By Jay Asher
What it is: A 2007 young adult novel that returned to the bestseller list after having been adapted into a Netflix series. In the book, a high school kid named Clay receives a set of audiotapes from a classmate named Hannah Baker who recently committed suicide. It turns out that the tapes contain Hannah’s explanation of the events that led up to her death, with each side dedicated to a particular person involved, each of whom is supposed to pass the tapes on to the next person in the series. The narration alternates between Hannah’s recorded monologues and Clay’s narration of what’s happening as he roams around town and listens.
Stephen King will often use his prose to hint at events that are going to come later on in his novels–as in, his narrator will drop a line like, “I kissed my wife goodbye and stepped out the door. I didn’t know that that was the last time I would ever see her face.” It’s a very effective way to hold the reader’s attention, because it makes you go, wait, why not? What happened? And then you’re rushing into the next scene in order to get closer to the answer. Thirteen Reasons Why follows a similar model, partly on a large scale, since of course we know that Hannah ultimately kills herself but don’t know exactly why; but also through the way it’s written, with Hannah hinting at something important in her narration just before the book switches back to Clay’s perspective, and vice versa. In an interview at the end of my copy, author Jay Asher refers to the book as “a suspense novel,” and it is engrossingly page-turning in that sense even though the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
I haven’t seen the Netflix series; I imagine it must be pretty narratively bloated, since the book feels like it could easily be adapted into a single feature film. But the show seems to have been pretty popular, though it’s also been controversial, and it’s easy to see why: Hannah kills herself in a pretty undeniably cool way. The idea of using your death to shame people who hurt you (Clay and other characters are overcome with guilt at the idea that they could have played a role in Hannah’s decision) is one of the ultimate suicidal fantasies, and the fact that her message is delivered via the retro-hip cassette tape medium only adds to the glamorization of the act. I don’t know whether or not that outweighs the positive effects of calling attention to the issue, but it’s definitely cause for concern.
On a lighter note, I’d like to shout out whatever editor convinced Asher not to use his original title, Baker’s Dozen: The Autobiography of Hannah Baker (also mentioned in the author interview). That was a real corny idea.