The Tragedy Paper: A Review

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBanDuncan has two things on his mind when he returns to the Irving school for his senior year: what “treasure” has been left by the previous occupant of his new dorm room, and the tragedy paper–the school’s version of a senior thesis, brainchild of Mr. Simon, and an all-consuming examination of tragedy in its varied forms.

If it weren’t for those two things, Duncan is pretty sure he could be happy about the start of his senior year as long as he doesn’t get Tim Macbeth’s room. It was bad enough being a party to the disaster at last year’s Game, Duncan has no desire to relive it by occupying Tim’s former room.

But of course he gets Tim’s room. And instead of an interesting treasure, Tim has left a stack of CDs. On first glance the CDs seem worthless–a waste of time, even, in an already busy year. Except these CDs aren’t just music or a last-minute effort as leaving something behind. No.

Instead Tim has left behind a chronicle of his own arrival at the school eight months earlier–an instant outsider both at the school and in life because he is an albino–and his beautiful, messy and ultimately disastrous friendship with the popular Vanessa. Chronicling his own downfall and explaining Duncan’s actual or perceived role in the final moments, Tim hopes Duncan can appreciate the rarity of this treasure and it’s ultimate value not just as an explanation but as the substance of Duncan’s own tragedy paper in The Tragedy Paper (2013) by Elizabeth LaBan.

The Tragedy Paper is LaBan’s first novel.

Set at an elite, quirky boarding school in New York, The Tragedy Paper has a certain exotic quality right from the beginning. Early on, Tim wonders if the normal rules have stopped applying to his life–that vague sense of chaos lingers throughout the story as Duncan and Tim approach the explanation of what brought both young men to this moment.

The majority of the story is told in Tim’s narration, through the CDs. Duncan’s own story, as he listens to the tapes, is a very obvious framing device but Duncan is guileless and interesting enough with his own guilt and frustration that it works. Tim is a well-written, likable character even in the midst of his terrible decisions throughout the plot. Sadly, Vanessa (and Duncan’s own love interest) are very one-dimensional, especially given comparisons to the more developed characters of Tim and even Duncan.

LaBan’s writing expertly evokes the beauty and menace of a snowy wilderness. The pacing of the story is also well-done building tension as Duncan works through all of Tim’s CDs as well as moving through his own senior year at the Irving school. While not the best story (the ultimate tragedy might even be anti-climactic coming from a narrator whose name is Tim Macbeth) LaBan does create a wonderful setting–so much so, in fact, that at times I wished the book’s focus was more on the school and its strange tragedy paper and its entertaining teachers like Mr. Simon.

Ultimately, being a book about tragedy, there was no way for The Tragedy Paper to become anything but, well, a tragedy. On the other hand the actual events that culminate in Tim’s so-called downfall were so easily avoided that the final outcome felt like a waste. There were so many points where things could have gone differently that it became painfully frustrating to watch Tim wend his way toward failure and heartbreak.

Happily readers to get to see Duncan at least reach a better end as his story moves beyond the tragedy. By comparison Tim’s story cuts short before any kind of resolution is reached and readers are left to wonder what might be next for him. The Tragedy Paper is beautifully written and completely immersive–it certainly marks LaBan as an author to watch. However the ending ultimately made the book as a whole deeply unsatisfying.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Looking for Alaska by John Green, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, Fracture by Megan Miranda, The Wessex Papers by Daniel Parker, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

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