:: Article

Turtle Zen

By Kristine Rabberman.

Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban, New York Review of Books, 2013

It would be understandable to expect Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary to be a light-hearted romantic comedy, one where two lonely protagonists come together over a crazy caper, a plan to set free the sea turtles in the London Zoo, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Fortunately, Hoban’s 1975 novel bears little resemblance to this simplistic narrative. Instead, Turtle Diary is a quiet, thoughtful examination of the loneliness of middle age and the quest to break free of it. William G. is divorced, 45, living alone in a small flat. He is estranged from his ex-wife and his two daughters, works in a bookshop and searches for ways to fill his empty hours. Neaera H., a writer and illustrator of children’s books, is single, 43, living a solitary life in which she works late into the night, and goes days without talking to another person. They both seek solace in visits to the London Zoo, where they independently arrive at the same plan: to set free three large sea turtles that are confined in a small area in the zoo’s aquarium. After meeting in William’s bookshop over books about turtles, they eventually share their “turtle thoughts” with each other, and embark on a plan to set the turtles free off the coast of Polperro, Cornwall. Turtle Diary explores both the turtles’ significance as symbols of a different way to live, and William and Neaera’s respective struggles to reshape their lives. This is novel that focuses not so much on William and Neaera’s freeing the turtles, as on their attempts to free themselves.

The novel’s structure provides rich opportunities to get to know both characters’ thoughts and fears, as its chapters are alternating diary entries written by each character. Hoban creates internal monologues that weave together observations of settings, recollections of interactions with others, philosophical musings, passages from novels and poems, memories, and the minutiae of daily tasks. Both William and Neaera are frozen by fear of being hurt. Although they are lonely, they veer from contact with others. And their loneliness bears the weight of time lost with little to show for it. As William notes,

I used to think when I shaved and looked at my face that that bit of time didn’t count, was just the time in between things. Now I think it’s the time that counts most. It’s those times that all the other times are in between. It’s the time when nothing helps and the great heavy boot of the past is planted squarely in your back and showing you forward. Sometimes my mind gives me a flash of road I’ll never see again, sometimes a face that’s gone, gone. Moments like grains of sand but the beach is empty. Millions of moments in forty-five years. Letters in boxes, photos in drawers.

For both William and Neaera, sea turtles represent a different way to live. No regrets, no hesitation, no existential struggles. Throughout their diary entries, William and Neaera marvel at the sea turtles’ uncanny ability to navigate through thousands of miles, swimming through ocean currents to Ascension Island to breed. The turtles live by instincts, and their actions embody what they are. As Neaera notes, “[The turtles] were compacted of finding, finding was embodied in them.” In one passage, William jumps from his speculations about shamans to this reflection about the sea turtles,

Could I be a turtle? Could I through an act of ecstasy swim unafraid and never lost, finding, finding? Swimming with Pangaea printed on my brain and bones, the ancient continent that was before the land masses drifted apart. That’s part of it too: there were no seas between, the land was one, there was one thing, unbroken. Now there are thousands of miles of open water and the strong ones, the swimmers, the unlost, are driven to trace the paths between, maintain the ancient connection. I don’t know whether I can keep going. A turtle doesn’t have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.

William and Neaera cringe to see the turtles and other animals caged at the zoo, yet another example of humans’ callousness. Throughout the novel, animals are juxtaposed with humans. Animals represent a kind of integrity, an ability to live in the moment and to act without agonizing over potential dangers. In one passage, Neaera considers the behavior of the wading birds at the zoo:

The birds were all quite good-natured and reasonable about it, they seemed more grown-up than the Zoo management, as if they’d been caught and caged not because they weren’t clever enough to avoid it but because they simply didn’t think in terms of nets and cages, those were things for cunning children. So here they all were, interned for none of them knew how long. They made the best of it, better than people would have done I think, and all of them appeared to get on rather neatly together…. I felt dissatisfied, as one does when morally strong preconceptions have to be questioned. The birds were not silent prisoners wasting away like Dr. Manette in the Bastille nor were they beating pitiful wings against the wire mesh of their captivity. Their understanding of the whole thing seemed deeper and simpler than mine.

William describes the gibbons as “Zen-like” as they swing from bar to bar, not appearing to be bothered by their confinement. In another example, Neaera marvels at Arabella, a spider on Sky Lab-2 that had successfully spun a web in space, in spite of not knowing which end was up, literally. Even a dead tomcat gives William inspiration, “He looked as if he’d been flying high until he was brought down. I’ve never seen such a lively-looking dead cat.”

William and Neaera are not the only people who have lessons to learn from animals. Some of the supporting characters in Turtle Diary reflect other ways to suffer from loneliness. Mrs. Inchcliffe, William’s landlady, spends evenings in her lumber-room, remembering her former boyfriend who used to refurbish antiques there. Mr. Sandor, an immigrant who lives next to William, describes his feeling of invisibility: “You make effort, put fake smile on face, make politeness. You nod hello but you don’t look at foreigner like regular human person.” And Miss Neap, his upstairs neighbor, rushes in and out of their building, clasping theatre tickets or rushing to see her parents, but without having any substantial interaction with her neighbors other than smiling and saying a quick hello. There are some moments of humor in William’s interactions with his neighbors, but also poignant scenes in which William has to confront the consequences of a life lived without meaningful relationships with others.

Of all the characters in Turtle Diary, George Fairbairn, the Head Keeper at London Zoo, is the only person living a harmonious life. Early in the novel, William and Neaera both meet him and discuss the turtles with him. George plays a small but meaningful role in the novel, especially as Neaera gets to know him better.

George Fairbairn had been a background person until now. Now he was the dot before my face, the face before my face. Knowing that I should never see the whole picture I didn’t bother to ask myself what it was. He had seemed so medium, so unspecially placed between the top and bottom of life that I hadn’t really given him full human recognition…. He had a clean look and a clean clear feel, nothing muddy. That was enough. There was about him the smell or maybe just the idea of dry grass warm in the sun.

Neaera, whose life is even more isolated than William’s, immerses herself in details. She lacks perspective on her life, how lonely she is, because she could not step back to see herself in the context of a wider world. Just as William’s challenge is to live fully in the present, Neaera’s is to gain the perspective to see her life, and the people around her, in context.

In Turtle Diary, Hoban refuses to present simple solutions or pat endings. Their plan to free the turtles is a catalyst for change in William and Neaera’s lives, rather than serving as the novel’s focus. This is one of the novel’s strengths: exploring loneliness in all its complexity. Although Turtle Diary was originally published in 1975, Hoban’s exploration of William and Neaera’s loneliness feels like it could have been published in 2013. This relevance comes in part from Hoban’s ability to depict interior lives, to weave existential speculation and emotions through quotidian tasks and quirky observations. In part, it stems from the persistence of Hoban’s main concerns: coming to terms with middle-age; learning to live fully in the present; gaining true perspective on a life, past, present, and future. It seems we still have lessons to learn from Hoban’s sea turtles.

Kristine Rabberman is the Director of Academic Affairs for the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Professional and Liberal Education, a job that provides her with ample opportunities to read books and work with faculty across many different subject areas in the arts and sciences. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Penn, and teaches gender studies, history of sexuality, and academic writing and research design in addition to her full-time work for the university. She has reviewed works of literary fiction for California Literary Review. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 19th, 2013.