“He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.”
John Berryman (Dream Song 45)
My school uses a student information platform that tells me, as the classroom teacher, which of my students has a known medical condition.
But a scant few medical notices refer to any sort of mental illness.
Not because my school is untouched by the vagaries of neurochemistry—rather because mental illness remains too often undiagnosed, untreated, and too uncomfortable to discuss.
As Caden Bosch, the main character of Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, says, “Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids are swept under the rug.” Challenger Deep, with lyrical power, challenges us to change this reality.
Caden Bosch is struggling when we meet him. Not just struggling in the way all teenagers are struggling to make sense of the world and their place in it, even though his parents and friends are quick to assume this is the case. No, Caden is struggling inside his own head, as normal anxieties worsen into paranoia and malign intent grows in the faces and voices of family, classmates and strangers alike. Soon Caden is “alone in the playground” of his own mind, only the slide never stops going down. We watch as Caden’s slide ends with him committed by his family to a treatment center.
Treatment is not the end of Caden’s journey—treating mental illness is not as simple as the television ads make it seem. We can’t medicate away mental illness any more than we can “cure” cancer with chemotherapy: but we can, as Shusterman writes in his poignant author’s note, “send it into remission.” In the hospital, Caden gains and loses friends, gains and loses hope. His journey is harrowing because his journey to and from the depths is all too real.
Challenger Deep is an apt title: Shusterman’s narrative is challenging, especially as we wait patiently for some connection between Caden’s real-life journey and his allegorical and metaphorical journey aboard a strange ship with a menacing captain, headed toward Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the known world. And Shusterman takes us deep, deep into Caden’s worsening mental illness and deeper into the symbolic depictions of a mind descending into such darkness. With echoes of both Melville and Miéville, Challenger Deep eventually makes its sea journey a more understandable part of Caden’s narrative, but only ever as understandable as Caden’s mind is to himself.
Shusterman masterfully (and, yes, at times frustratingly, especially early on) puts us on a simulacrum of Caden’s journey. We cannot know what goes on in the mind of another (indeed, it is arguable how much we really know of what goes on even in our own mind), and we must resort to metaphor and symbol to represent what it is like. Challenger Deep abounds in such imagery, both verbal and in the illustrations Caden draws in treatment of how his mind feels.
As he did with Bruiser and Unwind, Shusterman makes us think more deeply about issues many of us would rather ignore or sloganeer into simplicity. Yes, staring at ruin can, as it did for John Berryman and far too many others, lead to ruin. But turning away from ruin doesn’t make it go away. Challenger Deep is an uncomfortable book about the “Abyssal Serpent” of mental illness, but we take comfort in learning, as Caden does, that although there are no easy answers, there are better answers.