Playlist for the Dead // by Michelle Falkoff

//published 2015//

Do you ever spontaneously agree to do something, and then later realize that maybe it wasn’t your best idea?  A while back I started using tumblr again (so addictive, and I can’t explain why), and I’m following a few book blogs there.  One of them was organizing a Traveling Book Club, wherein each participant choose a book to share, and mails it to the next person on the list.  Every month, you mail the book you were sent on to the next person until the books have gone in a complete circle.  Participants are encouraged to annotate the books as they are reading them.  Sounds fun, right??  The problem is – and I didn’t really think about this until later – I’m kind of a super old person on tumblr.  So I’m pretty sure that what I’m going to get are a bunch of angsty YA novels, probably mostly about being gay and learning to follow your heart instead of growing up.

So I sent off The Squire’s Tale on the journey, and we will see if it ever makes its way back to me.  In the meantime, I’ve received and read one book – which completely fulfilled my dire predictions.  Playlist for the Dead had an interesting concept, but devolved into a thinly-veiled polemic explanation of why we need to love gay people.  Or something.

The narrator of our story is Sam.  And in the first chapter, he discovers his best friend, Hayden – dead.  Hayden has committed suicide, and his only explanation is a playlist that he’s left for Sam, along with a note telling Sam that he’ll understand if he listens.  But Sam doesn’t understand.  He’s plagued with guilt, because the night before, he and Hayden had gone to a party where things had gone very badly.  They ended with a big fight – and that’s the last time Sam ever saw Hayden alive.

There were actually a lot of things about this book that I liked.  I felt like the aspects of the story that dealt with the aftermath of Hayden’s death were done really well.  Sam and Hayden have been best friends for years, and because they’re both kind of social misfits, they have also basically been each other’s only friends.  As Sam delves more into Hayden’s life, trying to understand why Hayden did what he did, Sam discovers that even Hayden had layers that he had never shown to Sam. I really appreciated the way that the story slowly revealed multiple people who also felt guilty about Hayden’s death, and how part of what Sam had to come to realize was that while he – and everyone else in Hayden’s life – could definitely have done more to make Hayden feel loved and accepted, in the end, suicide was Hayden’s choice alone and wasn’t anyone else’s fault.

Where the book didn’t make much sense was when it suddenly turned into a treatise for gay rights.  It wasn’t even that what Falkoff was saying was wrong or offensive – it was just that it didn’t fit into the story at all.  Hayden wasn’t gay, and his suicide had nothing to do with homosexuality.  But because someone remotely connected to Hayden was gay, a whole long section of the story turns into all about this guy and his coming out and how that distracted the person who was supposed to be at the party and set off this whole chain of events blah blah blah.  At the end of the book, instead of the epilogue being about people becoming more aware of mental health issues, bullying, signs of depression, or anything else remotely connected to suicide, it’s all about how this group of friends started a special LGBQT (bunches of other letters that I can’t remember) club and everyone has rallied ’round the various sexual preferences…  sorry, what did that have to do with Hayden again??

It was like Falkoff was telling two stories.  One, about Hayden, his struggles, and his ultimate suicide, was done well.  The other, about gay rights, was okay, but definitely more preachy and felt very shoehorned into Hayden’s part.

The other thing about this book that started solid but then got weird dealt with the main bullies in Hayden’s life – his older brother and his brother’s two best friends.  They’ve made Hayden’s life hellish for years.  As Sam is trying to learn more about what led up to the events at Hayden’s final party, bad things happen to the two best friends.  So there is this strange revenge/karma thing going on, where Sam isn’t sure if it’s just coincidence, if he (Sam) is actually doing these things (as he is super sleep-deprived and various things going on meant he could have done it and not remembered), or even if it could be Hayden’s vengeful spirit.  At first, this was an interesting aspect of the story, but when the big reveal comes about what was going on, I was left just feeling… confused.  It seemed like an extremely strange way to take that part of the tale, because once again it wasn’t really about Hayden.  He was just a coincidence.

Of course Falkoff also had to make sure to emphasize that the most horrible of all the bullies was the one whose family was super “religious” and went to church, and the reason that this bully was such an extra terrible person was because he is also a closet gay who can’t come out because that would mean losing his church scholarship.  (???  I actually don’t even know any churches that give out scholarships, especially full-ride ones to prestigious art schools, so that honestly just felt weird anyway.)  It was so unnecessary.  There was literally zero reason to make this kid go to church.  It had nothing to do with the rest of the story, it was just a way to belittle religion with no effort whatsoever to understand the genuine nuances of Christianity and homosexuality.  Instead it’s just Christians = Bad Bullies Who Hate Gays And Are Hypocrites Because They Secretly Are Gay.  Way to be open-minded.

Honestly, it was mostly ironic.  The whole story is about how Hayden felt ignored and bypassed in life… and then Falkoff keeps ignoring and bypassing Hayden and his issues in order to fit in other aspects of the story that have no real connection to Hayden.

There were things about the book that I liked.  I enjoyed the playlist part, and the connections of the music to the story.  It also felt like it helped me understand Sam and Hayden’s friendship more as well.  I really liked the part where Sam eventually talks with Hayden’s brother, and while nothing could possibly justify the horrible way Hayden’s brother treated him, I appreciated that Sam is at least able to see that there was a flip side to what was going on in their home.

In the end, the parts dealing directly with Hayden, his suicide, and the aftermath of that event were done well and handled sensitively and thoughtfully.  The other bits felt extraneous and shoehorned, as though Falkoff either needed some padding, or wanted to make sure her book got some buzz by including gay-rights issues.  For me, this was a 2.5* read.  While I appreciated a lot of what Falkoff had to say, I felt like the story really fell apart at the end with the big reveal as to what was happening with the bullies.  Combined with a lot of preaching about inclusivity, while at the same time dismissing all Christians as bigots, this book wasn’t really my cup of tea.