Part 1 of our first ever JOINT REVIEW!
by REBECCA, February 7, 2012
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Razorbill (Penguin), 2007
In today’s Part 1 of the joint review, Rebecca will begin with her, ahem, reactions to the novel that, according to its website, changed the lives of approximately 17,000 teenagers. Then, tomorrow, Tessa will respond in Part 2 of the joint review. Leave us your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for tomorrow’s conclusion.
Let me say first, so there is no confusion, that I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with young adult books portraying suicide. They might just as soon be about drinking milkshakes for all that I care about the topic being portrayed in particular.
The book’s intention was clearly to showcase the principle that when you treat people like shit (as we all do from time to time, whether purposely or inadvertently), no matter how insignificant you think your transgression, you never know what else in that person’s life it compounds. This feels like a necessary concept to highlight, especially given the recent spotlight shined on the effects of bullying among school-age folks. Importantly, it is a reminder that when we treat people badly, it is something that we do, not something that we are, which is useful in that it looks at actions and their potential effects rather than at people to judge their merits or offenses. I fully appreciate this project.
Because this is most definitely an issue novel, my reaction to it necessarily includes how it dealt with the issues—not suicide as a whole, but this suicide, and the problems that swirl around it. This reaction, therefore, is strongly influenced by my own social politics. So, I’ll begin with an annoyance and work up to full-steam:
I’m torn because Hannah kills herself with seemingly little thought or care. And, while it thrills me to see suicide represented as a personal right and choice, I don’t think that was Asher’s goal, so instead the act just seemed capricious, as if Hannah might just as easily pierced her tongue or bashed in someone’s car window to achieve the same release and satisfaction. Further, in moments it seems like she has decided that it is inevitable; as if she has made a deal with herself: if no one explicitly reads my mind and tells me not to kill myself, then I will do it today: “And after that,” Hannah says, “there’s no turning back” (256). There is nothing I hate more than a character that throws up their hands and casts themselves on the will of the fates.
The premise of Hannah making the tapes is to show these people what major effects their behaviors had on her. Further, presumably, this forced awareness is visited upon them in the hopes that they will act differently toward people in the future. But, even if that succeeds, I couldn’t help but think how much more of a positive impact Hannah could have had if she’d done the same thing and then made it public instead of private: say, done it on a website and changed the names so that it could have reached many people. And, of course, I realized that this is precisely what Asher did by publishing the book: present these ideas to many people. (And, I should note, this is precisely what Asher is doing on the book’s website, so that is wonderful.) Still, I feel strongly that activism is always better than revenge and that education is always better than shaming. For this reason, despite Asher reaching a wide audience with this message, I find the character of Hannah a totally unsatisfactory advocate for Asher’s cause.
More to the point, I found myself mentally screaming, “stand up for yourself!” and “tell that dude to fuck himself!,” the whole book. Hannah tells us, “Here’s a tip. If you touch a girl, even as a joke, and she pushes you off . . . leave . . . her . . . alone” (52). So clearly she is educating; I just kept wishing that she would channel this energy into working to educate and help teens deal with sexual abuse. And perhaps this is simply a difference of perspective—for young adults who are more recently come to the issue of suicide or abuse, and are currently embroiled in high school, of course social or political education means different things. But since Asher himself seemed hell bent on this book educating, I can’t help but feel really cheated that he didn’t offer any productive or, frankly, interesting solutions.
More importantly, though, since we are talking about art here, for the love of god, I lay my strong negative feelings about they way the issue was treated at the feet of what I found to be the major formal problem with the novel: the perspective.
It’s not about whether there exist “good” or “bad” reasons to kill oneself; it’s that the form of Asher’s novel did not provide me with a sympathetic or round characterization of Hannah, so I found her actions unbelievable and shallowly-motivated. Her perspective—a recorded monologue—is the absolute flattest and most narrow way to write: it is necessarily all “telling” and no “showing.” Consequently, we get lines like, “Betrayal. It’s one of the worst feelings” (13). Yikes. Asher decided to privilege the realism of having Hannah’s monologue sound like a regular person talking. However, because our everyday speech is fairly uninteresting and un-crafted, the writing of Hannah’s voice (which is most of the book) was necessarily unremarkable and cliché-ridden: “Step-by-step. That’s how we’ll get through this. One foot in front of the other” (54). I don’t feel like I get to know Hannah as a character, and what I know—that she tests the school counselor by saying extremely vague things about her situation and then leaves it up to him to save her, that she doesn’t stand up to people, that she leaves her happiness in the hands of others—I don’t like. Further, the tone of threat and attempted lame humor that Asher uses for Hannah made her pretty unbearable for me.
However, even more problematic than my personal dislike of the character—and it is a fiery, fiery dislike—is what Asher’s choice of perspectives does to what could at least have been a though-provoking story. Here Be Spoilers. The only other person whose perspective we get is Clay’s, as he listens to Hannah’s tapes. Clay, we find out (and, honestly, I think we figure this out long before Hannah discloses it), is the one person of everyone on the tapes who has not done anything wrong. Because we are in Clay’s head we suffer along with him as he agonizes over thinking that he might have been a reason for Hannah’s death. This is where the tension of the whole story lies—and indeed, Asher effectively portrays the dread and shame that would surely accompany listening to the tapes, waiting for your name, and wondering whether others knew about your role already. (I thought the novel’s best moments were between Clay and Tony, when Clay tries to figure out whether Tony has listened to the tapes and knows what he’s experiencing.)
So, finding out that Clay is innocent of any wrongdoing flattens all the drama that would have come from his character being forced to confront that his bad behavior had consequences. In this way, Clay and we the readers, are never placed in the position of having to cope with the terrible truth that we contributed to someone’s suicide. Which, I thought, would have been central to the book’s intention. Instead, we feel relieved to learn of Clay’s innocence, because we can comfortably judge the others on the tapes, aligning us with Hannah instead. This, for me, totally de-fangs the entire undertaking.
These problems of perspective were, of course, an extension of the novel’s conceit of telling the story through tapes. In a Q & A printed at the back of the book, Asher commented that “the idea for the unusual format [came] before the subject matter,” and this is, I think, abundantly clear. Indeed, I didn’t find that the novel brought the conceit to life; instead, it felt gimmicky, a concept to which characters and prose alike were bent. As such, the writing is both over-explanatory and dull, and Clay and Hannah’s characters are total blanks. Indeed, none of the characters transcend the most basic of stock characters.
In a way, this, as well as the recursive, obsessive style, reminded me a bit of Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, a book that I also didn’t exactly like. In Before I Fall, a girl who begins as a fairly stock character is forced to relive the same day over and over, and with each recurrence she sees different things in other characters and grows into a much more complex character. Although I didn’t like it, though, it kept me up all night finishing it because its examination of blame, action, and the ability to change things was much more interesting, the writing more styled, and the characters, although also no one I would have wanted to be friends with in high school, more complex.
And, for all the hundreds of pages that purport to provide reasons why Hannah killed herself and deliver a message that treating people badly can have disastrous results, we are left with the complete negation of that message. For, Hannah tells us, it was she who is responsible, she who is making the decision: “And that, more than anything else, is what this all comes down to. Me . . . giving up . . . on me” (253). And this, I think, is my biggest problem. Because if her giving up on herself is what it all comes down to, then everyone whose behavior she has worked so hard to point up as contributory, is totally let off the hook. Again. Also, the incident that struck me as the most horrible—Hannah choosing not to speak up to prevent her classmate from being raped—is hardly touched on at all. It is an instance of supreme personal guilt that gets subsumed under the incidents that Hannah is narrating.
So, much as I am in agreement with Asher’s message, I just don’t like the way the book goes about spreading it. For, what can a reader really take away from this book? “Treat others with respect.” Great. But what might they have taken away from it?: Here are productive ways to combat sexual violence in your community! Here are methods of coping with feelings of intense anger and despair!
I must go on record as saying: I have completely scandalized myself by writing a screed about a book’s “message” as opposed to focusing on it as a piece of art. To explain this burst of what could look dangerously like good old-fashioned moralizing I can say only this: if Thirteen Reasons Why had told the same story but been an awesome read with great, complex characters, beautiful prose, and a different narrative style I have no doubt that my issues with its real-world implications would have been overshadowed.
But, there you have it. This book hit every single one of my uggh buttons: bad writing, the death-knell of cliché, uninteresting story, narrow characterization and viewpoint, not risking making the narrator flawed, subjugating content to concept, undoing the proclaimed goal at the end, and managing to somehow ruin a thing of beauty: the cassette tape + hand-drawn map narrative.
Do you agree? Think I’m a totally off my rocker? Be sure to check back tomorrow and see what Tessa thinks in Part 2!