The Tragedy Paper Summary

Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy Paper

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The Tragedy Paper Summary

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American author and journalist Elizabeth LaBan’s debut young adult novel The Tragedy Paper (2013) tells the story of Tim Macbeth, a seventeen-year-old albino who has recently begun attending the upscale Irving School. The motto at the school is, “Enter here to be and find a friend.” The hope of making friends is not in Tim’s mind. An albino, he obviously looks different and must wear special glasses to avoid damaging his eyes in the sun. He prefers to stay inconspicuous as he completes his senior year. As he tries to go through his daily life unnoticed, he finds himself drawn to Vanessa Sheller, the girlfriend of the most popular boy in school. Tim is taken by surprise when he finds that Vanessa is attracted to him in return. Concerned about her social life, she does not want anyone to know about her interest in Tim. They begin to develop a secret romantic relationship. Also of concern to them is the “Tragedy Paper,” a type of senior thesis required by the school’s most demanding teacher.

The story is told from Tim’s viewpoint and also from Duncan’s viewpoint during his senior year (the year after Tim’s). Duncan is close to discovering the truth about Tim and Vanessa. Forbidden love and the implications of keeping secrets emerge as themes in The Tragedy Paper as the story unfolds. Duncan’s story is presented in the present while parts of the story from his perspective come from CDs that were left in his room. The CDs result from an Irving School tradition that requires the previous year’s seniors to leave behind a “treasure” in the room for the following year’s senior. The treasure can be a material thing, an animal, or pretty much anything else. In the case of Duncan, the CDs that were left by Tim cause their lives to connect. Additionally, Duncan has been haunted by a tragedy since the previous year.

Duncan is involved in all the senior class traditions including not only the Tragedy Paper and the treasure, but also in the annual senior prank. Tim’s CDs leave a story for Duncan to uncover. Duncan viewed the CDs as an insignificant gift, but as Tim’s voice speaks to him via the CDs, Duncan realizes that what he has received is actually a Tragedy Paper in the form of Tim’s story and the lessons Tim learned and can share with him. Tim’s story takes Duncan back to times before the events of the previous year. Duncan, while not the main character of the book, provides third person narration between the CDs, setting the tone of the novel and allowing readers to become privy to a story that, perhaps, was meant only for Duncan’s ears. This literary device has led to comparisons with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why in which a high school student commits suicide and explains the thirteen reasons why she did so in the form of an audio diary that she sent to friends prior to her death.

Tim’s narrative is largely focused on his relationship with Vanessa and the way his feelings for her lead him to make poor decisions in his life, including some that could endanger his health. Duncan’s narrative, meanwhile, is concerned with his first love and how he is dealing with the guilt he feels due to an incident involving Tim and Vanessa the previous year. Also significant is the senior prank, or game, in which the seniors plan an event behind the backs of the teachers. Tim’s senior game is an outing that ends in tragedy. Tim and Vanessa mature as time goes on; they focus more on goals and objectives than on things that are significant in their lives in the present. Their relationship grows out of mutual needs. Vanessa needs someone to love her in ways that her current boyfriend is not able to. For Tim, just having someone who wants to be around him is sufficient motivation for a relationship. He is happy to have a romance of any type.

Publishers Weekly points to the varying narrative voices as a strong point in LaBan’s novel. “Narrative transitions to Duncan’s third-person viewpoint are occasionally jarring; like Duncan, readers will likely find Tim’s senior year trials more interesting. As the relationship between the two characters becomes clearer, however, Duncan’s tale conveys greater dramatic resonance. A playful element infuses the story as tragic themes described in English class play out in the characters’ dramas, adding texture to this strong debut.”