First Person and Second Person
Unreliable narrator alert! Thirteen Reasons Why blends Hannah Baker's audio-taped explanation for her suicide with Clay Jensen's reactions to it. Both stories are told in the first person by the characters themselves. (We'll get to the second-person stuff in a sec.) A narrator can be unreliable for a variety of reasons, most commonly "age, mental disability or personal involvement," which leads the narrator to give readers "incomplete or inaccurate" info (source). Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner are famous for their use of unreliable narrators. But it looks like today's authors haven't jumped ship. Read on to see why we think Hannah and Clay fit snugly into this category.
Unstable = Unreliable
Hannah is recording these words at the height of her despair, during her last hours. She probably isn't sleeping or eating, and we even find her lurking outside people's windows (see Cassette 2: Side B). She is just about sure she wants to kill herself unless somebody forces her not to (which, clearly, nobody does).
This puts us in a tough position. We want to listen to Hannah and understand what she went through. By the end of the story, we can relate to her on some level and understand her pain. But at the same time, we have to take into account that her state of mind is hampering her objectivity; basically, she's not really looking at things from all angles.
Now this doesn't mean we don't believe Hannah's story. Most things probably happened just as she said they did. In the case of Mr. Porter, she doesn't even have to tell us – she actually records her conversation with him. But with Hannah's most serious allegations, we should, as responsible readers, admit that she makes a lot of assumptions and jumps to a lot of conclusions. For example, there is no definitive confirmation that Tyler Down is the Peeping Tom. And she doesn't know for sure that Jenny Kurtz caused the fatal accident by knocking over the stop sign. What's more, we never get to hear the point of view of the people Hannah is accusing. We can't weigh their accounts against hers to try to get at the truth.
Whether or not Hannah is telling the truth, hearing the story from her perspective (in the first person) adds a level of emotion that we'd never be able to get from a third-person narrative. We are actually inside the mind of a suicidal teen; scary, sure, but something we may never be able to understand otherwise.
Emotion ≠ Objectivity
Clay seems like he'd be a pretty reliable guy under ordinary circumstances, but the situation in this book is anything but ordinary. How often does one receive a box of tapes recorded by a girl during her final hours of life?
If the tapes had just been from a random person, maybe this wouldn't impact Clay's reliability as a narrator. But this is someone Clay had feelings for. On top of that, he has a pounding stress headache, he's running all over town, and he hasn't slept or eaten. He is wrestling with grief, guilt, anger, shame, and tons of other emotions. Nothing in his world is as he thought it was.
Clay is certainly more objective than Hannah; he points out where she isn't being fair and questions her reasoning. He also fills in some blanks for us that Hannah leaves out (like the identities of the people on Cassette 5: Side B). But Clay also unquestioningly accepts her assumptions about other situations (like Tyler, the rape, and the stop sign).
Clay's role is to listen to Hannah as he could have when she was alive – with a sympathetic, believing ear. It's likely that, as Clay reflects and comes in contact with the others on the list, he will gain more objectivity about the situation. But in the meantime, readers have to see beyond Clay's reactions to avoid falling into the gossip and rumor traps in which the characters themselves are stuck.
Hannah directly addresses her listeners at many points in the novel, either by name, or with the word "you." In those moments she's a second-person narrator. By addressing the people on the list directly, Hannah really lays on the guilt and blame. She wants the people on her list to see how it feels to have an accusing finger pointed at them.
Actually, since we're the ones reading this, whenever Hannah says "you," it kind of feels like she means us. This helps give us a sense of how the listeners must feel and almost forces us to examine our consciences. It makes us ask if, like the people on the list, we could be treating people better. Since we don't get the points of view of the people on the list, the second person technique helps us act as sort of stand-ins for them, imagining some of their possible reactions.
One last thing: the idea of reading a transcript of a recording is pretty neat. In this case, it allows us to get inside the mind of someone who's no longer around. (The same strategy is also used in another tough-to-read young adult book, I Am the Cheese.)
Author Jay Asher says he wrote Hannah's recordings first, then added Clay's reactions to it. (Hmm, this is also what I Am the Cheese author Robert Cormier did!) This format also lends itself to the foreshadowing we see so much of in Hannah's sections. She spends lots of time dropping hints about awful things to come. Clay's reactions heighten the suspense we readers already feel as we read her words.