By Angela Yuen
I Am the Messenger, by Marcus Zusak, is an old book for me because I have held it and absorbed it so many times. Readers can always memorize the feelings of certain books in their hands, I think. Our favorite books, the ones that we keep and reread, have a sort of battered heft to them. Some books have older souls, I tell my friends, and they agree. The souls of books are always a joint effort; one part author, one part reader, and the old ones are the books we keep giving part of ourselves to.
I tend to reread books around the Winter and New Year season, I’ve noticed. It’s a combination of the weather and the people, old relatives and warm houses. I like the comforting repetitiveness of rereading books, though many people tell me it retracts from the experience because everything in the story is already known. Then again, the story of Ed Kennedy, the underage cabdriver in Messenger, is the sort of story that leaves you wondering how much you really know.
The gunman is useless.
I know it.
He knows it.
The whole bank knows it.
This is how Messenger starts, in Ed’s voice. Ed receives cards in the mail that have locations or clues on them alluding to certain people he must carry a message to. Sometimes the messages are clear and simple to deliver, other times they require everything he can muster to give. Through his interactions he is affected emotionally and physically, breaking down the peaceful routines of his daily life. Markus Zusak’s writing is an extraordinary mess of narrative, occasional second person POV, poetry, and sarcasm. His characters have rough edges and his words are graphic. This is one of Zusak’s earlier works, before his explosive success with The Book Thief, and the book hit its thirteen-year mark last month in January.
Writing for myself, and not for school, is still new to me. Instead of writing for an assignment, I’m writing because there is something in my gut that I want to express. But words are a tricky thing. I’m always trying to convey something that can’t be conveyed, to find a flow of words that matches my thoughts. And I think maybe what I really want to write about is quietness, the things people keep inside and don’t say. Ed is forced to listen for other people’s silence, and he’s forced to understand it. Within every person’s own regrets and wishes, what is it they really need? Ed is the messenger. He has to care.
I’ve found that life tends to work in retrospect. In the moment everything goes too fast. For me, writing is a way of looking back, of reliving and accepting. Growing older is chaotic and Ed is lonely – the most difficult thing for him is not helping other people but solving himself. He is lost in the constancy of his life, tiptoeing around the faded memories of an alcoholic father who died. He cracks and he copes, carrying unrequited love, the cynicism of his town, and the uncomfortable desire to be a more meaningful person around with him. Figuring out who he wants to be is terrifying and hard. The whole world moves on while he remains a cab driver, the kid who stays behind in a washed up town and needs little. His friends, his mother, the people around him – they all seem to be just like him. At first glance, at least. By receiving the cards, the way he looks at the world is flipped inside out; he doesn’t just see people, he sees the daily battleground, how each person is uniquely sad and happy and scared. It’s this gradual metamorphosis of understanding the complexity of people that draws me to this book, and it reminds me of my own writing process, of looking back and taking everything in again in a new light.
In that sense, this book is a real coming of age novel. Ed makes a comment in the book which has stuck with me over time, and especially so in the last couple of months. He acknowledges who he is, who he has been, and who he will be – not necessarily anyone extraordinary, but utterly himself, and he refuses to run from it:
It’s the person, not the place. If you left here, you’d have been the same anywhere else. If I ever leave this place, I’ll make sure I’m better here first.
As a high-schooler, I’m surrounded by people who are desperate to leave. I’m also surrounded by people who regret many things and run away from problems, who dream big and have to grapple with rejection. But happiness doesn’t come when you go somewhere else or become someone else. When you run away, you bring yourself with you.
I Am the Messenger has one of the most unusual and creative endings I have ever read. It’s hard to grapple with, and it doesn’t give you much closure. There is a moment within the story where the book becomes hyper-aware that it is a book. Perhaps that’s why I always come back to these books, why I like looking at these stories in retrospect. The words on the pages remain the same, but my relationship with the characters are ever changing and ever growing. And I don’t need every little thing answered anymore – tiny plot-holes are okay sometimes, I think. We get to fill up the ambiguity with our own interpretations; we get to talk about it with other people and speculate and wonder. There’s something special about that.
This book teaches us something that everyone knows but rarely accepts. That is: anyone, even the people who live stagnant lives and believe they are unimportant, can matter profoundly. You don’t have to be the most successful or the most beautiful to do small things and make small changes. It is an appropriate lesson now, especially with the protests taking over America. It’s not the time to accept history repeating itself, and these are the stories that are blazing loud and clear. These are the stories we must continue to look at and reread and re-hear; bring them forward and fill up the plot holes ourselves. Fiction is only fiction, but the way we learn to empathize and make changes through it translates into reality. That’s why I love reading. That’s why I love writing.
The books of our lives often cross over into the things that matter to us the most. As I reread I Am the Messenger last year around the time of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, I saw myself and my friends start to care about a world issue beyond our immediate circumstances for the first time. I saw my Facebook and twitter feeds blow up with anger, and I saw people who had not cared about much before start to form their own opinions and thoughts. It’s rather surreal as a teenager to witness that process, and go through it myself. Ed Kennedy reminds me to keep caring, no matter how big or small the situations are, whether it’s just one person or a whole town or a whole country. Some people tell me that we use books and fiction as a way to escape reality, but I disagree. A lot of the time fiction is just a vision of what we would like the world to be. When I reread and look in retrospect, I’ve discovered that it reveals much more about reality than it hides.
Angela Yuen is currently a student attending Leland High School in San Jose, California. She is passionate about reading and writing and hopes to become a young adult author or editor one day.