What I’m Reading: YA gets topical in Thirteen Reasons Why

25 Aug

In Summary: Great premise, OK execution. And by virtue my lengthy critique here, we have to tip our hats to the fact that it’s a book worth a full review, whatever its issues.

Positives about this novel: It was engrossing, unfolding almost like a mystery. Props to the author for pulling that off (not all such attempts succeed). You don’t need to actually be a young adult to enjoy this on the whole. I also appreciate that the book and its evident popularity might be the impetus for discussion of important subjects–teen suicide certainly, but also depression, mental illness, slut shaming, #yesallwomen, the effect of gossip, sexual harassment and rape–among teenagers and their peers and parents.

On a more concrete level, I liked the huge web of characters, and the references to even more that weren’t seen directly. That’s how we truly interact after all, but it’s extremely difficult to convey that in novel without being confusing and/or needing a flow chart.

Eyebrow raisers: My hang up with this novel was not, as other reviewers have complained, with the believability of Hannah’s 13 reasons. On the contrary, I found them rather compelling, particularly the snowball effect described. Even though we aren’t really given any clues to this, it’s statistically safe to assume Hannah is suffering from mental illness, since a large percentage of those who commit suicide are (the professional source in this story as well as the NAMI quotes the figure at 90%). Operating under that assumption, it then follows that she lacks the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with trials, even so-called “normal” ones. Plus, let’s not forget that all teenagers have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, meaning she isn’t able to fully conceptualize life beyond her high school reputation — in other words, a way out.

My problem was with the whole tape conceit. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means, but Robin Williams’ death earlier this month means that mental illness and suicide is a national topic of discussion. (As well it should be. God forbid young people put off the discussion until it becomes personally relevant). And from what I understand, the act of putting together a series of tapes…very coherent, logical, well-thought-out tapes I might add, complete with foreshadowing and recurring characters…and then orchestrating their movement through the bowels of your school…that sort of elaborate thinking seems a little beyond a suicidal person, who by all accounts have trouble thinking past their personal and present emotions. Suicide notes and videos are a well-documented phenomenon of course, but I think you would be hard pressed to find this advanced level of legacy-leaving of any suicidal individual, much less a teenager. The same source in the article referenced above adds that while suicidal thinking can recur, it is temporary, going so far as to call it a “passing urge.” The act of recording hours of tapes could possibly have been galvanizing, sure, but it more likely would have been therapeutic. I think Hannah even admitted as much. Just another small fact that makes the suicide less believable. Or to be more specific, it makes Hannah less believable as a suicidal person.

I will add the caveat that I was listening to the audio book, and the actress reading Hannah played her on the angry and bitter side. More the voice of someone with a twisted revenge plot than one who had lost hope. But the writing isn’t entirely blameless. Hannah talked about death rather overtly when it’s pretty well documented that suicidal people aren’t focused on ending their life, but rather stopping the pain. They use terms like “make it all go away” and “just disappear” and things like that, and the author neglected to put such phrases in her mouth, with the possible exception of the last side of the tapes. She’s very removed from herself, in a way, almost as if she’s telling the story from another perspective–another person’s, or her own self in the future–rather than living it personally.

That, along with the fact that there was no funeral, led me to develop a working theory that Hannah wasn’t really dead and the whole thing as a cry for help. My back up theory, and one that would have made the whole book make a lot more sense, was if she hadn’t meant to actually die (pills are a notoriously unreliable…I hesitate to say passive-aggressive, maybe a better way to put it would be “slowly effective” method and one that is more common to females for that reason) and it was, in the words of the article referenced, a botched attempt “to survive with changed circumstances.” That would be in keeping with the character both as written and as read. There was even some reference, albeit speculative, that Hannah might have actually drowned in a tub after taking pills rather than dying from an overdose itself, giving credence to this theory. P put forth the idea that had the tapes been recorded sporadically over a number of years, as the events unfolded, and been socked away until a trigger moment, that would have made sense also. And I concede I could have bought that to an extent as well.

Also, I was surprised the book was written by a man (who one assumes must have been a teenage boy once), because I found Clay unbelievable as a character, and not just because he had a perfect reputation that was actually true (his self-blaming/loathing only serves to make him more perfect to the reader, not less so). We get an idea that he has a very supportive home environment from the mother, which is the only aspect that lends credibility to his perfection. The author did have a better voice for him than he did for Hannah in terms of perspective. By which I mean we were less distant from his personal truth at that moment, unlike Hannah. I also liked the actor’s interpretation in the audio book. But overall, Clay operated as a literary device, the means through which we hear and experience the tapes. Something about Clay and Hannah’s relation to each other, while poignant, was uncomplicated and most certainly unambiguous. The Feelings just aren’t messy enough for real life. And poor Tony–talk about a story device. All he was good for was playing outdated audio cassettes and following people around.

Bottom line recommendation: Go ahead and read this book. It won’t take you that long, I was able to listen to the whole thing in six hours, including some [inevitable] rewinding. I’ll recommend the audio version. I was able to borrow it from my public library for free. Despite my problems with Hannah’s voice, I hear the point of view switches toward the end are confusing in writing, and you don’t want to be taken out of the story at that point trying to figure out who’s talking. Despite some believability caveats, you’re going to get sucked in to this.

If they end up making a movie, which I think they are, there is a lot of potential to prop up some of these weak spots while retaining all the best aspects of the novel. I sincerely hope that they succeed in that. (And if they do, you can count on my companion review of the film…provided I can stand the actors they pick. In my brain-casting, I pictured the daughter from Homeland as our leading lady…alongside some people from my actual high school, but I’m sure they’ll go a different route haha).

A still of that chick from Homeland. Alright, alright, her name is Morgan Saylor.

A still of that chick (aka Morgan Saylor) from Homeland.

And regardless of whether you have serious problems with Hannah or you can sort of relate, it’s going to make you analytical in a meaningful way. I got uncomfortable with some of my own thoughts (spoiler alert: they were leaning towards victim blaming), and I really appreciate that in a book. It’s always good when something makes you think critically, even–and perhaps especially–of yourself.

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One Response to “What I’m Reading: YA gets topical in Thirteen Reasons Why”

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