le 31 mai 2017
This novel deals with a female teenage suicidee (age 17 in junior class in high school). The subject is serious and deserves great attention. It is mostly centered on the recorded cassettes of the suicidee explaining her reasons since she arrived in this high school as a “freshman,” a word that has to be updated either to freshman and fresh-woman, or to fresh-person. “Freshman” is purely sexist for girls or young women. This is also true at college level.
There are seven cassettes, hence fourteen sides and they are received by mail and listened to through the sole ears of a certain Clay Jensen, same age, same junior level same high school. This listener is talkative and he constantly adds his own commentaries. The recorded story is in italics and the commentaries are in straight font, but apparently the same font, which makes the reading a little bit difficult. The second privileged young man in the story is a certain Tony whose family name I have not found (maybe my negligence). He is a friend of Clay Jensen and he provided the suicidee, Hannah Baker, with the cassette recorder (a Walkman) she used to record her story which is her real story told by herself in practically thirteen sides and the last but one side is in fact the incognito recording of her session with her guidance counselor and English teacher, Mr. Parker. Each side centers on one particular character who in a way or another (except one) did something nasty to her. Note Tony’s Walkman will be borrowed without true approval by Clay. Tony will not resent it, far from it because he knows what it is for. Hannah recorded a second set of cassettes (though technically it could not be done with ONE Walkman) and she entrusted that second set to Tony in case the first set that was supposed to circulate from one person concerned to the next got lost or destroyed. Tony has been entrusted on the tapes themselves with the mission of making them public if they did not reach the end of the list of twelve people concerned by Hannah’s death.
The author is also a man, so that Hannah’s story is seen through the ears and eyes of two young men and told through the pen of an older man. In the story, apart from Mr. Parker who has an important role to play, all adults are marginalized or plainly absent. Hannah’s parents are inexistent? Clay’s mother is anxious to believe her son’s lies to dedramatize a situation that is tricky since he listens to the fourteen cassette sides in one evening and night and thus sleeps in some kind of a park at the end. In the same way Tony’s father is reduced to a mechanic taking care once in the book of his son’s car and yet has nothing to say. This absence of adults is totally surprising since a high school is full of adults most of them highly trained to deal with older teenagers. And all of them have parents and all parties take place in private houses, but without any parents present or close. The teachers, guidance counselor, librarians and other personnel should have been able to see the tall tale signs of a coming suicide in a girl that demonstrates very clear Asperger symptoms. The most obvious is the strong desire to be empathetically received by others and at the same time the extremely strong attitude that makes her resent such contacts if they do not satisfy her own expectations, and then her locking herself into isolation, loneliness, cultivated reclusion in inwardness.
This being said we cannot psychoanalyze Hannah because she is not a true person and psychoanalyzing the author is from my point of view useless and uninteresting. I will concentrate on the story and there is a lot to say about it.
Thirteen characters are announced and twelve are actually targeted in the six tapes. Let me give you the list in proper order.
0- Tony whose name evades me and who is the cassette recorder and reader lender and the depository of the second set of cassettes. Remember he is a friend of Clay Jensen.
1- First cassette, first side: Justin Foley, the author in fresh-person class of the questionnaire and vote in the class about who is hottest and Hannah comes at the top. She resents it.
2- First cassette, second side: Alex Standall who gropes at her backside and grabs her wrist. She of course resents this forced physical contact.
3- Second cassette, first side: Jessica Davis. Ms. Antilly a guidance counselor tries to bring together two new people in the high school and the area. So she organizes the meeting of Alex Standall and Jessica Davis. Hannah find herself connected to them in some diner called Monet’s and they start since the three of them are from outside the area a relation with a motto and a gesture: hand on hand they cry “Olly-olly-oxen-free.” But it will be short lived because of the questionnaire about the hottest girl that preferred Hannah Baker to Jessica Davis (the latter resents being second), and the subsequent groping of Alex. Jessica becomes very hostile rapidly.
4- Second cassette, second side: Tyler Down, the photographer for the yearbook but also a peeping tom who tries to get pictures of Hannah in her room in the evening; She hears the clicks and tells another girl, Courtney Crimson who is interested in the exhibitionism of the situation and to trap the boy they give themselves in a show in Hannah’s room, and they catch him. Hannah does not reveal the name of the girl but Clay finds a picture in some open golden book at Monet’s showing Hannah and Courtney in a friendly pose.
5- Third cassette, first side: Courtney Crimsen who, one night, to go to a party, asks Hannah to drive her over making her a guest of the party at the same time. As soon as they are arrived, Courtney goes her own way and drops Hannah who is very fast dissatisfied with the party where she cannot integrate in the kind of activities proposed (drinking, smooching, or even some deeper physical contact). She decides to leave to the great outrage of Courtney who does not have a ride home. In his commentaries Clay reveals that in eighth grade his crush was on Skye Miller but he had not exploited it. At the same time, hence in the course of listening to the cassettes, he visits Tyler’s house and finds there Marcus Cooley telling that several people have already come there and used stones to break Tyler’s window.
6- Third cassette, second side: Marcus Cooley who in “My Dollar Valentines,” a fund raising action of cheerleaders gets Hannah Baker as his first “choice.” He calls her and she accepts an ice-cream date at Rosie’s another diner. She goes and she waits a long time when Marcus finally arrives, obviously counting on her not coming and yet checking beyond any decent time lapse if she had come after all, and she had.
7- Fourth cassette, first side: Zach Dempsey, a student in the Peer Communication class where special personal bags are open to all messages from the members of the class, anonymous or not. Hannah is in the class too and she finds out Zach is stealing her messages, isolating her from any peer communication.
8- Fourth cassette, second side: Ryan Shaver who is the editor of the “Lost N Found Gazette.” She has contact with him as a poet and they exchange their poetry. He likes one poem particularly and he, without her agreement, publishes the poem anonymously. In fact, the poem then is used in English classes, including Hannah’s with Mr. Porter. She resents the lack of trust the publishing of the poem reveals but she refuses to recognize the poem is hers.
9- Fifth cassette, first side: Clay Jensen who, Hannah says, does not belong here because he is all good. He works with her at the local cinema but the relation is not personal, only professional though friendly which does not mean much. One night he goes to a party (which is rare for him because in all his classes they are tested on Monday) and Hannah decides to go too to meet him. The meeting becomes friendly and could develop into something more intimate. But she stops it and asks him to leave, which he does.
10- Fifth cassette, second side: this is the side that is not in the count of twelve. Still in the room where she had become nearly intimate with Clay, Hannah sees Justin Foley coming with Jessica Davis that is totally out, drunk and unconscious; Justin puts her in the bed and then Bryce Walker arrives, speaks with Justin and then rapes Jessica Walker after checking she was irresponsive. But the episode is centered on Hannah Baker because she could have stopped it if she had revealed her presence, hidden as she is in some cupboard. She did not. This episode is illogical since later on Clay will not send the tapes to Bryce Walker but to Jenny Kurtz that appears in the next episode.
11- Sixth cassette, first side: Jenny Kurtz is the cheerleader who took Hannah’s “My Dollar Valentine’s” form, gave her the results and witnessed the call from Marcus Cooley. At the end of the previous party Hannah accepts a ride from Jenny Kurtz who runs into and over a stop sign. Hannah gets off then and witnesses two cars ramming into each other at that crossroads because the stop sign is down. One of the drivers is a senior from the school delivering pizzas. He is killed on the spot. She runs to a gas station to call the police but it is too late, the police are already on the way. She believes Jenny has called but she finds out later that it is Clay who called because he also witnessed the accident. Jenny’s bumper was hastily replaced and the first accident destroying the stop sign was hushed up.
12- Sixth cassette, second side: Bryce Walker is the “hero” of this episode. Hannah looks after a house for the night next to a loud party further on in the street. When all the guests have left she decides to walk along and comes to the house where she finds Courtney and Bryce in a hot bath in the garden; They invite her and she accepts out of the worst possible motivation. She totally yields to Bryce’s rape just to motivate herself more to commit suicide. The decision is practically taken then. It is clear that she is still a virgin and sacrifices her virginity as a prelude to the sacrifice of her life.
13- Seventh cassette, first side: Mr. Porter, her guidance counselor and English teacher. She asks for an appointment and gets one. She comes with her Walkman on in her backpack and she records the whole interview. Mr. Porter in insensitive, in fact non-empathetic. He is a pure bureaucrat who has learned his lesson more or less. He does not sense he is rejecting her into her clearly stated intention to commit suicide. He will not call the parents or contact anyone. He abandons her to her fate with three choices he enumerates: to press charges; to confront the rapist; or to move on.
14- Seventh cassette, second side: No character at all. Just “Thank you.”
The conclusion is Clay’s who recognizes he could have done more to establish a personal relation with Hannah but was never able to. In the school corridors on the day after his listening to the tapes, late for his class, he meets with Skye Miller that goes by and he runs after her and establishes some kind of contact probably to make up for his failure with Hannah. If things were that simple, the world would be beautiful.
What can we say?
First high school life is absolutely dematerialized in this book since only the teenagers are captured with one exception, and maybe a half, among the adult personnel. It cannot cope with personal growing pains both preventively and curatively. The relations from Hannah’s point of view are nothing but bullying in any way possible including from the evanescent teachers. Parents are absent in society, even in the various institutions where the kids go, diners, and cinema. I cannot believe the only two workers in the cinema are Clay and Hannah. There must be a proprietor or manager or ticket checker somewhere for security and smooth work. These teenagers are totally abandoned to themselves.
Suicide then becomes the only true solution or rather way-out or escape since these teenagers have no contact with adults even confrontational. There is one mention of Hannah being grounded and yet she goes to the party where she meets Clay by escaping her room through the window. The only adult who has some density is vain, bureaucratic and frankly not very well trained in the psychological domain since he does not recognize in his class the clear Asperger syndrome Hannah demonstrates and he is totally unmoved into any exceptional understanding or action by Hannah telling him she is going to commit suicide.
What is left then?
A narrow palette of the hundred shades of suicide teenagers, and anyone who comes to this conclusion that life is no longer worth living, encounter. Hannah says page 254 “I wish I would die.” And she develops with three “could”. What is surprising is that the text does not get to the next stage of “should” because someone who is to commit suicide has to come to the conviction they should, they must, they ought to do it. This is not reached with Hannah. Her last words to Clay on the day before dying are “I’m sorry!” She will use the same words when confronted to her being raped by Bryce. The phrase has at least two meanings and these two meanings are not exploited. They are a potential but totally uncultivated, hence wild. And this should have led the author to another meaning of suicide very present in the tapes left behind: “I’m sorry I have to do this but you will be sorry in your turn, you the twelve when you listen to the tapes, and you the twelve if the second set of tapes is made public.” There is in any attempt to commit suicide the idea that the survivors will be sorry and that you, the suicidee, will know about it, see it, witness it, and you, the suicidee, make sure there will be repayment after your death. That leads us to the idea that the rape she accepts is a sacrificial ritual on Hannah4s side spoiling her and thus justifying both her suicide and the repayment she will bring with her tapes, though from the description she gives of that rape it is more sex without any consensual agreement but with no resistance at all to any forced action from Bryce since there is no forced action from Bryce: she undresses herself and puts herself in the hot bath.
The book is thus amazingly provocative but psychologically and even existentially rather superficial, though it reads tremendously well. Note in this high school world in modern times the sexual orientation of these young men and women is not only a pregnant question but a capital question, as supreme as the Supreme Court’s decision on it. This question is totally absent from the book, both in Hannah and in the young men and women around her, though many occasions were ripe to lead to such questions that were problematic like hell in older eras and are still quite enigmatic to many.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU