A Review of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013
by REBECCA, December 12, 2012
Tim Macbeth: a self-aware albino kid who transfers to the prestigious Irving School for the second semester of his senior year
Vanessa Sheller: a popular student at Irving, she and Tim meet cute on their way to school, but she has a boyfriend . . .
Duncan: a year behind Tim and Vanessa, Duncan’s path crossed theirs last year at a critical moment and he is now living with the consequences
When Duncan arrives at school for the start of his senior year he finds a series of cds in his room recorded by the room’s previous occupant, Tim Macbeth. On those cds, Tim recounts the story of how he first met Vanessa, their secret relationship of whispers and glancing touches and walks through the woods. As the story proceeds, Tim’s and Duncan’s stories begin to converge, approaching the tragic event that changed both of their lives.
Tim and Vanessa meet when their flight from Chicago is delayed. Tim is extremely self-conscious about his albinism and Vanessa is clearly used to getting what she wants because of her beauty, so they end up sharing Tim’s hotel room for the night, where they connect over playing in the snow. When Tim learns that Vanessa is a student at Irving School, where he is headed for the first time, though, he knows that their connection will never be able to continue, since he’s generally treated like a freak and she’s clearly popular and charismatic.
And he’s right—once they’re at school, Vanessa (obligatory possessive boyfriend in tow) clearly wants to spend time with Tim but isn’t willing to risk her social standing to do so. Tim, who once yearned for new friendships and challenging classes, finds himself living for the moments he and Vanessa steal and never asking for more that she gives him. Tim’s story plays out against the backdrop of a school English class assignment: the tragedy paper, which asks Irving seniors to write about the concept of tragedy as it plays out in life and in Greek tragedies they read in class.
The Tragedy Paper is a beautiful book, but not a subtle one. And I think, actually, that its lack of subtlety is one of its strengths. In a less assured hand the story of a tragedy told alongside the story of writing about tragedy would feel as proscriptive and melodramatic as the drop of a cartoon anvil. However, Elizabeth LaBan manages to turn what could be melodrama into a sincere (and at times realistically banal) excavation of the question of what is tragedy. The meat of the tale is told by Tim via the cds he records after The Tragedy Paper‘s tragedy has unfolded (no spoilers, I promise) and after he’s been thinking about the tragedy paper for nearly a whole semester. As such, Tim recounts his story in terms of the tenets of tragedy itself: its structure, its fatal flaw, and the magnitude of events that precipitate it.
And it’s this notion of magnitude that turned The Tragedy Paper into a dark, character-driven story as opposed to a tragedy itself (and that’s absolutely a positive thing). Tim attends to the seemingly insignificant details of his daily existence from the other side of the tragedy, so he knows which ones ended up being significant even though he couldn’t know that at the time. In this way, he’s the ultimate author, only instead of trying to subtly foreshadow, he comes right out and announces to Duncan (who’s listening) what moments were significant. This builds The Tragedy Paper’s eerie sense of foreboding—the notion that we can never know until later which tiny decisions we make will end up changing our lives, or ruining them. And it’s this sense of tragic magnitude that haunts Duncan, slowly eating away at him all year as he listens to Tim’s story unfold, waiting until the moment he will finally appear in it.
Of course, this all plays out against the backdrop of a boarding school with the typical delights of teachers who really care about the material, arcane rituals and secrets, and a snowy New York winter. And you all know how much we at Crunchings and Munchings love boarding school stories.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
I think The Tragedy Paper was really Tim’s story, even thought it was given to us through Duncan’s reception of it. As secondary readers of Tim’s story, then, we get to see its effect on Duncan—how he asks out his long-time crush Daisy because he listens to Tim mourn not taking a chance with Vanessa; how he begins to look at his own decisions in terms of their magnitude within Tim’s tragedy. I think, then, that Elizabeth LaBan’s intention was that of many good authors (and some of us paranoid souls): to show the way that each miniscule decision we make propels our lives forward into a new trajectory, and that it is only by looking backward that we can see where the catalysts were. Tim’s story, and The Tragedy Paper more generally, is an excavation of those moments when things change; the moments we can never change, but can perhaps locate on our personal maps—can perhaps point to after the fact and say, there you are. And it is beautifully done.
In terms of character, I really liked Tim. As a narrator (I hope I’ve made clear) he could be really annoying. But he’s extremely sympathetic. Albinism isn’t a condition that I’ve seen portrayed often in fiction, and Tim’s feelings about and actions around his albinism are really interesting and quite understandable. I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to like Vanessa or not. On one hand, since we only see her from Tim’s perspective, I wondered if we were supposed to worship her as much as he did; on the other hand, since we don’t get to hear her explanation for why she wouldn’t be with Tim, I wondered if we were supposed to dislike her?
Well, I loathed her the way I always loathe characters who care more about their social standing or their calm social waters than they do about other people. I know it’s not smiled upon to admit this, especially because we’re talking about teenage characters, but I have absolutely no respect for someone who thinks someone is awesome and refuses to be seen with them or is embarrassed for anyone to know they like that person. Seriously, I think it’s despicable. Of course, it also produces really great stories, this one included, so it’s totally necessary in that respect.
Duncan’s a nice vehicle for the story because he’s clearly so affected by it and we don’t get much of his personality beyond it. I could have done without his crush, though, Daisy, because it’s never explained why he likes her so she seems completely generic.
The book’s tragedy, which the story builds toward, works well. It’s not so hideously dramatic that it seems unrealistic, but didn’t feel anticlimactic either. The Tragedy Paper is a very well-written, well-crafted drama with a great protagonist. There is nothing superlative about it, which is what I liked so much: it is not trying to be anything other than it is. In fact, the cover (which I love) would be a great thing to judge the book based on: it’s lyrical and beautiful and tense, but not overblown or flashy. And that’s exactly what it should be.
I was particularly delighted to read in LaBan’s acknowledgements that she was really influenced by S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as a young reader. The Outsiders (something of a tragedy paper in its own right) gets a subtle shout-out at the very end . . .
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. It’s also an exploration of Greek philosophy, although with quite different results. I write more about it HERE.
Looking For Alaska, by John Green (2005). Another boarding school tale where a boy falls in love with a charismatic girl. John Green is a master.
The River King, by Alice Hoffman (2000). A creepier, more atmospheric boarding school tale, also about an isolated student who is trying to make sense of what has happened.
procured from: I received an ARC from NetGalley (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Tragedy Paper will be available January 8th.