The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when “should be” gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because “what could have been” is much more highly regarded than “what should have been”. Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.
Disorientation is the predominant sensation one feels upon first delving into Challenger Deep, which offers an insight into the lived experience of psychosis. From the very first of the novel’s doodle-adorned pages, we are submerged into the obscurity and perturbation of Caden, our teenage protagonist’s, mind. Its admittedly abstruse opening is fully redeemed as this spooling adventure, with its prismatic cast of characters, heartfelt intelligence and effervescent artistry, envelops us into its salty arms.
We begin with Caden’s paranoia, at night time, with the hissing of sprinklers sounding like snakes outside of his bedroom window, and the deadly schemes of dolphins painted on the walls – delusions which escalate into more elaborate nightmares as the novel progresses. With an eccentricity that is at times funny, and at others highly discomfiting, Shusterman brings to life the inner world of a witty and artistic individual who suddenly finds himself at sea, in more ways than one. It isn’t easy to shake off the feelings that Caden’s plight with schizophrenia provokes in its readers, nor would you ever want to.
In short and fluid chapters, Caden’s journey to the deep is documented. Around half of the chapters detail his everyday life with his mother, father, sister and school friends, as they watch him, helplessly, descending into the depths of mental illness. The other half takes place on a ship journeying toward the deepest point on earth, the southernmost part of the Marianas trench. The ship’s colourful cast of characters, ranging from homicidal parrots and one-eyed captains, to a beautiful maiden in the form of a talking figurehead residing at the bow of the ship, are an unequivocal high point of this narrative. The crew members often bear striking resemblances to the characters that appear in the alternative narrative taking place on a juvenile psychiatric ward, signalling the echoey and overlapping nature of experiencing more than one reality at once. While the nautical storyline is engrossing in its own right, it both complements and provides relief for some of the heavier aspects of the story. Balancing out bitter with sweet is essential to any good novel dealing with the topic of mental illness, and Shusterman’s bold characters and humorous dialogue make him invariably successful in achieving this equilibrium.
The mesmeric, open-ended ocean, filled with sea monsters and worse, is a prominent feature; an all-too-accurate metaphor for all that is still unknown about the human mind. The ship, contrastingly, evokes a claustrophobic sense of isolation in the midst of this torturous open-endedness. Shusterman’s novel is a stunning take on a very real and serious subject, exploring consciousness, madness, delusion, reality, paranoia, fear and helplessness. As Shusterman, whose own son was diagnosed with the illness, explains in the author’s note, “I watched as someone I loved journeyed to the deep, and I felt powerless to stop the descent. With the help of my son, I’ve tried to capture what that descent was like.” The drawings belonging to Brendan Shusterman, all sketched while he was in “the depths”, are a beautiful evocation of the experience and a fine addition to his father’s words.
It was interesting to watch Caden’s family’s concern through a lens so shrouded in fearful illusions that he often doubts whether his parents really are trying to help him – doubts whether they really are his parents after all, and not imposters sent to hurt him. We come to understand how complicated relationships can be when mental illness is involved, something that the author is clearly very well-versed to convey to us.
I particularly appreciated the way that the author was able to weave in commentary on the issue without distracting from the storyline. For instance, he is vocal about the problematic nature of labels when it comes to discussing our experiences with mental health, and so uses the captain of the ship as a mouthpiece to express his concerns. Our need to pack everything neatly into boxes, to assign titles to every experience that falls outside of the margin of that which is considered “normal”, is called into question through his storytelling.
“To name her is to sink her,” he told me. “That which we name takes greater weight than the sea it displaces. Ask any shipwreck.”
The more I think about this book, the more beautiful and deeply important it seems. It’s a shrewd commentary on mental illness, our incomprehension of which goes as deep as the Marianas trench, even for someone as intimately familiar with its adversities as the author. It’s also poignant, eccentric, poetic, and everything else that you could want from a novel for young adults with such a salient topic at its core. An elegant evocation of just one of many experiences with mental health, this book is a mesmerizing adventure for anyone with the curiosity to explore the strange and spiralling depths of the human mind.