A Turtle-Related Existential Crisis

When you’ve read as many novels as I have you start to appreciate the stories that don’t settle into predictable shapes. Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary is one of those.

Really, it’s Turtle Diaries: two narrators alternating chapters. One is William G., a lonely middle-aged bookstore clerk living in reduced circumstances after a divorce who gets an urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. The other is Neaera H., a lonely middle-aged children’s book author bored with the limitations of her career who gets a simultaneous urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. Together, they… uh, liberate sea turtles!

Cover of Turtle Diary

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there’s a fashion in genre fiction for structuring novels like Hollywood movies. I even see writers reflexively use film vocabulary–scenes, acts, beats–when discussing their writing. These books borrow not only the structures from Hollywood, but also their focus on action and their tendency to pare away anything that doesn’t serve the plot. I usually give up on a novel when it starts to feel like the mathematical average of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Robert McKee’s Story,[1] and Save the Cat. I like novels that let their characters ruminate, philosophize, and wander off the path of the narrative whenever they find an interesting side alley. William and Neaera think interesting, meandering thoughts and aren’t too concerned with single-mindedly and mechanically fulfilling their plot functions. The changes in their thoughts are the point of the story–really, are the story. The plot is a framework for the characters to grow on.[2]

William and Neaera seem bemused by how important the turtle project becomes to them, but the reader understands. They identify with the turtles. William and Neaera are stuck; somehow their lived dumped them into a tank. They swim in circles when they should be swimming towards… well something. William and Neaera don’t know what it is, but it’s got to be there, right? For a while freeing the turtles can be their goal.

You think you know this story, right? It’s one of those standard middle-aged catharsis deals. Hollywood loves them; they go all the way back to Bringing Up Baby.[3] Beaten-down, dead-inside protagonists stumble into quirky mysteries, or weird new hobbies, or manic pixie dream girls and/or boys, and, bam, they’re reawakened to life! If Turtle Diary followed the plan, William and Naera’s turtle release would be the climax. At the moment they let the turtles out of their crates they’d solve their stuckness. There’s never any doubt the heist will come off. William and Neaera have the cooperation of the reptile house keeper, who thinks the zoo ought to free their sea turtles on a regular schedule. So the release goes off without a hitch… well before the end of the novel.

So now what? The question for the rest of the novel is not just what William and Neaera will do next, but whether there will be a next thing or just a blankness. Is the turtle release catalyst or capstone? Stories end in epiphanies, and tell us their protagonists will live happily ever after, and we don’t have to worry about what, exactly, ever after looks like. Lives just have more days, like all the other days, until they don’t anymore. And the epiphany you have halfway through does not, by itself, make the days that come after substantially different; you’re just more awake to them. William attends a new age seminar that turns into a rebirthing ceremony; it’s a comic set piece, not a revelation. Turtle Diary is skeptical of instant renewals.

So the epiphany created by the metaphorical turtle adventure didn’t solve everything. You may think you’ve guessed what Turtle Diary does next: romantic comedy. It’s not just that “fall in love” is, in popular culture, the preeminent solution to the fictional midlife crisis. Most movies, and a hell of a lot of novels, pair a couple of characters off by the final chapter. Given all the ways two people could relate to each other it’s odd that pop culture resorts so predictably to romance subplots. Sometimes it seems like our culture devalues friendship, and indeed any relationship that isn’t romantic. Turtle Diary doesn’t feel the need to pair William and Neaera off. Neaera finds a relationship, William doesn’t; Neaera’s relationship won’t single-handedly solve her problems any more than their adventure did, but by the same token William’s singleness won’t doom him.

So what does get William and Naera on track? No one thing. The turtle release is a turning point, but also an opportunity for them to realize that finding something to swim towards is an ongoing, lifelong process. The standard pop culture depression story presents recovery as happening in three to five acts with dramatic unity. One of the little self-esteem-crushing things about depression is that recovery isn’t as automatic as our stories tell us it should be; it’s rarely solved by having a wacky adventure, getting back to nature, or find a quirky new job with eccentric colleagues. Turtle Diary acknowledges that finding reasons to get out of bed every morning isn’t that simple, and still leaves room for hope.

  1. I got burnt out on novels that feel like they want to be movies years ago after reading too many mediocre Doctor Who novels of just that sort during the BBC Books era. I have heard that, despite the fact that they published novels, the editorial staff advised their authors to read Story.  ↩

  2. Turtle Diary was made into a movie. I haven’t seen it and it doesn’t seem to be readily available, but Hoban himself didn’t think it captured the book.  ↩

  3. The genre also includes Harold and Maude, because “middle-aged” is in this case a state of mind.  ↩

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