book review: I AM THE MESSENGER by Markus Zusak

Have you heard of pseudo-modernism? No? Keep reading then.

This was not an official What We Read Book Club book. I suggested that we read a second book during the month of November, specifically setting aside the weekend of 5th-6th of November, which was the BBC’s #LovetoRead weekend. They were encouraging people nationwide to curl up with a book at some point on those two days. I attempted to finish this book that weekend but perhaps was a tad optimistic! I read about 100 pages – still pretty good going.

It was positive to be intentional about reading, even though I’m an avid reader anyway, because it prompted me to encourage my children to read whilst I was setting aside my own reading time. Supposedly kids do more of what you do as opposed to what you say…

A friend loaned me this book after having raved about it when they were halfway through. I love when that happens! It’s about a 19 year-old man called Ed. He is a cab driver and plays cards with his three friends. There isn’t much else to his life and he is aware of it. He’s not really going anywhere or doing anything. Until he unintentionally foils a bank robbery and then starts receiving playing cards through his door with messages on. He suddenly becomes responsible for delivering these messages and impacting the lives of others in a significant way. The question is, who is sending these cards? SPOILER ALERT – in order to make my comments on the book I have to give away the ending otherwise I cannot fully write about the most fascinating aspect of the book! So be warned, if you wish to read it come back to this post afterwards.

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best bit

Apart from the interesting cultural and philosophical questions it raises, it was funny. It is not often that you come across a book that manages to blend a good deal of humour with intrigue and a bit of action. It was as if the author had created a world for us to observe and laugh at in an almost condescending fashion. That would also be due to other aspects like the narration, which I’ll come to.

The characters were touching and relatable but still felt unique. They weren’t intensely complex or highly unusual, but Zusak expertly avoided creating clichés.

worst bit

Sometimes the style of writing grated on me. Frequent short, sharp sentences that almost felt too contrived at times, was ever so slightly irritating. It is a minor infraction and it is one of those elements of style that I feel may be serving a purpose to an overall cultural and philosophical shift I think the book may be pointing to.

what I learned about the world

Well, this book has led me down a little path of discovery. Note, I haven’t read a great deal though I am interested to read more. My main focus has been this article from Philosophy Now titled, ‘The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond’ by Dr Alan Kirby. It was written in 2006 and the novel was published in 2002.

Yes, apparently postmodernism – meaning and knowledge is elusive, no absolute truth, Derrida and Foucault, etc. – is dead. Kirby claims we are now into the era of post postmodernism, or “pseudo-modernism”.

This is a long quote but bear with:

“In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads. There is a generation gap here, roughly separating people born before and after 1980. Those born later might see their peers as free, autonomous, inventive, expressive, dynamic, empowered, independent, their voices unique, raised and heard: postmodernism and everything before it will by contrast seem elitist, dull, a distant and droning monologue which oppresses and occludes them. Those born before 1980 may see, not the people, but contemporary texts which are alternately violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless (see the drivel found, say, on some Wikipedia pages, or the lack of context on Ceefax). To them what came before pseudo-modernism will increasingly seem a golden age of intelligence, creativity, rebellion and authenticity. Hence the name ‘pseudo-modernism’ also connotes the tension between the sophistication of the technological means, and the vapidity or ignorance of the content conveyed by it – a cultural moment summed up by the fatuity of the mobile phone user’s “I’m on the bus”.”

It’s hard to fully dissect this in the context of this novel. Basically, it left me pondering these ideas and growing in fascination regarding the times in which we live and what it means for textuality. Kirby gives the example of Big Brother as a cultural ‘text’. Without the viewers voting there would be no show; it would collapse in on itself. As opposed to a Dickens novel, which is its own entity and will remain autonomous for ages to come. It is the condescending style of narration I referred to in the ‘Worst bits’ that makes me think of Big Brother too. We observe and judge and laugh.

And so does the author of this novel, as at the close we find out who is the sender of the messages, the instigator of all of that’s gone before, and it is the author. In a strange and unsettling turn of events, the character meets the author, his life’s author, who becomes a part of the text:

“He’s written about this, I’m sure, the bastard. All of it.

As he walks up the street he pulls a small notebook from his pocket and writes a few things down.” p. 354

His words to Ed:

Of course you’re real – like any thought or any story. It’s real when you’re in it.” p.354

His motivation for creating Ed’s story:

“And if a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.” p. 353

Kirby mentions in the above quote the way in which our experience and creation of texts is now temporary and somewhat vapid.  A text message, even a webpage cannot be relied upon to stick around in its original form. I feel the style of writing in this novel also connotes that idea. The short, sharp dialogue of a digital generation. The surface skimming interaction of ‘friends’ that might not really know you as friends should.

There are many allusions to literary texts gone before, specific authors named, but subtle allusions too, as if he is implying that our current stories are vividly impacted by what has been penned previously. Though it depends on our engagement with them – note that Ed is a committed reader!

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Guess the allusion? New game show idea…

If I write too much about this, you might get bored, so I’d rather leave it there for you to ponder yourself, if interested. If you read anything of use or have your own thoughts do comment or go to my Facebook page to write a visitor post!

what impacted me

Millenials have been described as narcissistic and lazy and it’s as if the author is trying to present a life where millenials have a positive impact, promote community, and give back to the world in a personal and real way. Kirby talks about the anxiety of a generation that can know so much about the world, about the huge things that are going wrong, and yet needs to watch a TV programme about how to clean their house. We are told we can do so much, say so much, achieve so much… but to the point that it’s overwhelming and we can end up doing not much at all.

Like Ed and his friends. This book is a powerful encouragement that we can bring a positive message to the world, or just to one or two or three people, to those close to us and to the stranger – and each message, no matter how small, is important.

“You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.” Alan Kirby

“And that’s when I realise… I’m not the messenger at all. I’m the message.” p. 357

How we live can say a lot more than our words can and I feel challenged to put less words out into a digital void and more into real people and a form that will last.

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2 comments

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  1. bookdrblog

    I have had this on my wish list for a while but can’t decide whether or not to read it! I didn’t think the Book Thief was as great as everyone else did so I don’t know how I will feel about this.

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