Last night I read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. I didn’t like it. Here are fewer-than-thirteen reasons why.
1. For those of you unfamiliar with this popular YA novel, it is about a girl named Hannah who commits suicide, but before she dies she records six-and-a-half audio cassette tapes explaining her “thirteen reasons why” she did it–or rather, describing thirteen incidents with thirteen different people that led up to her committing suicide. The book is alternately narrated by Hannah’s audiotaped voice and Clay, one of the thirteen people on the tapes, who is listening to Hannah’s audio tapes. Does this make sense? I feel like I’m making it more complicated than it is. The premise is not so complicated: You’re reading the words of Clay, who is listening to the words of Hannah. So you alternate between Hannah’s narrative and Clay’s reactions to what he’s hearing. The concept is simple enough; the execution is somewhat flawed because it’s not like there’s a section where Hannah speaks and then a section where Clay speaks, but there’s a constant back and forth between the two. My sister enjoyed the audiobook version of this novel, and I imagine that the audiobook version is superior if only because it is much easier to determine who is talking when, if the different characters’ words are spoken by different actors: Boy Voice, Girl Voice, Boy Voice again, etc.–what could be clearer? In the text version it’s Italics, Not Italics, Italics, Not Italics–who’s the Italics again? Wait, was that one thing in Italics or Not Italics? Italics. Not Italics. It’s more complicated than it sounds, or maybe it’s because I’m coming down with something and my brain is foggy, but I found the narration very confusing for that reason.
2. Confusing narration is not a deal-breaker for me–I just finished my seventh Toni Morrison novel, and it took much longer than a single evening to read, but I plugged away at it, by golly, because I’m that way–but in addition to being insufficiently differentiated in their respective fonts, the characters in TRW were not particularly fleshed out. Again, this is where an audiobook version would be really helpful, since actors would be dramatizing everything and making it all…dramatic…you know, making the characters seem more like real people. Reading the plain old slanty-letters/non-slanty-letters version, I never felt like I really knew these characters, much less cared about them, which brings me to Another Reason Why.
3. Hannah’s story is very sad. It’s sad because some kids were mean to her, and she ended up killing herself. Suicides are almost always inherently sad, or sad by default. At the same time, because she never seemed like a real person–i.e. I never really understood where she was coming from or what made her tick–her suffering didn’t seem all that real to me either. Now that’s just cold, isn’t it? She killed herself and I’m like, “Meh.” No, it was actually more like this: Some kids did some mean stuff sometimes, but I did not have a picture of what her daily life was like, at school or at home (there was some technically-non-zero amount of information on her home life, but it was not useful), so although she explained how Incident 1 led to Incident 2 which led to Incident 3 and so on, and certainly all of these incidents sucked, I did not get a sense of their cumulative effect on her life or her psyche. She told me she was overwhelmed and hopeless, but I didn’t really believe her, even though she was clearly dead now because of it.
4. But here’s the real thing: Her suicide was a calculated means of revenge against everyone who had wronged her. I can see how such a plot would energize and motivate a person, but it still came off as exquisitely cruel. And yes, I realize I’m talking about a dead girl (albeit a fictional one) who was the victim of bullying. But it seemed like she gave at least as good as she got. She would lay traps for people, including, in the end, one completely innocent person she used to render her suicide Totally Justified. All of which made me think, “Really, Hannah? Why don’t you just grow up?” But of course, she can’t. She’s dead now. And it’s all everyone else’s fault.
Honestly, it kind of bothered me. I know how the adolescent mind works. I have an excruciatingly vivid memory of my own adolescence. Adolescence sucks. Feeling like you’d be better off dead, likewise, sucks. I understand all that, so I feel like I should be more sympathetic. But I’m just not, and it bothers me.
Before you start getting too worried, let me reassure you that all of this is not over a mere YA novel. It’s more complicated than that. Because I have been the mother of a troubled adolescent girl for a few years now, and let me tell you, THAT sucks. It sucks to have this excruciatingly vivid memory of how much adolescence sucks and how much clinical depression sucks (that last part is not so much a memory, but I remember having clinical depression at that age, too, and it SUCKS), and to know that there is nothing in your power to change that for your child. You can listen, you can make (lame) suggestions (and know that they’re lame), you can take them to therapy and buy them pharmaceutical support, but the bottom line is that the will to live and the will to keep trying is all on them, not you. Your adult perspective is all well and good for you, but it’s useless to them. They have to get their own. And in the meantime you feel frustrated and helpless, and that makes you angry. And sometimes just plain annoyed.
That’s how you find yourself thinking things like, “Gah, just grow up already!”