Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

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“It’s not like the car manufacturers are much help. I mean, with modern technology, you’d think our cars could diagnose themselves, but no, all there is on the dashboard is this moronic ‘check engine’ light that comes on whenever there’s anything wrong – which proves that automobiles are more organic than we think. They’re obviously modeled on the human brain.

There are many ways in which the ‘check brain’ light illuminates, but here’s the screwed-up part: the driver can’t see it. It’s like the light is positioned in the backseat cup-holder, beneath an empty can of soda that’s been there for a month. No one sees it but the passengers – and only if they’re really looking for it, or when the light gets so bright and so hot that it melts the can, and sets the whole car on fire” (Shusterman, 2015, p. 107).

As I mentioned on my Goodreads account, this book was quite a wild ride! I didn’t know much about it when I first started reading, besides the fact that it dealt with mental illness. Because of that, it took me a few chapters to get the hang of Shusterman’s writing style. The story focuses on fifteen year old Caden Bosch, a boy who has (up until this point, at least) been a brilliant student and blossoming artist. From the very beginning of the story, however, it is apparent that something is not quite right in his mind. The story is separated into short, chapter-like segments, constantly switching from our reality and the reality in Caden’s head.

In reality, Caden is admitted to a mental hospital, where he meets a colorful cast of characters, including Dr. Pierot (his doctor), Carlyle (his group counselor), and Callie (a fellow patient). In his mind, however, Caden is on a ship headed for the deepest part of the ocean (known as Challenger Deep). Each of the characters he meets in reality has a counterpart in this narrative, which is both a metaphor for his illness and a way for him to cope with that illness. The novel is punctuated at different parts by artwork from Neal Shusterman’s son, who himself once struggled with schizophrenia and mental illness. The drawings add a sense of realism to the work that would not be present otherwise, and the work gives us a very real glimpse into the mind of a mentally ill person.

Once I understood the writing style (and what the two realities meant), this book was not at all hard to understand. Even the initial confusion is, in my opinion, necessary, as it gives the reader an idea of what it might be like to suffer from debilitating mental illness. We are meant to be confused, and to not know which parts are reality and which are not, as that is what Caden is feeling until he seeks help for his illness.

Throughout the novel, I had fun piecing together the conflicting realities in a way that made sense. As the novel progresses, Shusterman slowly reveals who each character from Caden’s mind represents, though I won’t spoil any of them here. The most intriguing figure, and one who does not have a real-world counterpart until the very end, is the captain; when I finally discovered who he is, I was both shocked and saddened. It really gave me a new perspective on the complicated world of mental illness. I also thought the metaphor of mental illness being a deep abyss (from which one has to claw his or her way out of) was extremely brilliant; supposedly, this idea came from a quote from Shusterman’s son, in which he said that his illness sometimes felt like he was at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of his lungs (where nobody could hear him). This, to me, is an extremely accurate way of looking at mental illness, as it is something that only those who have suffered from it understand. While I have never suffered from mental illness as extreme as Caden’s, I appreciated the glimpse this novel gave me into that mindset.

This novel portrays mental illness in a sympathetic, yet unflinching way; it is not sugar-coated or glorified, and it is probably the most realistic look at mental illness I have ever seen in a young adult book. Part of that is probably due to the fact that Brendan Shusterman (the author’s son and the inspiration for this book) was able to provide insight into the world of mental illness. As Neal Shusterman himself says at the end of the book, “Challenger Deep is by no means a work of fiction” (2015, p. 310). The entire work is inspired and informed by real experiences, and that makes the work all the more credible. It’s very easy to see why this title won the National Book Award.

That being said, I would not recommend this book to a reluctant or struggling reader. The writing style, though beautiful and poetic, is highly complicated, and not something that everyone will enjoy or appreciate. I believe it could be extremely helpful for someone facing mental illness, as I believe that it does a great job of portraying the confusion and pain of mental illness. A teen going through something similar could easily say, “Hey, this author understands me.” At the same time, this book gives those of us who have not experienced mental illness an idea of what it’s like, thus creating empathy and understanding from those who suffer from it. If you’re an avid reader, or someone who has been touched in some way by mental illness, you will definitely appreciate the pure beauty and poetry of this book.

Reference:

Shusterman, N., & Shusterman, B. (2015). Challenger Deep. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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