on March 22, 2017
I first encountered California author Jay Asher’s book in the college classroom; we were assigned the novel as mandatory reading as part of the Contemporary Young Adult Fiction curriculum I signed up for. Out of all the books I read that semester, from the utterly forgettable Weetzie Bat (what?) by Francesca Lia Block to the strange gay romance Boy Meets Boy by David Leviathan (my only foray into the emerging field of homosexual literature), 13 Reasons Why struck me the deepest, as an emotional rollercoaster of a story. Memorable, haunting, and a serious antidote to the above mentioned silly titles, this book takes its subject matter—the terrible phenomena of teenage suicide—and spins a whirlwind tale on steroids that rivals the best work of other popular YA writers working today.
And how the plot unfolds (a coming of age/mystery/problem novel) and the props used (archaic cassette tapes, of all things) creates a unique, spellbinding teen thriller that will make you sit on edge. As an aside, Netflix is currently adapting the novel as a twisting, turning TV series much like Under the Dome and 11/22/63 were, Stephen King’s recent epic prose dramas. (I’m neither recommending these two stories nor condemning them; that’s your choice).
The story may not be epic in length at only 300 pages, but I nevertheless believe in the possibility of treatment as a big studio film or miniseries material. Fantastic—if it’s done right. And if it’s done with style and taste. 13RW concerns everyday teen, Clay Jenson, forwarding a package at the post office as the story opens. No return address. It contains 12 cassette tapes (what people listened to back in the 1970s and 80s before the advent of compact disks) or what is loathingly referred to as “Baker’s Dozen”—student Hannah Baker’s last will and testament, so to speak, or her final words to everyone who played a role (the 13 reasons why) in her decision to take her own life. Clay discovers his part as he traverses the town in a cruel treasure hunt, learning all the while what a tangled web this seemingly innocent girl has woven. Everyone’s a suspect. And the small town values of Crestmont are only a shallow veneer for all the ugliness and hate lurking within.
Now, I’ve read books and wrote papers on other books similar to this one—most notably Needful Things by Stephen King. So the story attracted me in the sense of This American Town’s Got a Lot of Huge Damaging Secrets very much like the King thrillers mentioned before and above. The twist on this one is that teenagers are involved. A whole new set of variables.
So it’s explosive, attractive, and a super cool premise … but is 13RW good literature? Well that’s a matter of opinion and taste. While the book is very much toned down from the violent and disturbing content of King’s books—Asher’s novel does feature a rather blatant rape scene (similar to the one at the end of Anderson’s teen novel Speak) and suicide as its main overarching theme. The novel does NOT feature many coarse four-letter words, or any gore at all. Good bonus points for kids—like I was—who don’t want or couldn’t handle them, though I endured gratuitous content for years for the sake of great story concepts, in print and in film. I probably shouldn’t have.
So the book does not go too far in those regards, though I’m sure some readers will agree that the subject matter is dense for young people and more adult-oriented, albeit gently woven I to the fabric of the story.
Is the book well-written? (I.e. written in the manner of somebody like Robert R. McCammon, Dean Koontz, Matthew Stover, Richard Paul Evans, or a host of other authors who can write a good lyrical sentence in iconoclastic style, and leave us wanting more. Well … I have a few thoughts.
One of my friends who works as a therapist balked when I told her I liked Jay Asher’s 13RW. We talked about the book which we’d both just finished reading, ironically almost at the same time. This was probably six months ago when I ran into her out on the town. She very plainly said that she “couldn’t stand” the subject of teen suicide being marketed to teens for enjoyment—especially since she had a teenage son at home who still loves to read and reads widely. She said she would not let him sample the book for that reason and one other: the awkward rape scene near the end. Granted, I told her, the episode is brief, and no clinical or explicit language is present. “Still,” she said, “It’s a tough scene and a tough read.”
A final stipulation against liking the novel, she said, is the reading level. “Let’s face it, an elementary schooler could read this.” So I said it had mass audience appeal. No, no, she retorted, “Look.” The sentences are clumsily written, many are short declarative bursts, and there’s almost a sing song cadence about some of the passages. I flipped through the book and realized she had a point. The language is oversimplified, though it contains no grammatical errors that I can catch. The “plain style” front and center.
In other words, the whole phenomenon of 13RW is nowhere near perfect, or even superbly done. It has flaws, maybe numerous ones which even I have not touched on. Like cassette tapes dating the novel to the 1990s, or further back to the 70s. Why not CDs? Why not a playlist?
For the record, Jay Asher was inspired by the show My So-called Life, and the soundtrack, which he listened to while writing.
BUT, nevertheless, I loved the IDEA of it all—the small town, the treasure trove, the labyrinthine mystery and hunt for answers—and am continually mesmerized how this little concept caught on. Perhaps as with bestsellers these days, the premise is bigger than the execution. 13 Reasons Why is not for everyone. Dark and eerie in parts … clever, lush, and suspenseful in others, good or bad, the book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and translated in over 30 languages, catapulting an unknown author into the limelight.
Would if we unsung struggling writers could be so lucky.