It’s a Saturday night. You decide to buy a bottle of wine to celebrate a successful week of getting through life. Happy hour? you think. Adulthood has taught you many things, acceptance and gratefulness among them, so you accept that you’d like a beverage but you’re grateful for your couch. Heading home, you pick up a spirit at the corner store, and as you pry the cork from a bottle of cabernet, something begins to happen. Smoke pours from the top of the bottle, spilling over the edges and forming the shape of a wispy man. You begin to wonder who slipped drugs into your dinner as the genie says, “I am here to grant you three wishes. The only caveat is that you must repeat high school.”
And then you smash that bottle on the floor, crunching the glass beneath your boot just for good measure. You didn’t even think, acting only on impulse.
Repeat high school? Over your dead body.
13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, details exactly why repeating high school in today’s world would be The Worst. Certainly not for all, but the logistics, mechanics, and decisions of teenagedom today can be too much to bear for many…. many who cannot see a way out besides death. Hannah Baker could not see that way out and details the thirteen reasons she decided to commit suicide.
For more on 13 Reasons Why, recently made into an original series on Netflix, please continue.
I spend all of my working days with high school students, but I’m not truly a part of that realm anymore; I’m an outsider, a teacher, de facto authority. To be back in the sludge of pubescence for the offer of three wishes… millions of dollars… self-actualization, even? Hell to the no.
That said, Asher does a fantastic job characterizing teenagers. All of their thoughts, weaknesses (and strengths), anxieties, and activities were poignantly stated and—in my mind—very accurate to both my experiences and those that I still see happening today.
The plot is centered around the fact that Hannah Baker has committed suicide. She’s swallowed too many pills, and she’s ended all her troubles. But Hannah leaves behind several tapes detailing the thirteen reasons why she’s decided to end her life. People, events, decisions (and the lack thereof), and insecurities are all encapsulated within the thirteen reasons. Readers walk down the two-year path that ends with Hannah’s demise through her audio tapes, which are listened to by Clay Jensen. The novel is the first-person perspective of Clay but also of Hannah; her audio tapes narrate the experiences she had, but Clay’s thoughts and dialogue simultaneously interrupt the narrative.
Hannah’s troubles start from a rumor, and most know that in high school rumors rule the roost. If someone’s reputation is besmirched early on, it likely doesn’t disappear. As such, many are treated certain ways based on those reputations, Hannah among them. Her first reason turns into her second, her third, and so on. Her reasons are completely valid, and they’re reminders that often we—readers, voluntary members of her list—don’t know how our actions influence others.
“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 it just the same.”
My issue with this novel is more with a character than with the writing. Hannah spends what must have been hours dictating her reasons for suicide. Hours spent ruminating on her issues; however, after she’s said them, she dies. She never allows the conversation to continue, to be understood. Every single person who wrongs her—no matter the offense—has his own reasons, thirteen or maybe more, for why he acted in that way. She closed the conversation without allowing for any view other than her own.
Perhaps Asher was pointing to a common thought that suicide is selfish. Perhaps not.
Perhaps he was inferring that those who are suicidal often wouldn’t listen to reason even if offered. Perhaps not.
More than anything, I’m left feeling as if it isn’t fair for Hannah to unload herself through her tapes and not allow a playback. But then I realize, this is exactly the point. Those who commit suicide often feel that they have nothing left over which they have control. Their life, or the choice to end it, is their final piece of control, and they choose to keep it or lose it. Hannah lost it, but the rest of us are left with the knowledge of what to do. We can say hello to a quiet student in the hall, ask a friend who’s despondent how they’ve been, seek out those who turn introverted and ask them to get coffee.
Ultimately, this book proves that we all must take care of each other, whether we know what to do or not. We must do something.
So far, I also recommend the Netflix series. I wanted to re-read before watching, but the pilot is fairly similar to the first cassette.