I mentioned in my previous post that I was re-reading Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, curious as to what all the hoopla was about since its release. For reference, I looked up my original notes/review/what-have-you on the book, from January 2008 (and though it should go without saying, everything from here on out will likely contain spoilers):
A teenage girl kills herself, and a few days later, the boy that had a crush on her finds on his porch a box with thirteen cassette tapes, dedicated to thirteen people who inadvertently had a hand in her death. The story follows our hero across town as he listens to her recount her last few years and the people who changed her so much. It’s a very cool premise, done fairly well.
My opinion hasn’t much changed in the matter. It is a cool premise, when a box of tapes shows up on (co-)narrator Clay’s doorstep, which turn out to be the final recordings of Hannah Baker, a girl in his high school class who recently killed herself. The thirteen sides of cassette name thirteen people or instances Hannah considers responsible for her suicide. The action follows Clay as he listens through the tapes, following a map of destinations Hannah’s set for her series of listeners (everyone mentioned on the tapes), hoping to figure out how he factors in this dark story.
I think the main purpose of the book is pounding home the idea actions have consequences. (Or, to a lesser degree, illustrating how godawful high schoolers can be.) Hannah’s first kiss aims to make himself a bigger stud by spreading the rumor around school he and Hannah did much more than kiss. This leads to Hannah developing a bad reputation, one of her few friends severing ties, Hannah getting sexually harassed, and so on and so forth.
The execution is all well and good, and the plot is definitely intriguing, but the characters lack suitable definition for me to ever really feel invested. Throughout her recordings, Hannah keeps insisting that her unwilling listeners don’t know the real her. But as a reader, I never got to know the real her, either. Her hobby is poetry, information offered only because it’s relevant to one of the reasons. Other than that, she’s something of a blank slate. She’s tormented, yes, and clearly passive-aggressive, but that alone does not a character make. We never really see her interact with anyone. Her parents have to go to her former hometown to conduct the funeral, but as nothing more than a throwaway line. If she has any other family, they go unmentioned. If she has any other friends than the ones who wronged her on the tapes, they also go unmentioned. I have no idea what Hannah looks like, what she’s interested in, or much of anything about her. If she’s designed to be a blank slate for readers to better relate and insert themselves into her plight, she’s almost too blank. What happens to her is sad, but I can’t relate to her on a personal level. It’s akin to reading a sad news story: you recognize the tragedy, but on a distant, impersonal level.
On the flip side is Clay, the recipient of the tapes, who ties into the story because of the crush he had on Hannah when they used to work together at a movie theater. Clay is a self-described nice guy, and incredibly bland. I know little more about alive Clay than I do about dead Hannah, even though he’s given plenty of opportunity to speak in the present. He alludes to a car accident the night of a party (the party being significant to Hannah’s tapes), but his references are so vague that by the time the storytelling actually gets around to the car accident, it’s anti-climatic and not at all relevant. We’re supposed to feel for Clay; after all, he has a crush on a girl, never works up the courage to tell her (as he’s too afraid of her reputation), makes out with her once at a party, and then she kills herself. But we never find out really why Clay has a crush on Hannah. He claims she’s funny. We don’t see an instance of this, or any real conversations between them in the summer at the theater, before all of this is slated to happen. She mentions in her tapes the wonderful, deep conversation she had with him at that party, but it also goes unseen. Clay is supposed to be our human connection, the one who is truly invested in Hannah as a person and who is devastated by the loss of her, but it is forced and never comes across.
It’s a difficult subject to tackle, rarely done and rarely done well, but I don’t think it’s quite so deserving of all of its acclaim. If the goal of the novel is simply to drive home the point re: actions having consequences, well done. But anything beyond that gets kind of lost through faceless characters.