After reading quite a bit of historical fiction as of late, my interest in Fantasy Literature is resurfacing, and so I began reading The Fantastic by Tzvetan Todorov a few nights ago. I did not think that Todorov’s book would particularly connect to Markus Zusak’s novel I Am the Messenger until I came across the following definitions of “Fantastic” Literature:
Castex, in Le Conte Fantastique en France, writes: “The fantastic… is characterized… by a brutal intrusion of mysery into the context of real life.” Louis Vax, in L’Art et la Litterature Fantastiques: “The fantastic narrative generally describes men like ourselves, inhabiting a real world, suddenly confronted by the inexplicable.” Roger Caillois, in Au Coeur du Fantastique: “The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an interruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality” (The Fantastic: A Structuralist Approach to a Literary Genre, Todorov 26).
And then there’s Todorov’s definition of the Fantastic: Fantastic literature is literature in which “the ambiguity is sustained to the very end of the adventure: reality or dream? truth or illusion?… In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us… The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (The Fantastic, Todorov 25).
I love this language, which sets Todorov’s definition apart from the others: the Fantastic is that hesitation experienced before the character and/or the readers really know what’s going on. In other words, we have not yet been able to discern what kind of a world we really live in. We thought we knew – but now we’ve been confronted with something that makes us question everything that we thought we understood.
This is the kind of hesitation I experienced as I read Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. As the main character Ed begins to receive playing cards through the mail, inscribed with addresses and cryptic instructions that lead him to people in need of his help, I started to feel a lot like I was back in the world of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. A seemingly ordinary man is suddenly thrown into a bizarre puzzle that turns his world into a confusing labyrinth resembling a video game more than real life. The main character becomes a lab rat, a hamster on a wheel, running for someone else’s pleasure. The question is – who? Who is it running the experiment, sending poor, lonely Ed Kennedy these cards with instructions? How are they able to keep track of his every move? And is it really a benevolent person who wants to send Ed on missions of mercy? The missions on which Ed is sent seem to be motivated by kindness and compassion: keep this lonely old woman company, help this priest revitalize his congregation, stop that drunk from traumatizing his wife and daughter. But if this mysterious person is really so kind and benevolent, why does he send two thugs to Ed’s house to beat him up? I felt a little bit lost throughout the novel as to what was really going on.
The strange thing about Ed (and the rest of the characters in this novel as well) is that while they think this situation is a bit odd, they ultimately just shrug their shoulders and accept the bizarre situation. Ed doesn’t spend too much time wondering about who is sending him these playing cards – and even less time actually trying to find out. He just gets on with the business of following the instructions on the cards, “delivering messages” to the lost and lonely people around town who need a little prodding to find their way through difficult life situations. It’s not that I don’t admire Ed’s willingness to minister to the needs of these people, and the concept certainly makes for a good novel in the end – but all the plot points line up a little bit too neatly without a satisfying explanation. It’s as though Ed takes a look at the playing cards and suddenly understands what the author wants him to understand, the purpose that the author has devised for these playing card messages. That leaves a big plot hole, to be honest… how does Ed see a list of addresses and jump to the conclusion that he is meant to help the people who live at these locations? Where does he get this explanation?
If we set aside these questions and the plot holes that they create, though, this is actually a great novel. It’s not quite as life-changing as Zusak’s Printz Award-winning The Book Thief, and certainly not as polished, but entertaining and moving nonetheless. It’s interesting to see the way that Zusak is starting to play with language and metaphors in this novel, which precedes the incomparably-crafted The Book Thief – if you take a look at the language and structure of both novels, you can observe his development as a writer. Between the two, he jumps from a few off-beat descriptions and metaphors that make I Am the Messenger an interesting text to the beautiful metaphors and lyrical language in The Book Thief. But I Am the Messenger is by no means so far behind the other that it cannot be enjoyed. I still ended up engrossed in the story, once I decided to set aside my own questions about the questionably-benevolent person sending Ed those playing cards and just get on with the business of the story. I think most readers will really enjoy this novel – and if you haven’t yet read The Book Thief, then I suggest that you read this novel first. I Am the Messenger will doubtless seem of an even higher quality if you can’t compare it to Zusak’s finest work.
This post participates in my YA Aussie Novels Reading Challenge. If you're interested, check out my other reviews of Australian Young Adult novels, and come back to catch more reviews by authors Melina Marchetta, Markus Zusak and Sonya Hartnett that I have planned for the upcoming weeks.