely unromanticized: Green’s signature whimsy pops up from time to time in his characters’ conversations, but his depiction of mental illness focuses on the sheer monotonous grind of it. It’s less a sweet love ballad than it is a scream.