Since 13 Reasons Why launched as a Netflix adaptation, the story of a teenage girl’s suicide and the subsequent blame-game has been a popular point of discussion. Jay Asher’s New York Times bestseller by the same name tells a very similar story: 17 year old Hannah Baker takes her life and leaves behind a set of tapes on which she has recorded the 13 key reasons for her suicide, with the intention of those supposedly to blame listening to them one by one. Through the clever and intimate dual-narration from Hannah’s voice and tape-recipient cum trigger Clay Jensen, the reader uncovers the events responsible.
It’d be natural to presume that this a much-needed book about mental health and suicide, filling up book shelves during a time when mental health desperately deserves a platform. Well, here’s why it isn’t, and what you should read instead.
13 Reasons Why plays to the naïve clichés of suicide that ought to be myth-busted.
It’s undeniable that the books triggers discussions about suicide, and it doesn’t go completely wrong. However, interpretations drawn from it force suicide to be tackled from the wrong angle, as essentially, this should not be considered a book about suicide. There’s one question that brings this to light: If somebody who has not had any exposure to mental health and suicide were to read the book, would they finish it feeling that they had learned something new about these topics? The answer is no.
13 Reasons Why plays to the naïve clichés of suicide that ought to be myth-busted. Where it falls down is in its claim to be a harrowing and explorative piece of literature, yet it refuses to delve beneath the surface. We travel with Clay through Hannah’s experiences, familiar to the majority of high-school students: cruel rumours, drifting friendships, objectification…yet there is never any real insight into mental health. Hannah’s narration is relatable rather than harrowing, and that’s why it’s dangerous to read this book as a testament about mental health and suicide: it leaves an uninformed reader with the impression that suicide can always be linked back to clear-cut events, that it’s a rational and logical solution to real-life problems. The novel does not allow us to see the world through the eyes of someone suffering from depression and suicidal ideation, and it doesn’t provide any greater understanding of how living with this illness really feels. What it does do, however, is take the normal human emotions of hurt and anger and link them to something that is not normal; sadness and depression are worlds apart, and that’s not a difference drawn out in 13 Reasons Why.
Annoyingly, Asher perpetuates the myth that love is a cure. We are left with the sentiment that Clay is to blame for not having confessed feelings for Hannah, and that more or less sums up the novel’s overriding message, once again rationalising an illness that, in actual fact, has a tendency to irrationalise everything. You can’t love someone better and you can’t be blackmailed into it either. The elaborate blame-game that Hannah’s character orchestrates is sickening and dangerous, which would be fine if the book portrayed it as such. Although we don’t gain any insight from the other characters on the tapes, there isn’t any real indication that the whole idea is toxic and twisted, or that (with the exception of the few characters who really are deserving of punishment) those named and shamed deserve therapy to come to terms with what has happened. Suicide is not revenge.
If 13 Reasons Why shouldn’t be read as an insightful book about suicide, then what is it about? It’s a book about objectification and female sexuality. It’s about change and speaking out and your potential for impact, and, like millions of other books out there, typical teenage life.
If you’re looking to read a book that is about depression and suicide, then It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizziniis an eye-opening and thought-provoking place to start. It is progressive in its use of an academically successful and high-functioning protagonist, Craig, which helps to eradicate the misconception that depression is only compatible with failure and laziness. Vizzini excels in his ability to bring forth this message by having Craig simultaneously blend in with those around him while also making his symptoms blatant to the reader, and by doing so he manages to take us inside Craig’s head to gain a first-hand perspective of mental illness and suicide. He does so through a profound honesty that’s striking in its nonchalance; this forces the reader to observe how mental health has the potential to warp and manipulate events, building a new normality, which is what Asher fails to achieve. “I’m not doing well in terms of being a functional human being, you know?” Craig tells the reader, and we can almost see him shrugging. From the very first line, this scary coolness hits you: “It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.” Sometimes, less really is more.
If you’re looking to read a book that is about depression and suicide, then It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizziniis an eye-opening and thought-provoking place to start.
Unlike 13 Reasons Why, Vizzini is so raw and vivid in his depiction of Craig’s unhealthy thought processes that he need not add a last minute assault in order to make the suicide attempt believable. In his own words, Craig does not have “justification and something [he] could work on” regarding his illness, yet not for a minute is the reader prompted to question the credibility of suicide featuring in the plot. Contrarily, if it were not for the final tragedy exposed in 13 Reasons Why, Hannah’s overdose would seem out of place and rushed; ultimately, Asher uses the power of events whereas Vizzini uses the power of words.
His brilliant balance of powerful metaphors and honest dialogue is immersive and educational. He allows even the healthiest of readers to relate to Craig just enough before thrusting them into an entirely new world, dealing with how relationships, power, and success can feed into one’s mentality. While 13 Reasons Why is praised for teaching readers that everyday events can be catastrophic for those contemplating suicide, it misses something crucial: twisting the events through the lens of the sufferer, turning it into a symptom. Vizzini, on the other hand, never leaves the reader believing that suicide is a logical and undistorted choice.
The wide range of characters who are given a platform paint an accurate portrayal of the non-discriminating nature of mental illness and the many forms it can take. Its startling honesty and frank observations, told in the captivating present tense, have a lot to say about what suicide really entails.
By all means, enjoy 13 Reasons Why as well; it’s well written and its plot is gripping. Finish it feeling more enlightened on slut-shaming and the importance of having a strong support network. Read it and learn to be nice to others, ponder bullying and objectification, but don’t think it’s got anything to say about mental health, because that’s where we’ve all got it wrong.