2. “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Jay Asher

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few weeks after Hannah Baker kills herself, Clay Jensen comes home to find a shoebox fill of cassettes on his from porch. It’s addressed to him– with no return address. And when he starts playing them, he hears Hannah’s voice, promising to name the thirteen reasons– and thirteen people– who drove her to suicide.

This book made me so, so angry for the first thirty or so pages. It! is! not! right! to! blame! others! for! your! suicide! Especially not when then things you are naming are so run-of-the-mill. Her tone moves between gloating, goading, and blase (which, as we all know, is not the right tone for a suicidal person to take, and not the right reasons for killing yourself). I figured that she would have to have been raped, because that’s pretty much the only “good” reason I could think of for a suicide in a YA book. And pretty soon the book starts to voice a pretty excellent analysis of rape culture, which was way more than I would have hoped for.

Hannah is extremely explicit about the fact that a kiss is not groping, and that rumors that she was “easy” are a problem not only because she’s not, but because the stigma associated with being easy means that she is not able to give full consent once that rumor starts. (See Yes Means Yes, please!!) She begins with her first kiss, a sweet, beautiful kiss she had been literally dreaming about. But shortly after the kiss, rumors begin to swirl that she took off her shirt (right there in the park) and let him put his hands under her bra which, we all all know, makes her a slut, which makes her disposable.

When Hannah tells one boy that she “just looked over every name– every story– that completes these tapes. And guess what. Every single event documented here may never have happened had you, Alex, not written my name on that list [of the best asses in the grade],” (41), it felt horrifyingly unfair. Because, Hannah, my friend, the world will do so many worse things to you than tell you you have a nice ass. There are so many more battles to fight. Hell, there is precisely that battle to fight. I read this book for my class on ghosts in US literature, and one of the critical articles we read that has really stuck in my craw has been Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s “Scare Tactics,” which argues that there is a US American tradition of women writers of ghost stories and that these stories represent an avenue of increased agency for women writers (and, perhaps, the women characters who usually star in their writings).

The problem is, this implies that a woman gains agency in fiction only by being dead. And that was just the problem I had with Hannah Baker. Hannah seems like a strong, insightful, smart, passionate, all-around awesome woman. But she cannot speak her power. She gains power only though haunting people with tapes after her death. And even as a haunting, that is a fairly limited one, for it depends fully on the listener’s doing just that– in other words, Hannah could not speak if people would not listen, if they refused to press play. Asher’s answer to this is to have Hannah explain that there is a second set of tapes and that if the first one is not passed on, that one will be made public. By a man. The man who gave her the tape recorder that she used to record her ghostly missive.

I kept imagining what an amazing world this would be if we did not have to wait until the Hannahs of the world were dead to care what they had to say.

This book was published in 2007, before the recent, well-publicized spate of gay suicides, but it preaches the lesson that we are all responsible to one another, and that our actions have snowball effects. “I guess that’s the point of it all. No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push [the snowball] just the same,” Hannah high schools (156).

I think the message that “it gets better” is condescending at best, and I don’t blame Hannah for not wanting to fight to make it better, but in literature, where anything is possible, it’s so depressing that this is the best we can do.

Realistic, but depressing.

I may have more thoughts after my class talks about this next month.

Pages: 304
Page total: 749

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