Thursday, April 21, 2011
Review: Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why
Like I said, the set-up is great: A girl records a series of tapes before she commits suicide. Each tape talks about a person she designates as one of the TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY she killed herself. She posthumously instructs these 13 people pass along the tapes (plus a map of important places) in a prescribed order. If they fail to pass the tapes along, she will release a second set of tapes implicating all of them. Sounds pretty intriguing, no? That premise made me pick up the book.
Honestly, I didn’t care enough about Hannah to make this conceit work, though I did find myself feeling for her in places. I was drawn to her at the beginning, but as the story went on, her voice kept me at a distance. I’m not sure how purposeful this tone was on Asher’s part, whether this orchestrated arc of feeling was supposed to mirror the plot arc. As time went on, Hannah did isolate herself from help, and I’m not sure she even realized it. She was a lost little girl, older than her years and so much younger. (I guess that description encapsulates most teenagers.)
I also didn’t care overly much about the boy Hannah left behind. Clay was fairly ineffectual, but I guess he was on par for the course as an übernormal boy. The most characterization I got were several secondhand reports of him being a “nice guy.” I guess I didn’t really see that for myself. Hannah was an overpowering presence, so maybe he got lost. I think Asher thought so too, which is why some of Clay’s reactions read a little extreme.
As for the suicide, it felt more like revenge than a true expression of pain or desperation. The tapes as a plot device were interesting, but they cheapened the act and made it vindictive. Rather than being random and senseless, Hannah’s death seemed textbook and well-considered, like Asher took a suicide warning checklist and wrote a story around them. All the reader is left with are cheap thrills.
I’m sure Thirteen Reasons Why was supposed to be a well-intentioned, piercing social commentary, but I lost the message. Though the themes of reputation, suggestion, casual misogyny, and personal responsibility are important, they’re brushed off and mishandled. I mean, after all of that, “be aware of how your actions may hurt others” seems kind of weak. If you want a message that resonates, try resilience. Laurie Halse Anderson does this to beautiful effect in Wintergirls and Speak. I also can’t help but draw parallels to Easy A, which I recently rewatched. There’s a girl who’s the victim of untrue rumors, a guy who loves her despite them, and ostracizing forces. Olive comes out on top by persevering, by owning her own truth.
It’s sad the central premise fails because Hannah’s observations of human nature are sharp. She was insightful, even if she sometimes jumped to the wrong conclusions. When she was right though, she was really, really right. (The character of the “nice girl” was spot on, as was her concept of “waiting.”) Having this knowledge and moving past it would make an electrifying story. How much more messy or complex would this idea be if she made all of these tapes and was alive to face the backlash? That’s bravery. That would be an interesting ending.