Monday, February 9, 2009

I am the Messenger by Markus Zuzak

In the world of literature for young adults, Markus Zusak is a literary writer. His book, I Am The Messenger, is a book that stands above typical young people’s fare. Zusak is a master of writing in first person. His characters are watchers, observers. This is true in I Am The Messenger and was especially effective in The Book Thief which I read earlier this year. The protagonist, Ed, in I Am The Messenger is the most ordinary of ordinary people. He is nineteen years old. He has nothing. He has done nothing. He is not a hero at all. Readers must trust Zusak in the early chapters of his books. He likes to start out slow and paint a detailed portrait of the people he wants you to know. Some complain that it is hard to get involved in the beginning of his books. But once he captures the reader, his books are impossible to put down.

After reading I Am The Messenger, I am reminded of the poet Basho’s "The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton." Similar to Basho’s style, Zusak is trundling along through his narrative when, suddenly, there is a phrase or a passage that stops the reader. You stop with a catch in your breath at the profound beauty of a particular passage. You’ve been moving along through the book as the distant reader and, in a heartbeat, you realize that he is speaking directly to you, to everyone. You read the passage again, and again, just to savour the absolute perfection of that moment. Zusak uses this technique sparingly and each time the poem is brief and simple. No flowery words or descriptions. Stripped down and sparse, in a few words he looks into our souls. One such passage in Chapter 6 of Part Three (Zusak p 224) says:

Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are.

The main character, Ed, has just witnessed a moment of happiness between a couple. These two are also not heroes. They are an immigrant family with a houseful of kids but this is a gem of a moment. There is a perception shift in Ed where he appreciates the true beauty of the love this man and woman have for each other. We, as voyeurs, experience this moment with Ed and we are transformed along with him.

Zusak is sparse with his prose too. His language is simple with few descriptive terms but he wields his chosen words so that there is no mistaking the atmosphere, the mood and the tone of each section. He chops his words. Sentence structure is of no importance especially when his character is upset or disturbed. Words and thoughts blurt out the way they do in our heads. Ed describes his feelings in staccato sentences of one word. “Cowardly. Meek. Positively weak (Zusak p.45).” His dog, Doorman, however, converses with him regularly, in italics, mostly regarding food.

Ed begins a mission, later it becomes more of a quest, when he receives a single playing card with three street addresses on it. He knows it’s important but he doesn’t know why or how. He must go to each address to watch and wait and discover what is needed there. He chooses the easier ones first. Wouldn’t we all? He accomplishes his mission of the first card, the ace of diamonds, only to receive a second playing card, the ace of clubs. The second card gives only names, not addresses and so it continues. As Ed brings each mission to completion, he becomes more real to us.

Gradually he is transformed from a rather colorless, plain young man into a sympathetic supporter, a kind friend and an avenging angel and that is only from the first playing card. Each of the addresses on the ace of diamonds contains a “diamond” of a person who must be protected, cherished.

Who is the person behind the playing cards? Who is the person sending Ed on these missions? Zusak maintains tight control over Ed and every moment in this book. The plot is as spare as the language but any more would be fluff. Everything is there that should be there. The story is told in this same tight terse fashion but it does not seem rushed or forced. The interspersing of the brief snippets of poem-like prose create moments where the reader can take their time. By then we are tied to Ed’s fate.

Zusak makes it clear from the beginning that this is not a book for very young readers. The opening line is, “The gunman is useless.” Ok, we have a gun. The word “bastard” appears a few lines lower and there are some rather stronger words within the next few pages. Interestingly, the rough language does not continue throughout the book. The book opens with everyone under considerable stress. He is setting a scene and I think by choosing this language from the start, he is saying something about the characters, the plot and the subject matter. Later in the book most of the time the strongest word is “arse.” Zusak is Australian. That explains the pronunciation.

Although I think his Book Thief is the stronger book, this one was a treasure. Zusak has something to say about how people treat people in both the best of situations and the worst. His books seem to feature people who have friends who are incredibly important in their lives and he takes us into the lives of people who are living in abject despair and hopelessness. But Zusak always delivers. When you close the cover of the book, after perhaps reading the ending three or four times, you are left with an uplifting sense of hope. Hope for the characters. Hope for the human race and hope for more books by Markus Zusak.

Zusak, Markus. I am the messenger. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2002.

14 September 2008

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