Fifteen-year-old Caden Bosch is on a journey. He doesn’t know when it started, and he doesn’t know where he’s bound. He’s on an old ship, filled with more young nameless crew mates and led by a one-eyed captain with a one-eyed parrot. Sometimes, however, he’s a teenage boy, living at home with his sister, creating video games with his friends, going out for the track team and then secretly quitting, and worrying that someone at school wants to kill him. Something in his mind has changed, and he doesn’t understand what’s happening:
Do you know how it feels, to be free from yourself and terrified by it? You feel both invincible and yet targeted, as if the world—as if the universe—doesn’t want you to feel this dizzying enlightenment. And you know there are forces out there that want to crush your spirit even as it expands like a gas filling all available space. Now the voices are loud and blaring in your head, almost as loud as your mother as she calls you down to dinner for the third time. You know it’s the third time even though you don’t remember hearing the first two times. Even though you don’t even remember going up to your room.
Neal Shusterman drew from his son Brendan’s experiences with schizoaffective disorder to write this National Book Award winner, and several of Brendan’s own sketches from when his was in the depths of his own illness are included in the book. It is a deeply compassionate novel that gives readers a very small sense of what it’s like to lose a grip on reality and live in a world that is real to you without being real to anyone else.
Some of the early chapters of the book were difficult for me to get a handle on (a problem shared by some of the members of the Pop Culture Happy Hour team, who discussed the book this week). The sections on board ship are so strange and nonsensical that I couldn’t find anything to make me want to read on. I knew, however, that the shipboard chapters were bound to eventually sync up with Caden’s real-life experiences, and the chapters set in the “real world” were compelling enough to keep me going. In those chapters, Shusterman shows how Caden’s thoughts become increasingly erratic and how those thoughts gradually lead to changes in behavior that gradually lead those who know him to react.
Eventually, Caden is admitted to an psychiatric unit for diagnosis and treatment, and it is during these chapters that Caden’s two worlds start to merge. This was also when I started to become really interested in the book. The story takes some extremely dark turns, darker than I expected, in fact, but it ends on a hopeful note. The hopefulness is, however, just as note. It’s clear that the danger is never totally gone, but it’s possible for Caden to let the danger pass him by for now, and each day he can do that is a victory.
I don’t think it’s possible to really know what it’s like to experience a mental illness without experiencing it yourself. But it is possible for those of us who haven’t faced it to understand it a little better through listening to others’ stories. Although Shusterman cannot give us the exact experience, he can give enough of a sense of it to elicit compassion. And that’s precisely what he does here.