Close Reading 11 of 12: Externalizing the Internal in Shusterman’s Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep, a young adult novel by Neal Shusterman, tackles the complex reality of being a schizophrenic (or schizoaffective – it is not made entirely clear in the story) teenager. The entire novel is presented from the point of view of Caden Bosch, a fifteen year-old boy who is slowly disconnecting from and then eventually reconnecting to his surroundings. Caden suffers from deep anxiety, paranoia, auditory hallucinations and eventually, fully immersive delusions. Although Caden moves through the world around him, whether it is school, home, and eventually a mental hospital, the heavy lifting of the story occurs in his mind. To capture the shifting perceptions and mental alacrity of Caden, Shusterman employs a number of techniques, and only a few of the many complex methods of externalizing Caden’s internal struggle are discussed below. First, Shusterman uses point of view changes from first to second to highlight times when Caden is completely disconnected from his own mind. Second, Shusterman uses Caden’s unreliable thoughts and feelings against him to diminish Caden’s connection to the “real world.” I use the term “real world” to denote the portion of the narrative set in Caden’s normal life with his parents and sister. Third, Shusterman presents Caden’s delusions as an entire world unto itself that Caden inhabits, which I refer to as “the ship,” and Caden’s mental clarity in this delusional world of the ship presents a stark contrast to his instability in the real world, and the disease punishes him for this clarity on the ship.

Even when Caden is in the real world, the narrator of the story, which is always Caden, takes a step out of himself and expresses thoughts in second person rather than first, beginning at the very start of the story.

The time is 5 a.m. You know this, because there’s a battery-powered clock on your bedroom wall that ticks so loudly you sometimes have to smother it with a pillow. And yet, while it’s five in the morning here, it’s also five in the evening somewhere in China—proving that incompatible truths make perfect sense when seen with global perspective. You’ve learned, however, that sending your thoughts to China is not always a good thing.

Shusterman, Challenger Deep, Loc 299 (.MOBI e-book).

The story begins on a disorienting and disconnected note, as Caden immediately addresses the reader. It quickly becomes clear from the context of his narration, however, that he is referring to himself and not to some external “you” reading the novel. He references his clock and his location as here. He grounds us with the details of his room, but we immediately know that something is not right, because within this first page of text, the paranoia has crept in, along with the floating, detached presentation of his thoughts. It is as if he is telling himself the story of himself, but he is so removed from the person that he is that the story isn’t an “I” but a “you.” Shusterman uses this device a few times throughout the narrative when Caden is not on the ship but not quite in the real world. It illustrates moments of intense stress that are not set in a delusion but are nonetheless so disturbing to Caden that they must be externalized. This first externalization of the internal occurs with the opening of the book and sets the story for Caden’s diminished capacity in the real world and increased solidness on the ship.

Even when Caden’s narrating his story from the real world, Shusterman liberally peppers Caden’s recounting with perceptions that highlight his unreliability in the real world. One example is the passage below on which one strand of Caden’s paranoia actually interrupts another and distracts him.

“What do you mean he wants to kill you?” My dad steps out into the upstairs hallway and closes the door to my sister’s room. Dim light comes at a cautious angle from the bathroom farther down the hall. “Caden, this is serious. If there’s a boy at school threatening you, you have to tell me what’s going on.”

He stands there waiting, and I wish I hadn’t opened my mouth. Mom is still on the phone downstairs talking to Grandma, and I start to wonder if it really is Grandma, or if Mom is just pretending—talking to someone else, maybe about me, and maybe using code words. But why would she do that? That’s nuts. No, she’s just talking to Grandma. About termites.

Shusterman, Challenger Deep, Loc 426 (.MOBI e-book).

Caden has told his father that someone at school wants to kill him, but it is later revealed that he often has this thought about the random kids walking down the hallway at his school. The confusion he feels, however, is enhanced by the fact that he can’t even retain one paranoid strand of thought at a time. He interrupts his own anxious musings to have other thoughts about his mother, which he quickly dismisses. Shusterman weaves these thoughts and perceptions into a complex knot, and actions compound with thoughts compound with Caden’s conclusions about his own situation to a resounding cacophony of tension. Nothing he says in the real world can be trusted, but at the same time, he wants to dismiss these thoughts, and so we root for Caden, seek to cling to his moments of clarity as victories, even as they become less and less common as the narrative progresses.

I have to warn them before it’s too late, but when I take out my cell phone, the battery is dead. They drained my battery! They don’t want me warning my family!

I race with way and that, not sure what to do, until I find myself on the corner begging everyone who passes to borrow their cell phone. The looks they give me—dead-eyed gazes—chill me. They ignore me, or hurry past, because maybe they can see the steel spike of terror piercing my skull, driving all the way down into my soul.

Shusterman, Challenger Deep, p Loc 1670 (.MOBI e-book).

Eventually, the real world becomes a place of fear and isolation for Caden, and the terror that he so deeply feels is completely discordant with the actual threat to his body. The irony, however, is that his mind really is under attack, and Shusterman makes that clear in the very close first person description of Caden as he succumbs to his mental illness.

The third technique that Shusterman uses to explore Caden’s mental illness is the ship. Half of the narrative of Challenger Deep occurs inside of Caden’s persistent delusion that he is aboard a ship sailing for the Marianas Trench. The novel shifts between chapters set in the real world and chapters set on the ship, which is an elaborate manifestation of all of the people in the mental hospital where Caden is committed. Each character on the ship is a corollary to a person that he interacts with in the hospital. Not only are the scenes set in the ship given as much weight as the real world in the novel, but Caden’s interaction with the crew comes from a place of logic and reason, and he is punished for it by the captain of the ship, who it is eventually revealed is the personification of the disease itself.

“The Marianas Trench,” I say. “Nearly seven miles deep—the deepest place on earth—and southwest of the island of Guam, which isn’t even on your globe.”

The captain’s eye opens wider so it appears to have no lids. “Go on.”

“It was first explored by Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh in 1960 in a submersible called the Triste. They didn’t find any monsters or treasures. And if there are any treasures, you’ll never get to them. Not without a heavy-duty diving bell—a bathyscaphe made of steel that’s a least six inches thick. But as this is a pre-industrial ship, I don’t think that’s going to happen, because you don’t have that kind of technology, do you? So this is a waste of everyone’s time.”

The captain folds his arms. “How very anachronistic of you,” he says. “And you believe this because…?”

“Because I did a report on it,” I tell him. “In fact, I got an A.”

“I think not.” Then he calls to Carlyle. “Swabby,” he says. “This crewman has just earned an F. I order that it be branded on his forehead.”

Shusterman, Challenger Deep, p Loc 1130 (.MOBI e-book).

Every attempt that Caden makes to lodge a reasoned, rational complaint with the captain is met with often irrational and baffling retorts. In the above passage, Caden’s logical argument that the ship is not equipped to treasure hunt at the bottom of the Marianas Trench is dismissed as a failure, and Caden is actually branded by the crewmembers for his insubordination. This is one example of Shusterman reversing the real world on the ship. In the real world, lapses of clarity are punished through social shunning, but on the ship, cogent arguments are punished. On the ship, Caden is not sure who to trust, whether it is the parrot (the avatar of his doctor on the ship) or the captain (the avatar of his disease). Both make demands of him that would result in the annihilation of the other, and this struggle externalizes Caden’s internal battle—which is whether to go off his medication or not. Shusterman takes complex emotions and places them into a narrative that is part allegory.

Challenger Deep is a simple narrative told through complex narrative mechanics that bring outward the internal mental struggle of a young man with schizophrenia using many different techniques. To unpack them all would take longer than this close reading allows, but the brilliant layering of point of view, reliability, and delusions create empathy for Caden’s situation and struggle in a way that is eminently relatable.

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