Sunday, March 9, 2014

Reader Response: Thirteen Reasons Why (Pt. 1)

A free-form reader response to Thirteen Reasons Why for my Teen Materials class. This is for "censored novels" week.

** Spoilers ** 

Untitled Intro

Strong opening scene showing the effect of Hannah's chain mailed (old style, not email) package on one unnamed boy somewhere in the middle of the list as he sends it off to the next person. This premise doesn't seem all that realistic because of the need for twelve people to comply. I can only assume they all feel guilty enough to do it but not guilty enough to be thrown into uselessness in following directions?

One thing I'm seriously digging about this book is that it's not speculative or travel fiction, has a map! And the post office + school mentioned in the intro are on the map! Since it's a town map and the postal service figures strongly into this story, I had a flashback to an old Infocom text adventure game which had a town map: Wishbringer (that was one vicious poodle).

Yesterday: One Hour After School

Story-by-cassette-tape reminds me of the video game Gone Home, which is about an older teen coming home to her parents' new house, finding it apparently empty, and gathering the story by listening to her little sister's recordings found scattered around in the atmospheric setting. That was set in the 80s, but Clay's thoughts about tapes being obsolete these days hints that it may be a contemporary story using the old tech.

Cassette 1: Side A

Agh! The "chapters" are named in the format above: Cassettes 1-7, sides A and B. But here is how the tapes are described:
"Each tape has a dark blue number painted in the upper right-hand corner, possibly with nail polish. Each side has its own number. One and two on the first tape, three and four on the next, five and six, and so on. The last tape has a thirteen on one side, but nothing on the back."
This is going to bother me. It would have been so easy to have the text description and the chapter divisions line up. On the bright side, having the old style tape player controls appear as center-aligned section breaks in the text when pressed in the narrative is visually neat-o.

Less impressed with the internal monologue in response to hearing the first part of the first tape. "What? No!" is so bland it hurts. "Hitting Play that first time was easy. A piece of cake. [...] But this time, it's one of the most frightening things I've ever done." Yes, we readers know it was easy. We saw that. Now would be a good time to show us the difficulty. Asher did such a good job of depicting difficulty in the intro. Where did that author go?

Oh. Interesting. There's a threat that if the instructions aren't followed by all of the recipients, the recordings will be released publicly. That takes care of my psychological realism quibble. Well done.

I'm finding Hannah annoying. Not in a specific way. Just in the way that she's probably a very accurate portrayal of a teen girl. She's so very oriented toward "signs" that she and the first boy she kissed were meant to be.

So...will this book be about slut shaming then? Hannah's first story is about kissing Justin twice in a not-very-sexual way, but later hearing rumors that they had done a lot more in the park that night? Is she even sure he's the one who expanded the rumors beyond the kiss?

I didn't expect the consequence of tape listeners not being sure who else has heard the tapes until they find out (presumably at the end of the last tape) who is next on the list. I appreciated the apprehension Clay felt around Tony for this reason.

Cassette 1: Side B
"So to back up a bit, this tape isn't about why you did what you did, Alex. It's about the repercussions to me. It's about those things you didn't plan--things you couldn't plan."
I'm thinking that, more generally, this book is going to be about how small inconsiderations can be a part of a larger pattern of social exclusion. I'm not on Hannah's side when it comes to thinking it's justified for her to put these people through as much anxiety as she is inflicting. The tapes are an order of magnitude worse than the things she's complaining about so far, even if those are legitimate complaints in themselves.

There's a nice, explicit lesson on how bad it is for men to touch women without permission and then assert control by making her feel like she's being rude for responding negatively. Glad to have teens read that.

Cassette 2: Side A

Hannah's sort-of friend, Jessica, believes rumors about Hannah having a relationship with a guy. Hannah denies it, but she seemed much more upset about Jessica thinking it could possibly be true than being clear about it not being true. I can understand how Jessica in her state of mind might have heard ambiguity or even a guarded admission before hitting Hannah.

I don't get why it was such a crime for Jessica to not be sure Hannah wouldn't be sneaking around with a boy. These things happen. It wouldn't be a vile insult unless Hannah herself buys into the notion that teen girls who go past chaste kisses are terrible human beings. Maybe she does. Maybe that's why she kills herself when such rumors develop.

Cassette 2: Side B

Hannah figured out that someone is taking pictures of her from outside of her bedroom window. To "catch" the photographer, she asks another girl to come over. They talk as if Hannah is out having regular sexcapades, and put on a sexy show the sound of audible shutter clicks. When they throw back the curtains, neither of them identifies the boy, but Hannah "knows" who it is because the next day she went around asking everyone where they were last night and one of them answered "Nowhere" and she just felt certain.

Remember, this is the Hannah who is pissed off at false rumors of her promiscuity...doing everything she could to increase those rumors. She probably misidentified the photographer too, which would mean she sent the tape and their accompanying threat to the wrong boy.

It's becoming hard not to read this as a sympathetic villain's origin story.

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