Thursday, October 6, 2011

REVIEW: Thirteen Reasons Why

Hoo. Wow. It's been a while since my last post. Quite some time, indeed.


Without further ado, a book review!

Last night, when the store was slow, I picked up a copy of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007.) In between helping the occasional customer, I leafed through the first few pages. Then, when it was time to lock up, I leafed through a few more. When I got home, I sat down on the couch and proceeded to finish the book.

And it was good. I mean, like, really good. That's my official first thought while reviewing this book: it was really good.

Thirteen Reasons Why revolves around Clay, a more-or-less typical high school student, who receives an unmarked package containing seven cassette tapes recorded by a recently deceased classmate. On each tape is two reasons that said classmate--Hannah Baker--committed suicide. The book follows Clay as he visits each location in Hannah's story, listening to how each person mentioned in the tapes influenced Hannah's decision and wondering all the while how he fits into the picture.

The immediacy of the book--one of the things I loved about it--comes from the narrative setup: Clay's story happens over the course of a single night, as he follows Hannah's tour of their town. It's a simple layout of a complex plot, following a map from point A to point B and so on, unfolding the significance of each location with an associated cassette tape.
That's precisely the word I would use for the way the book works, by unfolding. It is as if the book were a music box, or a wind-up toy that has been set in motion, and we've just got to sit back and watch as it plays through itself. In a way, it's a genius narrative setup: the character--and by proxy, the reader--is given steps that must inevitably follow one another, and over the course of the book each one is addressed in turn. If it feels like the story is being placed on track at times, it's because it is.

However good the book is, though, this narrative structure could be seen as both a benefit and a detriment. After all, if everything in the book has already happened, where is the tension? There are scant choices to be made after the story begins, and only a few ways for it to play out. And play out it does, from Tape 1 Side A to the silent Side B of Tape 7. So why should we care?

We should care, as it turns out, because Asher is an excellent writer. He takes an otherwise concrete narrative, and pushes it onto Clay to see what he does with it. How he reacts. If he does or does not follow the instructions on the tape. Even though the events of the story could be considered analogous to watching someone listen to a book on tape, it's handled so deftly and so vividly that I never once considered putting the book down.

The only real issue I had with the book was the fact that it was written as teen lit (Which sounds awful. I mean, why should I judge a book by its genre? It seems horribly unfair until you find out that I was an English major, and for a few years there being unfair to books was all I did.) This isn't to say that I have anything against teen lit in principle, but I've come to find that many teen lit books cling to a lingering sense of unreality regarding the functioning of the real world. This shows most tellingly in Asher's book through the presence of Clay's mother, especially when she lets him 'stay out late for a school project'-- I'm not sure if I was an anomaly, but if I lied to my mother like that and spent all night wandering the town, she would find out and I wouldn't leave the house for weeks (Which actually happened to me once. Fun times.)

This is an issue that I've seen come up in many stories aimed towards a teen audience: a magical parentless wonderland where you can stay out all night consequence-free. The most egregious offender that I've seen is the movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, where the titular characters spend all night in downtown New York without a single thought as to what their parents might say.

Luckily, however, Asher's book is nothing like that. It was only a niggling sense of 'But what would their mothers think?!' that I noticed. And Asher does address it, insofar as one can address the issues of parents in a teen book-- I'm just not sure if I really like how teen lit as a whole deals with grownups.

But, before this review is swamped in my gripes about the state of teen lit today, I would have to say that, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was tense, well-written, engaging, and inevitable in a way that I think only Thirteen Reasons Why can truly be.

OVERALL RATING: A-minus, or about 9.2/10. A thumb and three-quarters up? Four stars? I'm really bad at ratings systems. You should read this book.


PS- Jay Asher is signing at the Council Tree Library in Fort Collins! October 20th at 6:30! Make sure you read this excellent book and attend!

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