Thirteen Reasons Why has gained a lot of interest, seen much scrutiny, and been pulled apart by some of the very best.
I don’t claim to fit that category, and so I’ll slip carefully past that issue and focus on what I want to say. I’ve talked more broadly about the series and book in the past, and touched briefly on Hannah’s character. What I want to talk about here has much more to do with Jay Asher’s skill, and the unusual way in which he employs the good old fashioned “unreliable narrator”.
What is/what makes an Unreliable Narrator?
Most obviously this is a narrator who cannot be trusted fully for one reason or another. It might be because they are relating events that happened long ago, like in The Good Solider, or because they are relating someone else’s story, like in Wuthering Heights, or because for one reason or another what they are saying can no longer be verified.
An unreliable narrator may be driven by self-preservation, desire for revenge, love, hate, or denial.
Clay and Hannah
Thirteen Reasons Why is actually driven by not one, but two unreliable narrators; Clay and Hannah. Clay is an unreliable narrator because he see’s everything through a blinkered lens; he filters every reaction, every statement through the quest to understand what he personally did to be on the list. For this reason he fits the mould, but is not the main focus here; Clay is unreliable because he is preoccupied, and because he doesn’t understand or know every detail of the story we are experiencing through him.
Hannah is a much more unusual and interesting form of the convention; she has set herself up to be an unreliable narrator in order to sow the same doubt, paranoia, and hurt as she felt herself amongst those she holds to be guilty. Before we go forward I should disclaim that this is only my view of her as a character; other people have their own interpretations and I have no doubt that they are all valid. However, I cannot help but see some premeditation in the damage and chaos that Hannah causes to those who hurt her.
Unreliable Narration and Masterful Manipulation
I hold that Hannah Baker is a) the ultimate unreliable narrator, b) a realistic anti-hero, and c) the engineer of her own status as such
Consider two extracts from the novel;
“And this time, I was going to be in control of how people saw me.” (Pp 19.)
“Step-by-step. That’s how we’ll get through this. One foot in front of the other.” (Pp 54)
Hannah wants to align herself with each person as they listen, be on their side so that, when she spills their secret betrayals, when she exposes them to others and makes them pass it along, they feel the same upset. So that they understand not only her truth and their part, but so that they run the gauntlet too.
Jay Asher masterfully created an unreliable narrator who manipulates the reader as well as the protagonist. Clay’s presence on the tapes and his obvious confusion as to why illustrate this perfectly; we want to believe Hannah so badly that we doubt him. Her testimony paints him as more unreliable than he actually his, or more deliberately unreliable I should say. And then she tells us, and him, that he honestly doesn’t belong on her list, not in the same way. She manipulates Clay and the reader in one deft stroke, with one simple addition and omission, and of course this means that it’s Asher who does this.
This is why I wrote this article; it’s not about the prose or even the story. It’s about the technique. This is slight of hand done with aplomb; this is magician level deception in writing, and this is something we all need to learn from.
To use one narrator to mislead another, and by extension the reader, is not unheard of and it’s certainly not unique (consider The Historian, for example), but it’s unusual enough that it bears consideration. How can we learn from this, and what, as writers, can we do to incorporate the same cleverness into our own works?
Why it had to be so
Ask yourself this and be honest in answering; if Clay had hurt Hannah, if he had been responsible, would you have put the book down? Perhaps not. Would you have cared so much about how he dealt with it? Probably not.
And if Asher had written this from Hannah’s perspective, from the meeting with Jessica to her suicide, would it have been as compelling and satisfying (albeit horrifying)? No. Definitely not.
Because we tangle ourselves as much in Clay as in Hannah; we want and need him to be either innocent or guilty depending on our own gut feeling (just the same way that some of us will instantly suspect either Justin or Bryce). It adds a layer of tension and a different element of potential loss to the narrative. This kind of layering is unusual and complex, but when it’s done well you get this effect; this I have to know but I don’t want to know, this don’t ruin them for me but destroy them completely if you do kind of effect. Clay had to be a saint or a devil, and Hannah had to be intangible because they cannot share the stage all at once.
Unreliable narration is the cornerstone of many a fictive genre: mystery, crime, and romance to name a few. In fact, to a degree most narrators are unreliable, but it’s this deliberate undermining of their credibility that draws a line between the narrator who is unreliable because the author doesn’t quite know what’s happening as they write, and the narrator who is unreliable because the author constructed them to be so.
If anyone asks you what makes a good unreliable narrator, direct them to this book.
Image Source; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1hoi2KsB5U