National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Nominee (2015)
I’m not even sure how to articulate my experience with this book, because Shusterman’s Challenger Deep is not just a book you read. It’s a book you end up having a relationship with, an experience. It’s intense. I cried. Twice. But that’s not even what I mean when I say I experienced this book. I mean it infiltrated my dreams, it clung to the edges of my day, altered my mood, and parts of it haunt me even now.
This book’s title promises to plumb the darkest, deepest depths, and it does. But this isn’t an adventure to the bottom of any real sea, it’s an exploration of the depths of mental illness.
On the surface, this book is about Caden Bosch, a fifteen year old high school student and artist. Caden is an extremely likable guy with a honest, quirky view of the world. The reader knows something is terribly wrong right away in the opening section, when Caden confesses to his father that there’s a kid at school trying to kill him. When his dad tries to get details, Caden can’t provide them, except to say that it’s a feeling that he’s in danger and he’s clearly very agitated. Things spiral outward from there and the narrative shifts in and out of a fantastical sea-voyage on a pirate ship, a spooky cannibalistic “plastic room,” and Real Life™.
I can’t say I like this book in the same way I never feel comfortable liking someone’s Facebook post about some personal tragedy or other. You can’t like the death of someone’s pet and you can’t like mental illness. However, this book was deeply engaging. Sometimes I wanted to put it down, because things in the story made me so anxious and upset, but I felt compelled to stick out Caden’s journey with him.
Caden’s art is featured in this book and it’s drawn by Shusterman’s son, Brenden, who himself suffers from mental illness. According to the author’s note at the end, a lot of the novel’s more visceral moments have been based on discussions Shusterman had with his son about how his illness expressed itself and how he felt deep in his bones, which may be part of why this book hits so hard. It doesn’t feel very far away. The experiences could be right there in your own life, just under the surface, and that’s vaguely terrifying. Even in its most fantastical sections, there’s this underlying emotional realness that clings like a barnacle to your soul.
On Goodreads, a lot of people complained that it’s tough to figure out what’s going on at first. I suspect that is probably true for the average reader. However, I don’t think a regular reader of speculative fiction is going to have as much trouble relaxing into the weirdness of the narrative. One of the things I often talk about when I teach science fiction and fantasy, is that SF readers approach stories differently. We’re very accustomed to being dropped into the unknown and feeling our way through, so long as we have a hint of what we should be looking for. We look much harder than the average reader and have been trained to trust our instincts based on careful reading. SF readers kind of develop a reading version of “sea legs,” which you need in order to follow Caden on his high seas, deep sea voyage.
A science fiction reader is going to have an easier time navigating it, pardon the pun, but I posit that for Caden there is no distinction between the more fantastical elements of the narrative and those that happen in the so-called Real World. (Shusterman is quite clever with his fantasy elements; in fact, they all have real life analogs.) But none of it is meant to be otherworldly. Even though it’s unlike anything most people experience, it is the sum total of Caden’s world. All of it.
Locus Magazine categorized this book as speculative fiction – but in reality, it’s not. It’s all too real – terrifying and heartbreaking and wonderfully real.