"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, December 29, 2011

13 Reasons Why It's Your Fault

I feel bad about this. I really do. How can I be so negative about a book that helps teens get through tough periods in their lives? A book that even saves lives? My wife says it's because I just don't like people. I'll concede that.

But I still don't like this book. Published four years ago, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is the kind of book that gains traction with teens, then their parents read it, and suddenly it's a thing. This year the EW published an article about how it's affecting readers. And now a website asks teenagers to write their responses to the book where they can benefit from each other's stories. So I ask again, how can I hate on a book that's practically its own "It Gets Better" movement?

The story is that a boy named Clay gets a package containing seven audio cassettes. When he listens to the first one, he's shocked to hear the voice of Hannah Baker, the girl at school who recently committed suicide. She pronounces that these tapes are her suicide note, and she's going to reveal the thirteen people that caused her suicide. The details of who did what to whom aren't important. Suffice it to say that she was harassed and ignored and she witnessed something horrible and did nothing to stop it. That's reason enough to kill yourself, right?

The whole cassette tape thing is a gimmick that doesn't work for me. In terms of story-telling, that is. Asher alternates between the voice of Hannah on the tapes and Clay's thoughts while he runs around town with headphones on, listening to these tapes like he's on a celebrity murder tour. The interruption of Hannah's narration so that we can feel bad for Clay is distracting. I don't care about Clay, especially since he's one of the people who Hannah talks about on the tapes. Why should I invest time in a guy who did something bad enough to cause a girl to commit suicide? And the reveal of what Clay did to be on the tapes is rather lame. It makes me wonder what the point was, which only reveals the story-telling gimmick for what it is.

The bigger problem with this book involves something I've already said at least twice.From the beginning of the book, Hannah blames these 13 people for her demise. And even there, right there, five words back, I used a euphemism to say that she took her own life. From the beginning of the book, Hannah, Clay, Asher, each of them are tiptoeing around the fact that Hannah chose to do this. It becomes very difficult to like her. You're supposed to feel sorry for her--I think. But I didn't. By the end you do see that she is suffering some kind of depression, but she clearly knows exactly what she's doing. She's making these others feel bad because they made her feel bad. Some of them are bad people and certainly deserve some retribution, but that's, like, three out of the thirteen. One guy is on the tapes because he has the audacity to ask her out in the hopes that they might actually hook up. Isn't he an awful person? The rest become victims just like she is a victim in her own mind, enough to drive her to suicide.

As you can see, I have little sympathy for someone who takes her own life. I understand the point of the book: actions have consequences, and if you're mean or outright evil, karma will come back to you in the form of someone's suicide note. No one wants to be in someone's suicide note, of course, but what point does a sermon in novel-form serve?

ALERT: Now, if I haven't completely spoiled the story for you yet, and you think you would like to check out the book without knowing the last chapter, skip the next paragraph. The snarkiness continues down there.

As a teacher, what sticks in my craw the most is the last bit where Hannah comes right out and blames her English teacher/counselor for her ultimate decision. She records a conversation she has with him where she hints at her thoughts about ending her life. The teacher tries to get her to talk, to come out and tell him what she is feeling and why, but she refuses. She walks away, and then she accuses the teacher of putting the final nail in her coffin because he doesn't chase after her. How unfair is that? She walks away, so he fails the test he didn't know he was taking. I'm already blamed for all kinds of things as a teacher, and now if a student refuses to open up to me, even when, especially when, I've tried, I'm supposed to take the blame for her choices? I don't think so.

I admit it's provocative. As I read the book, I felt things, and if that's what a book is supposed to do, even if you hate the things you feel, I have to say Asher is successful. And I can totally see how this kind of story can help: everyone needs a good dose of responsibility for others. But the ultimate lesson here is one of victimhood. Victims can do whatever they want; they have little responsibility for themselves. And I don't buy it.

What are your thoughts? Have you read this book? Am I totally off-base?

I understand if you're repulsed by my dislike for this book. The book that helped me through high school was Catcher in the Rye, and I can't stand anyone who doesn't like that book. Bunch of phonies, they are.

19 comments:

  1. I haven't read it but I have directly experienced the effects of suicide. Suicide is devastating and based on my experience, immediately regrettable. So if this character could somehow return, would she still seek revenge? (It has taken me years to reach this conclusion but) I doubt it.

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  2. I've never read it and was bullied in school. Later, I married someone who beat the crap out of me but never once did I ever wish to take my life. Instead, I fought back my own way.

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  3. I didn't read this book, but my daughter did for her book club. She hated it. Thought it was boring, repetitive, and didn't feel sorry for the girl. This was from a kid who has been teased and bullied in school a lot too.

    When I was a practicing psychologist, I once spent an entire session making a suicide pact with a depressed college student. As he walked out the door, he said, "You know, this is all great, but suicide is about the most egotistical and selfish thing you can do, and if I'm feeling that selfish, at that moment any promises I made to you or anyone else won't mean shit." Then he left. There's something to ponder.

    BTW, Catcher In the Rye is my favorite book. I've read it about a dozen times, starting when I was about 12 or 13.

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  4. Okay, I hope this will lighten the pain...I hate Catcher in the Rye, but I also think Thirteen Reasons Why is terrible.

    I mean, okay, is it realistic that a girl would take her own life because of what those people did to her? Honestly, yes. Some people use suicide as a way to end their problems because they don't know what else to do. Teens love it to death so much because of that realism, because that is how THEY think. Adults don't think like Hannah.

    That said, just because it's well-liked doesn't make it a good book. I think Stephine Meyer and Amanda Hocking proved that with fervor. Thirteen Reasons why hit its niche market, but niche markets are niche markets. In this case, it didn't appeal to anyone who called Hannah on her crap.

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  5. I remember when my daughter had to read this for school. Even based on the brief description she gave me, the whole thing sounded like some kind of sick, passive-aggressive, fantasy. Your post definitely makes me think that I was right in my assessment. I'm surprised kids don't walk away from it with the idea that killing yourself is a great way to get revenge on the people who've wronged you.

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  6. I haven't read the book and now that I no longer have teenagers in my house I probably will never have any reason to. From your description, I think I'm kind of happy about that. Teen angst makes my lip curl.

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  7. Well, someone has to take the opposing view so it might as well be me...I did like this book, a lot. I thought the author did a great job of delving in to all the things that added up to why Hannah committed suicide. Because it wasn't just one thing. It was everything, one on top of the other. I also liked the way the author set the story up, with the tapes, his word choices, and the voice of Clay.

    However, I do agree with one thing. Ultimately Hannah made a choice. She chose to escape life and its perceived injustice (and hey, where is it written that's life is fair anyway?) by killing herself. No one else made her do it. But maybe those tapes made those people think about the things they did and hopefully made them change for the better. Hannah may not have changed, but everyone who got a tape did, including Clay. And as long as people change/evolve, I count it as a good story.

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  8. Hard to argue with your analysis. I've never read this book but your comments are spot on. The girl sounds pretty terrible to insist upon the world to justify her existence. What kind of person does that? It would be like throwing a tantrum and then saying with a knife at one's throat, "My living is conditional on you doing the right things at the right time in order to pass my tests. If you don't pass, then I die and my blood is on your hands."

    Wow...just wow. I think the more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with you Brent. However, I haven't read the book. Maybe I would have a different reading of it.

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  9. I have to say that I loved this book and made my 17 year old son read it.

    I had a different take on it than you did. I think Hannah makes the tapes to place the blame of her suicide on others, true, but by the end of the book, I think Jay Asher does a good job of showing that it was her own choice, and that it was a stupid choice.

    I don't think Jay is trying to sell us that because the teacher didn't go after her her suicide is justification, I think he's trying to sell us on how stupid her choice is.

    But, at the same time, I think the subtle message about how much little pieces of meanness affect another person's life is something every teen can benefit from. Ok, maybe it's not so subtle, but it's done well.

    And yes, like nearly every book ever written, there are a few moments that feel contrived. But I think this is a great story.

    The other thing I liked about this book: when bad stuff happens, it's shown as bad, unlike so many teen books where bad things are portrayed as acceptable forms of behavior.

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  10. I read the book last year. Usually when I finish reading something, I write the review right away but not with this one. I couldn't because I was so mad at it, for a lot of the reasons you mention above. For days, I was just so mad and couldn't stop thinking about it. Ultimately, I came down on the side of liking the book but mostly because it did manage to illicit such strong emotion from me.

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  11. I can't believe I haven't responded to these comments yet. Call me a slacker.

    @ dbs: I've never directly been affected by suicide. I have had students who have lived through suicide attempts, but that's always been in their past. I wonder what my reaction to this book would be if I'd had more experience in this field.

    @ shelly: I was thinking that this would be a much better book if she fought back by only faking her suicide or something. Then she really could get the last laugh.

    @ Lola: I'm not sure what to make of your comment about the suicide pact. But I'm glad the guy realized that it's about selfishness.

    Holden lives! Depression doesn't make you want to kill yourself; it just puts you in a mental hospital in California.

    @ McKenzie: I don't know if I agree that teenagers and adults don't think alike. I can give too many examples of adults I know who don't ever grow up. I do agree that the world teenagers live in is different from adults, and that could explain why they more easily relate to this book. Still, I would think that adults who were bullied as teens and survived would detest this book even more because Hannah takes the coward's way out.

    Did that make any sense?

    Also, I realize that fewer and fewer teenagers appreciate Catcher, which I find totally ironic because that book's all about apathy, which all kids throughout time have had to grapple with, except the latest generation. They can't be bothered. :)

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  12. @ Bryan: I thought that, too, about kids coming away from this book thinking that suicide is the answer after all. Look how Hannah took control and showed those mean kids!

    It must be hard to write an anti-suicide message while at the same time giving the protagonist plenty (13!) reasons to go through with it.

    @ darev: I never have a problem with teen angst. But when the lesson is one about victimhood rather than overcoming and being better, I think that's wrong.

    @ mshatch: I agree that there's a positive message in there somewhere. But the story is about Hannah and Clay. How do either of them change? Hannah clearly doesn't. I guess Clay has a new outlook on life, but what does he need to change from in the first place? He was the one (spoiler for all you others if you haven't read it, sorry), the only one who was always a good guy. The change in the other characters is all conjecture. It's not even implied anywhere in the story. I suppose as a reader, you have to imagine that it probably does happen somehow; otherwise, there's not much point.

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  13. @ Michael: I always hate it in the movies where the criminal tells the good guy he has to make a hard choice and if he chooses it wrong, then the blood will be on his hands, not the criminal's. Any hero who worries over that kind of reasoning isn't much of a hero in my book.

    @ Julie: I'll disagree with you about what the book shows is the teacher's responsibility. From the beginning, it is hinted at (if not stated outright) the fact that one of Hannah's teachers or counselors was going to be one of the thirteen reasons, and that it was going to be a huge reason. I suppose part of my problem was that for the whole book I was wondering how Asher would portray the teacher abusing her or raping her. But to both Hannah and Clay, the teacher's supposed apathy was the last straw; it's as if her suicide were inevitable from that point on.

    I do like that Asher shows the consequences of bad behavior. I agree that that's a positive message. But Hannah's suicide as a consequence other people's behavior is akin to saying that she deserves to be raped if she dresses promiscuously.

    @ Dave: Cool! I'll get on that.

    @ MJ: I'm with you about feeling conflicted. It does something to a reader, and that's always good. I don't like its message, and I don't really like how it's written, but as a text, I suppose it is a success.

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  14. Since you reposted, I reread and have the following response:

    I didn't like this book very much. Like so many others, to me it felt really contrived and I don't think it actually takes the issue of teen suicide seriously. Hannah's character (in my opinion) doesn't talk or behave as though she's really depressed. Instead, she calmly and rationally disects all the bad stuff that's happened to her/been done to her over the last several years. She's very aware that she doesn't deserve it. She's aware that the people doing it to her are clueless and motivated by selfishness rather than any real malice towards her. In that way, she seems free from the self-loathing that seems to accompany suicidal depression.

    (In contrast, I felt that self-loathing poured from the protagonist in Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson,another YA novel that deals with suicide. That girl was in agony and it manifested itself in eating disorders and anti-social behaviors that seem much more authentic.)

    I say all that never having really felt that way or known anyone who confessed to feeling that way.

    But, ultimately I think the reason that everyone is so angry with Hannah for "choosing" suicide is that she comes across as way to self-aware to not recognize that killing yourself to get back at some people who hurt you is completely insane. And if she's killing herself because she can't bear to go on living with the way things are - she's characterized as resourceful enough to figure out a way to change her situation.

    Ultimately, her mental anguish isn't convincing. So it's hard to feel sympathy for the choice that she makes. Instead, as a reader you just feel angry and manipulated. Granted the writer has pulled a reaction from you, but it's rather like the reaction you might have from drinking rotten milk. You were expecting something nourishing and instead you got chunks of ripened yogurt.

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  15. It's about time you replied. We were all "dying" to hear from you. Imagine the consequences if you'd kept us waiting for another day ;D

    Seriously though, what Micheal said seems to be spot on, and I totally agree with your response. I've always thought the same thing about those "blood on your hands" scenarios.

    I guess it really comes down to how the book deals with its subject matter. Since I haven't read it, and I'm only going by what my daughter (who is generally pretty perceptive) has to say about it, I may be judging it a bit unfairly. However, despite what Julie says, I've heard little to convince me that the book has the depth and sophistication to really explore what a perverse act this Hannah's suicide really is. Instead, it seems to take it at face value, and it focuses on those who are to "blame" for it with the message that we should all be kinder to one another...yada, yada, yada. It sounds like it accepts Hannah's act as a sincere response to the pain everyone caused her, while simultaneously making it abundantly clear that it was calculated act of vindictiveness and yet completely ignoring this fact at the same time. It's as though the book is too naive for its own story. That, I think, is where the crux of the problem lies. If I'm wrong, if I sold the book short and it really DOES deal with this issue, then I take it all back. Otherwise...it's pretty messed up.

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  16. The book has gotten rave reviews, but I haven't read it due to it's depressing content.

    I'm "friends" with Jay Asher on Facebook. He recently posted that he knows people should have problems with what Hannah did. This is what he wrote on 01/03:

    "I love critics who think it's a flaw in THIRTEEN REASONS WHY that Hannah Baker isn't perfect. She should've done more to get help! She caused some of her pain! She's hurting others! Um...correct."

    Committing suicide is a selfish act and the person who does it has the ultimate responsibility for making that decision. It's not a rationale one. I think the best books make it so every person has aspects you like about them and aspects you don't.

    I appreciate your review. It's good to read ones that aren't glowing, so I can get a sense of what works and what doesn't, and why.

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  17. I don't get where people are getting this line about suicide being "selfish." What's selfish about destroying your...SELF? I mean, I suppose you could concoct some kind of Rube Goldberg complexities to call anything selfish, but this is a bit of stretch. I think some people just define any bad action as a selfish one. It's moralizing at its most superficial and simplistic. In fact, the thing that's so messed up about what this Hannah does is that her own life (which is young and just beginning) isn't as important to her as proving something to the classmates and people who wronged her. It's like those monks in Tibet or wherever that I heard about years ago that lit themselves on fire to protest a beauty pageant being held in their country. Yes, they killed themselves over a beauty pageant!! Life throw away so cheaply isn't selfish; it's sick!

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  18. @ May: I agree wholeheartedly. Game, set, match.

    @ Bryan: I do appreciate your joke. When I originally posted this to my Facebook page, I nearly said, "If you don't read this, I'll kill myself and it will be your fault." But I didn't. Oh, well.

    I think I understand what you mean about suicide not being selfish because it is so much more than that. I think people call it selfish, though, because it's such an insular act, something that doesn't consider anyone else's needs or reactions. It is the product of an ill mind, but it can also be called selfish.

    @ Theresa: That's an interesting quote from Jay Asher. I agree that as an intelligent reader, you almost have to see Hannah's act in that way; otherwise, it's difficult to even imagine Asher's point. But the problem as I see it is that in execution, that point isn't clear. The story as written emphasizes Hannah's "revenge" which makes her a victim, and her responsibility is little to none.

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