Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. Razorbill (Penguin), New York, 2007. F;5/17.
I was (honest) about a third of the way into this, highly recommended on Kirkus, before I realized it is “young adult” (read teenage) fiction. So accessible! I kept saying to myself. It reminds me of high school (I was I think an unusually happy boy as a teenager). I also discovered it has been turned into a Netflix TV series, prompting a social media eruption of safety concerns over its potential effects on impressionable kids resulting in prohibition or at least modification of the TV series in some places. I resist extended comment on this kind of thing.
You see, it’s about suicide.
Not being, these days, a teenager anymore nor especially unhappy I wouldn’t be part of the readership potentially seduced into contemplating very creative ways of ending it all. But I was interested in the neat plot structure and, full disclosure, vicariously experiencing the lives of high school kids, which appeared realistic as rendered by a 40-year-old author, and worked pretty well in long retrospect for me too.
Our seventeenish hero Clay Jensen receives a box of old-fashioned audiotapes recorded, he quickly discovers, by his sometime girlfriend Hannah Baker just before she committed suicide, which is known to have happened not long previously. The tapes make it clear that there were 13 reasons, corresponding to 13 people, that pushed her over the edge, and every one of them is going to listen to her story. But Clay thinks why am I one of them? Did I do something terrible to her? And who were the others? And how far along in the sequence of passing the tapes forward am I? He finds out the answers and a lot more as we follow him through listening to the whole sad story.
The realism and hooks in the plot overcame my characteristic impatience with fiction that relies for its interest on hot-button subjects which would definitely include suicide, but also rape (in here too), child abuse, every illness known to mankind, racism and so forth. Anyway I read on, reminiscing about finding out about figurative language and thinking, nice versus nasty people including teachers, fear of involvement in relationships, and, of course, sex and love. All taking place in my life 50 years ago. The finding out, that is.
My experience of this story reminded me of reading (and I read them also about 50 years ago) Catcher in the Rye, and a short story called Too Early Spring by Stephen Vincent Benet. Salinger and Benet both had a lovely touch for American adolescent experience and willingness to connect it to some of life’s serious problems. Thirteen Reasons suggests to me that that touch can still move minds and events around, although the consequences may in the meantime have got a little out of hand.