When it comes to conflict, we crave simplicity, directness. We want grudge matches to come to fruition, and hope desperately for someone (or someones) to don the black hat, twirl their mustache and cackle maniacally–if only to see them get their comeuppance.
It’s a natural inclination, and its the one that drives many of my students to promise: “I’ll get you back”. I see that same glint in their eye as they read the most popular book in school right now: 13 Reasons Why.
With a rather daring and innovative style, 13 Reasons Why recaps the fall of an average teenage girl from arriving at a new school, to taking her own life. Through a set of audio tapes passed among 13 people who caused her suicide, she retells her story and the reader follows the night one recipient spends listening to her catalogue of injustices.
The dueling story lines (one in the past and one in the present) make for a complex read, but it’s the kind of daring gamble that grabs attention and insists on holding it. The characters are realistic, true-blue teenagers with emotional scars, idiosyncratic speech, and personalities that are all too believable. That in turn makes the slow-motion train wreck of a young girls death, and her even slower-motion psychological revenge on the people who made it happen, equally-frighteningly believable too.
While that plotting concept is masterful, the final execution gets a little sloppy. At a certain point we’re so invested in both of our main characters that we can’t imagine either one of them harming the other. Sure enough, when the climactic tape revealing our protagonists’ role in the unraveling of the girl’s life arrives, it elicits more of an “oh” than an “ohhhhhhhh!”From there the story repeats, contradicts, convolutes and confuses both plot lines until the emotional impact is softened (though by no means eliminated).
Suddenly shifting from a direct enumeration of all the awful vicissitudes of high school that wiped away a young life to a complex (and underdone) analysis of shared responsibilities jars even the most practiced reader. And while it’s important to appreciate the complexity of why things happen, jumping into it so suddenly often alienates rather than educates your audience.
But revenge isn’t really the point of 13 Reasons Why, no matter how much my students think it is at first. The real point is what we owe to everyone in our community, be they friend or foe or total stranger. We don’t need to give them a piece of our mind or a serious slice of ice-cold revenge, we need to give them our attention, if only to avoid such tragic consequences again.