45 Days: Suicide Notes, a Novel

A review of Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford

HarperTeen, 2008

Suicide Notes Michael Thomas Ford

by REBECCA, February 3, 2014

hook

Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up in a psych ward on New Year’s Day, committed for 45 days of therapy. But it’s a total mistake, because Jeff wasn’t actually trying to kill himself; not really. And, obviously, it’s the other kids in the ward with him who are crazy. Right?

review

Michael Thomas Ford’s Suicide Notes takes place over the course of Jeff’s 45 days in the psych ward, and the backstory of how he ended up there is revealed slowly, as he gets to know the other kids in the ward with him, talks to his therapist, Dr. Katzrupus, whom he calls Cat Poop, and eventually confronts his parents. Like the circumscribed ward in which Jeff finds himself, Suicide Notes is a book that knows its limits. It tells a very particular story and does it well, but it’s a bounded story; one that doesn’t attempt to break those boundaries, but instead takes advantage of them to explore its small scope.

Girl, Interrupted Susanna KaysenOne of the things Suicide Notes does best is show how Jeff moves, psychologically, from being in denial about his suicide attempt at the beginning, to finally accepting not only what he did but why he felt the need to do it. When we first meet Jeff, he’s cloaked any vulnerability in aggressively smart-ass banter. He listens to the other kids in his therapy group with pity, thinking how messed-up they are. There’s Alice, who set her molester on fire, Juliet, who’s delusional, Bone, who doesn’t say anything, and Sadie, who was saved from a suicide attempt by a stranger. Jeff insists he doesn’t belong there, but little by little, he realizes that they don’t seem crazy, either.

Jeff makes friends with Sadie, since they both are up late at night, and, as they get closer, he finds himself thinking about his best friend, Allie. When Jeff’s sister tells him that Allie hasn’t asked about his absence from school, Jeff is forced to consider what role Allie and her boyfriend, Burke, had to play in his feelings the night he tried to kill himself.

After Jeff has been in the psych ward for two weeks, two new kids come: Martha, a twelve-year-old who has been through horrific trauma, but seems to take a shine to Jeff, and Rankin, a jock-y football player. It’s Rankin’s confusing behavior that finally shakes loose the fears and feelings that Jeff hasn’t been able to acknowledge. When Jeff finds himself in over his head with Rankin, he is forced to confront his suicide attempt and everything that led up to it.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden Joanne GreenbergSuicide Notes follows in the footsteps of novels like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1964) and Girl, Interrupted (1993). As I said, it’s a small, short, focused novel, and Jeff’s voice is the star. He is hard to like at first, since he keeps people—himself included—at such a distance. As he warms to himself, though, I did too. The other characters are a bit sketchy, whether because they’re not particularly developed or because Jeff only encounters them in an artificial way, during group therapy. Similarly, Jeff’s life outside the psych ward is sketchy, and we only get the briefest of descriptions of who he was in that context. All of this, combined with the book’s short length, makes for a slice-of-life feel. We learn a lot about some things and virtually nothing about anything else. This approach seems to match Jeff’s experience of being in an unfamiliar place where he feels out of sync with his real life, but it also left me wanting to know more about Jeff—more particularities about who he was, instead of just what he felt. 

Suicide Notes kind of set the standard of the new generation of teen psych ward fiction that would follow. And, as such, it’s a solid, enjoyable, and touching read. But, while it’s a solid starting point, it just doesn’t have the wow-factor of a novel like Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which has a similar narrative structure of using the group therapy setting to reconstruct memories, or the staying power of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. That doesn’t make it a bad book at all—it’s a basic book, and it does what it does very well.

readalikes

Last Night I Sang To The Monster Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2009). This is one of the most beautiful and sad books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.

It's Kind of a Funny Story Ned Vizzini

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini (2006). Inspired by the author’s own brief stay in a psych hospital, It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of Craig, whose anxiety and depression as he attempts to get into prep school make him want to kill himself, and lead to him checking himself into a psych hospital instead. See Tessa’s complete review HERE.

OCD Love Story Corey Ann Haydu

OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu (2013). Bea knows she’s a bit messed up—ever since “the incident” last year, she’s been seeing a therapist—but she thinks she’s got things pretty much under control. Heck, she even met a boy at a school dance recently! But now Dr. Pat wants her to join a therapy group for teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. As Bea starts a relationship with Beck her own OCD begins to spiral out of control. My full review of the wonderful OCD Love Story is HERE.

procured from: the library

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Dear Diary: A Review of Skim, A Graphic Coming of Age Story

A Review of Skim by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki

Groundwood Books, 2008

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

by REBECCA, December 19, 2012

“Dear Diary, today Lisa said, ‘Everyone is unique.’ That is not unique!!”

Skim is a teenage Japanese-Canadian Wiccan goth in Catholic school in Toronto in 1993. Basically, I feel like all I need to do is write that one sentence and everyone will see why they want to read Skim. Skim is written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (cousins!). The writing is dry, it’s thoughtful, it’s lyrical, and it’s a little bit angry; the art is gorgeous: a variety of pen and ink images with sweeping black washes, detailed landscapes, smug expressions, and the kind of minimalism that only the truly self-assured narrative can pull off.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

Skim’s only real friend is Lisa, but as Skim begins, Skim is feeling disillusioned with Lisa, and thinks everything she says is annoying. Around the same time, one of her classmates’ ex-boyfriends kills himself and her whole school falls into a kind of exaggerated mourning. Skim finds herself slowly falling in love with, Ms. Archer, her mysterious, flowy-skirted, tea-drinking rambling-house-living English teacher.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

One of the things I like best about Skim is the way that the words and images are in tension with one another: the words will be bitter and aggressive while the image is calm and minimalist, or the words will be wry and sarcastic while the image is depressing and sad.

“I had a dream/ I put my hands/ inside my chest/ and held my heart/ to try to keep it still”

Also, I really love that none of the characters are pretty—they all have blank expressions and turned-up little noses and wonky eyebrows. It lends the book a level of realism and specificity.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

Skim is a beautiful coming of age story: sexuality, race, body image, gender, spirituality, friendship—this is a book that has it all. I can’t overstate how beautifully paced, drawn, and written this book is. I highly, highly recommend it.

Cover Reveal! Kelley York’s Suicide Watch

by REBECCA, December 10, 2012

Friends, I am so excited to bring you the cover reveal for Kelley York’s forthcoming YA novel, Suicide Watch! You may remember that I reviewed Kelley’s debut novel, Hushed, a few weeks ago and that I loved it! Well, Suicide Watch promises to be just as compelling. So, without further ado, check out this beautiful and (appropriately) moody cover:

Suicide Watch Kelley York

I love that the cover is high contrast black and white in a moment when so many YA covers feature girls in poofy, brightly-colored dresses, and that the title looks like writing on a chalkboard. Here is the blurb of Suicide Watch, newly up on Goodreads:

18-year-old Vincent Hazelwood has spent his entire life being shuffled from one foster home to the next. His grades sucked. Making friends? Out of the question thanks to his nervous breakdowns and unpredictable moods. Still, Vince thought when Maggie Atkins took him in, he might’ve finally found a place to get his life—and his issues—in order.

But then Maggie keels over from a heart attack. Vince is homeless, alone, and the inheritance money isn’t going to last long. A year ago, Vince watched a girl leap to her death off a bridge, and now he’s starting to think she had the right idea.

Vince stumbles across a website forum geared toward people considering suicide. There, he meets others with the same debate regarding the pros and cons of death: Casper, battling cancer, would rather off herself than slowly waste away. And there’s quiet, withdrawn Adam, who suspects if he died, his mom wouldn’t even notice.

As they gravitate toward each other, Vince searches for a reason to live while coping without Maggie’s guidance, coming to terms with Casper’s imminent death, and falling in love with a boy who doesn’t plan on sticking around.

Hushed Kelley York

I love books that explore the friendships that come about as the result of meeting for very particular reasons (you know, The Breakfast Club effect). It sounds deliciously dark and character-based, two of my favorite things.

I would like to read this right now, please!

And, fortunately for me (and, of course, you) Kelley says Suicide Watch will be released this month. So, now you have just enough time to read Hushed before you settle in for a cozy read of Suicide Watch under the mistletoe, if you’re into such things. Smoochies!

People are just people, they shouldn’t make you nervous: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Ned Vizzini
Miramax Books/Hyperion, 2006

review by Tessa

Characters
Outside of the Hospital
Craig Gilner, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t talk, can try to smoke pot to self-medicate since he took himself off of his real medication, Zoloft
Dr. Minerva, an understanding psychologist
Aaron, Craig’s bestie, but doesn’t know about Craig’s problems but does tell Craig in explicit detail about his sexual exploits with…
Nia, girl of Craig’s dreams, dating Aaron
Sarah Craig’s younger sister

Inside of the Hospital
Smitty – day manager
Bobby & Johnny – biggest meth addicts in New York (in the 90s)
Jimmy – It’ll come to ya
Noelle – cute note-leaver with self-inflicted facial cuts
Humble– bald, suspicious of yuppies and yuppie-like behavior
Muqtada – Craig’s roommate. Mostly sleeps and wishes there were some Egyptian music he could hear.
Armelio – “The President”, announces when meals occur.
Solomon – keep it down, he’s trying to rest
Ebony – wears velvet pants
The Professor – convinced her home is full of insecticide (and it may well be)

Hook
Craig Gilner works hard to achieve his one goal of teenagedom: getting into an elite prep school. Then he gets so anxious and depressed he wants to kill himself. What then?

Worldview

Craig Gilner lives in the real world. And in the real world you find the best path to being successful and follow it. For him, that’s getting into the Executive Pre-Professional High School, in Manhattan. Getting in there guarantees a wealthy, healthy life. So Craig studies his ass off and gets in. And then the Tentacles start wrapping around him…

Tentacles is my term–the Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life.  Like, for example, my American History class last week, which necessitated me writing a paper on the weapons of the Revolutionary War, which necessitated me traveling to the Metropolitan Museum to check out some of the old guns, which necessitated me getting in the subway, which necessitated me being away from my cell phone and e-mail for 45 minutes, which meant that I didn’t get to respond to a mass e-mail sent out by my teacher asking who needed extra credit, which meant other kids snapped up the extra credit, which meant I wasn’t going to get a 98 in the class, which mean I wasn’t anywhere close to a 98.6 average (body temperature, that’s what you needed to get), which meant I wasn’t going to get into a Good College, which meant I wasn’t going to have a Good Job, which meant I wasn’t going to have health insurance, which meant I’d have to pay tremendous amounts of money for the shrinks and drugs my brain needed, which meant I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for a Good Lifestyle, which meant I’d feel ashamed, which meant I’d get depressed, and that was the big one because I knew what that did to me: it made it so I wouldn’t get out of bed, which led to the ultimate thing–homelessness. If you can’t get out of bed for long enough, people come and take your bed away.” (14-15).

photo by flickr user kevin dooley

Craig is so anxious and depressed and swallowed up by the chain of events that hypothetically ensure that he ends up homeless that he can’t eat. He can’t usually talk.  He can smoke weed, but sometimes he doesn’t, to see if it improves things.

He can also watch jealously as his best friend hooks up with the seemingly perfect Nia, a girl with shiny hair and impeccable outfits along with a love of sex, and then tells Craig aaaall the gory details.

It’s too much. Craig decides he’s already failed at life and should kill himself.

But instead of doing that he checks himself into the hospital.

What is the book’s intention & is it achieved?

If this book’s intention is to give its readers an accurate view of depression and to show that normal people have it and struggle with it, and how that struggle can go and be a slog but still be hopeful, then it is certainly achieved.

“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint–it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out.  They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed -ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.” (3)

Craig’s a great voice, and if you want to get granular, he’s also a great teenage boy voice.  He’s got facets.  The book opens with him at his worst. When the book opens, he’s at his lowest point. By the reactions of his friends and family it’s easy to tell that he looks blank to them. But because we’re in his head, we hear the self-flagellation of a depressed person. The anguish and the self-deprecation, and all the things Craig would like to say if he could make himself.  The loneliness of not being able to say things.  The hopelessness of feeling like each decision is a bad one. The frustration of not being able to do something so simple as feed yourself.  But couched in black humor–Craig’s funny and he has a loving, supportive, dry-witted family.

That’s the first part of the book.  Then Craig checks himself into an adult mental ward (the youth wing is being renovated) at the hospital a few blocks down from his apartment in Brooklyn.  And finally meets people who admit that they’re struggling with similar things.

“I look at Bobby’s deep-sunk eyes. I get the feeling–I don’t know how I know the rules of mental-ward etiquette; maybe I was born with them; maybe I knew I’d end up here–but I get the feeling that one big no-no in this place is asking people how they got here. It’d be a little like walking up to somebody in prison and going ‘So? So? What’s up huh? Didja kill somebody? Didja?’’

But I also get the impression that you can volunteer the reasons you got here at any time and no one will judge; no one will think you’re too crazy or not crazy enough, and that’s how you make friends. After all, what else is there to talk about? So I tell bobby: ‘I’m here because I suffer from serious depression.’

‘Me too.’ He nods. ‘Since I was fifteen.’ And his eyes shine with blackness and horror. We shake hands.” (198-9).

That’s where things begin to change for Craig. By putting himself somewhere with simplified choices, he frees himself up to experience a little happiness again. Some spontaneity.  He re-learns that there are other options in life, and he discovers how to be creative again.  (See Rebecca’s People Creating Things list for other books with this plot point.)  All this, even though the people in the ward can be a little weird and unpredictable, and the whole thing is scary.  He still manages to find a cute girl to have 15 minute dates with.

creative representations of thought! this is apropos, just trust me. photo by flickr user foolish gold.

And that’s why It’s Kind of a Funny Story is such a wonderful book. It has balance.  In the first part the extremely realistic knowledge of severe depression is balanced by the natural humor of Craig’s voice. At the hospital the hardness of mental illness isn’t shied away from. Craig’s roommate Muqtada never showers and can barely get out of bed. Craig’s friends find out he’s in the hospital and tell him so in an extremely unsympathetic phone call. Jimmy, a man who was admitted with Craig, is so messed up he only repeats certain phrases, until he debuts some new ones that reveal how terrible his life must have been.

But Craig doesn’t get a terrible plot arc that ends up with him relapsing once he leaves the hospital, or staying on the ward for months and months–we see it in other characters, so it’s in there, but this isn’t YA Problem-Fest. Jimmy’s problems don’t become the maudlin emotional climax of the book. Instead, it’s built like a really great pop song.  In fact, in its denouement the rhythm and bittersweetness of the prose reminded me very much of certain Regina Spektor lyrics. Compare:

“I haven’t cured anything but something seismic is happening in me. I feel my body wrapped up and slapped on top of my spine. I feel the heart that beat early in the morning on Saturday and told me I didn’t want to die. I feel the lungs that have been doing their work quietly inside the hospital. I feel the hands that can make art and touch girls–think of all the tools you have. I feel the feet that can let me run anywhere I want, into the park and out of it and down to my bike to go all over Brooklyn and Manhattan too, once I convince my mom.  I feel my stomach and liver and all that mushy stuff that’s in there handling food, happy to be back in use. But most of all I feel my brain, up there taking in blood and looking out on the world and noticing humor and light and smells and dogs and every other thing in the world–everything in my life all in my brain, really, so it would be natural that when my brain was screwed up, everything in my life would be.” (442-3).

“No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again” – On the Radio, Regina Spektor

 

Readalikes

Honestly? Will Grayson, Will Grayson. And not just because we just discussed it.

Otherwise I’m drawing a blank. Anyone have any good suggestions?

 

Disclosure/Digression

This is what Craig’s dog looks like: 

I don’t intend on seeing the movie adaptation of this. Normally I don’t care if the movie and the book are different, but nothing about any of the characters reminded me of Zach Galifianakis. As much as I love his other stuff. I don’t want him invading this book with his personality.

I got this book from the library, in ebook AND paper form

Th1rteen R3asons Why Not: Part II, Why

Tessa Responds to Part I of the discussion about Th1rteen R3asons Why:

SPOILERS ABOUND.

First of all, I’d love to read a book about drinking milkshakes.  It sounds like a Murakami book.

I agree with many of your points, but ultimately I think I read the book’s intention a little differently, and so see it fulfilling its intention a bit more. Let me start with some specific things that I agree with (these aren’t the only things).
1. It sort of seems like Hannah killed herself out of spite, and that could make a reader more inclined to be judgmental about her suicide.
2. The scene with the guidance counselor was totally frustrating.
3. As were the scenes where she didn’t speak up for herself while being harassed.
4. The characters were a little flat. They did use many clichés, and making Clay not be a culprit was a cop-out.

What I love about book discussions and hearing about your strong negative reaction to this book is being able to trade perspectives on the narrative, and re-evaluate my reading of the story.  Honestly, I’m pretty neutral on this book. I thought it was decent writing with not a lot to distract me from where the plot was going. The device of the tapes made things move along, when it wasn’t presenting absurd Walkman-stealing scenes to work around the lack of cassette tape-playing devices in the lives of the general public.  I knew going into it that at least 2 people nearly hated it, so I couldn’t help but try to pick out exactly why that would be, but I didn’t come away with an impression of a book that was so bad as to be hate-able.

But your essay is persuasive.  It brought back to mind things that bothered me that I was able to brush away during the reading.  Your points clearly state why Th1rteen R3asons Why didn’t work for you and why it irked you that people were all about it.  Here’s why those things didn’t bother me that much.

Apologies if it sounds like I’m trying to convince you of my viewpoint, because I don’t want to do that.  But for the sake of a response:

This slide is a metaphor.

Your reading of the book’s intention was to show how people’s actions affect the people around them, and that “when we treat people badly, it is something that we do, not something that we are” and so having Hannah take responsibility for her suicide negates her message in the end.  You also mourn the lack of real solutions in the narrative, because “activism is better than revenge and… education is better than shaming.”

I agree with those general concepts, but I don’t think that that is what the book set out to show.  I think this is a book about accepting awful things–the awfulness inside yourself. It’s very much a book about shaming and could be read as a book about letting go of shame, about how shame destroys.

Hannah does kill herself “seemingly without thought or care”, despite the effort it must have taken to create the tape project. What I found possibly unrealistic was not the carelessness of her suicide but the fact that a severely depressed person could harness enough energy to create what was essentially an interactive performance art project.  The seeming carelessness could be explained by a sense of depersonalization, and the feeling of every single thing being overwhelming.  The tapes require effort, which would go against the utter despondence of depression.    (This is also why, while I wanted to shake Hannah and tell her to stand up for herself at many points in the book, I could see her passivity in the face of male harassment as a depiction of someone who wasn’t able to stand up for herself because she just didn’t have the mental wherewithal). But then again, I suppose the creation of the tapes could be in line with a typical burst of energy/giving away of possessions/suicidal planning.

Speaking of talking out of my ass about suicide, I don’t think it’s bad that we feel judgmental about Hannah’s. If this was a book about taking revenge in some other way, we’d still be judging her as a character.  Moreover, it may be socially taboo to talk about judging someone for killing themselves, but I think it must be part of the grieving/dealing process for the survivors of a suicide.  In fact, Hannah anticipates this with her tapes.  She gives the people who receive the tapes something to feed a sense of shame.  Witness the destruction of the peeping tom’s window – they are judging themselves rather than getting defensive.

I don’t think the book means to show these attacks as good things. I think it’s an example of the destructive nature of shame.  Starting with her first kiss, Hannah learns to feel ashamed for things she never even did.  Even though she knew she didn’t do anything “wrong”, she desired the kiss, so she must have desired more, right?  The collective wisdom of gossip victim-blames her for wanting a guy by exploding the episode out of proportion.  And for whatever reason, Hannah can’t get past it.  She lets things pile up in her mind.

The crux of the story is where she witnesses the rape of a classmate.  This isn’t presented as the central conceit of the book – that would be Hannah’s own suicide – but I see it as the reason Hannah decided to kill herself. She doesn’t do anything to stop it. She confronts her own terrible actions, judges herself unfit, and decides she’s better off as a lesson for her peers. Thus the sacrificial Jacuzzi devirginization/date rape right before she does a token cry for help in the guidance counselor’s office.  So she does accept responsibility for her own death and giving up on herself.  But for me this doesn’t negate the message of the book, because it was a slightly different message in my reading than in yours.

It’s the reality of suicide that it’s the person’s choice, in the end, to take their own life. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t act better toward one another.  I think that’s the message here. I think that’s what Hannah is saying – she should have been better, and the people around her should have been better. And I think that’s why the flat characters work to the book’s advantage.  People can see themselves in these situations.  They can insert themselves into Hannah or Clay’s roles without a lot of work, which is probably why the book is garnering such empathetic reactions from its readers.

This is a book about the kids who kill themselves that don’t seem to have had a great reason to do so. I can’t say it’s the best-written book about a suicide, because there is something here that puts the conceit of the book over giving us a more realistically anguishing look into the experience of knowing someone who took their own life.  But it works as a discussion point and a starting point. In the end, is that the real intention?

Rebecca says:

T, I very much see where you’re coming from here. You really helped me think through some things that I wasn’t quite getting from the book in Part 1 of the discussion.

What do you think? Continue the discussion in the comments!

Thirteen Reasons Why Not

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!

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