In her book Fictions of Adolescent Carnality, Lydia Kokkola observes that the format of the problem novel instigates the trope of the troubled teen, by implying that the ‘problem’ in need of resolution solely belongs to the teenager. She writes, “The overarching ‘problem’ of the problem novel is that the teenager is filled with angst about an aspect of their life they cannot control; and the resolution of their angst signals the on-set of adult maturity” (16). Kokkola also notes that sex (the most frequent depiction in this genre) reaches/assumes the status of a ‘problem’ because it “is decontextualized from the total well-being of the young person” (16). When these features of the ‘problem novel’ are juxtaposed with YA novels dealing with mental illness, mental illness is posed as the 'problem', often life threatening and with dire consequences if not cured.
Michael Thomas Ford’s Suicide Notes is one such novel that works with the themes of sex and mental illness within the problem novel format. It tells the story of 15 year old Jeff, after he finds himself in a psychiatric ward for attempting suicide. Written as a series of diary entries spanning over the course of the 45 day treatment program he is enrolled in, the novel ends with Jeff’s acceptance and acknowledgement of his homosexuality. Reading it vis a vis Kokkola’s commentary, Suicide Notes hits the right notes, for it depicts how the holistic well being of the adolescent protagonist is hampered because of his inability to deal with sex/uality. Furthermore, the novel shows that when the problem of sex is left unresolved, it can lead to larger social issues or ‘problems’ such as mental illness or suicidal ideations.
Once Jeff is placed inside the psychiatric ward, he befriends another inmate Sadie because they share similar dismissive attitudes on the institution and its inmates. Later another character, Rankin is introduced, who is described as a jock. Jeff engages in sexual encounters with both Sadie and Rankin. Despite the heavy surveillance pervading throughout the institute, the inmates/patients hardly get caught while engaging in sexual activities. These encounters within the institution enable Jeff to resolve his erstwhile dilemmas about his sexual identity. Towards the end, the novel reveals that fears about his homosexuality, coupled with his guilt of betraying Allie, were the main reasons for his attempted suicide.
Nicholas Thompson, in reviewing the novel, observes that the fate of the other characters in the novel are well justified, because “these characters are ultimately here to drive Jeff’s story, ... [Sadie’s] death ... coupled with his sexual awakening with Rankin – ultimately served to help Jeff resolve the majority of his issues” (Thompson, Comics Mostly). By foregrounding Jeff’s narrative and his growth, Thompson’s review champions the didactic elements that can be learned from this novel. On the other hand, such a reading might appear problematic because it prescribes the reader to read along the dominant narrative presented in the novel. This effectively masks the inherent “power structures” and adult “ideologies” functioning within the text (Seelinger Trites, x). Furthermore, it ties up with Lydia Kokkola’s argument that the adolescent who has learnt to negotiate with these power structures is the one who is deemed mature. Jeff’s narrative thus presents the idea that an adolescent who has attained an adult sanctioned approval regarding his identity and his problems, is the one whose story gets to be told (by the adult) at the forefront.
Within the text, it is Dr. Katzrupus, an official medical authority whose opinion regarding the health and wellbeing of the adolescent gains more credence. When Jeff initially blames himself for Sadie’s suicide, Dr. Katzrupus tells him that it’s not his fault. Similarly, when Jeff was curious why Rankin engaged in sexual activities with him, Dr. Katzrupus does not indulge in further details, and advises that “the best thing to do isn’t to ask why they did it but to remind ourselves that it wasn’t our fault” (Day 38). The doctor’s advice teaches the adolescent that some sexual encounters (and partners) are not worth spending time and energy on. Jeff becomes indifferent towards his sexual partners because it is validated by his doctor.
The story of the adolescent becomes an authorial instruction on how things can come back to normal again, if the adolescent seeks help from the adults supervising them in the institution. The other characters who are unable to do so retain their status of the deviant, and are pushed to the background as foils to drive the story of the protagonist ahead. These deviant characters are not only conveniently removed from the story, but it appears that by focusing only on the story of the adolescent approved ‘healthy’ by the authorities (his psychiatrist), the novel endorses the binary between illness and health. The stories of the adolescents who cannot resolve their ‘problems’ (by themselves or with the help of adult caregivers) remain unfinished (Sadie’s) or do not deserve to be told (Rankin).
Ford, Michael Thomas. Suicide Notes, Epub Edition. Harper Collins, 2010.
Kokkola, Lydia. Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy sinners and delinquent deviants. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013.
Thompson, Nicholas. ““suicide notes”: book review”. Comics! (Mostly.), 18 Aug. 2019, comicsmostly.com/comics-mostly/2019/8/18/suicide-notes-book-review. Accessed 14 Jun. 2021.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. University of Iowa Press, 2000.
Prateeti Chowdhury is currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of English, at the University of Hyderabad, India. Her doctoral research looks at the representations of mental illness institutions in twenty-first century American YA fiction. She received her MPhil degree from Dibrugarh University, India in 2018, where she undertook a comparative study on the oral testimonies of migration during the Partition and the Holocaust. Her research interests, other than YA literature, are spatial critical studies, Partition studies, and trauma studies. When not researching, she can be found poring over YouTube, and occasionally recreating a recipe or two from the internet!