Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Before The Book Thief, which is probably Markus Zusak’s most well-known book, he published I Am the Messenger (there was also Fighting Ruben Wolfe, but I didn’t ever have a chance to read it – I just sort of saw it on a shelf at the bookstore I worked at about a billion times and thought, “I should pick this up, it’s right here, how hard would that be?” except I never did). I read I Am the Messenger first, and there was a small write-up in the back of my copy about The Book Thief, so I picked that up afterwards. The two books, I kind of found them a little night and day from one another. I don’t think I would have guessed that the same author had written both of them, and that’s sort of rare sometimes. It always seems like an author has at least a little bit of a recognizable style, but the form, content, and narrative of these two Zusak books were just so radically different that it was like reading out of two different places. I liked that. It doesn’t happen very often. And I’m a little curious to see what his earlier books are like, and whether there’s a pattern there or if everything is different from the last book

Ed Kennedy, protagonist in Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger, is a funny and empathetic character who lies about his age to get a job as a cabdriver and thinks that “sex should be like math”. Life is pretty underwhelming for Ed, until he begins receiving instructions in the mail, written on the back of playing cards. Ed embarks on a strange four -part journey, following people and finding addresses through instructions he receives from an invisible and unknowable source. These messages instruct him to watch the actions of a family through the window of their home, to visit an elderly woman on a regular basis, and to help a teenage girl find her confidence. The instructions are not as straightforward as they initially seem, and Ed is forced to confront his own values and how far he is willing to go in a game he doesn’t exactly know the rules for.

Ed’s delivery is engaging enough to keep the reader turning pages until the end, where the reward of finding the answer to the mystery makes the process worth it. Zusak blurs the meanings of messenger and message, process and ending, crafting vibrant teen characters and a compelling story along the way. Ed’s language creates his character, and his way of talking transmits more than plot, allowing characters to hang around even after the story ends. There are some really recognizable and poignant scenes throughout that seem to get young adult experience and voice right, and they stick out of a sometimes plodding and convoluted narrative to show that character really does drive a lot of literature for teens.

To choose between this book and The Book Thief, it’s really a difficult decision to make. They are so different. This is realistic fiction at its finest, while The Book Thief has a historical/WWII/Holocaust/experimental narration/unidentifiable genre/crossover literature thing going on. But together, both highlight the skill and importance of a novelist like Zuzak, who can write so radically different across to novels in the same category (young adult literature). And his writing, and the variation between novels, keeps me wondering, “What’s next?”

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