In my (imaginary) book, Markus Zusak wins the award for coolest ideas ever. His first novel, which happened to make #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, is The Book Thief?a book narrated by Death. Let me repeat: Death is the narrator of this book. And it isn't Death waxing poetic about his average day, no, Zusak has Death narrating a foster girl's life as she survives in Munich during World War II. Brilliant. Absolutely. Freaking. Brilliant.
I Am the Messenger sounded slightly less promising: Ed Kennedy is a cabdriver who is, at age nineteen, pretty much set for a very menial, boring life. He interrupts a bank robbery and his life changes when he begins to receive playing cards in the mail. Aces, specifically, with writing on them. Each card has three pieces of information-names or addresses or some type of code. Ed is supposed to help everyone on the card? “or else.” His helping both puts his life in danger and introduces him to some really touching people. An elderly woman who lives in the past and believes Ed is her husband. A girl who runs races barefoot. And, two brothers who love nothing more than to kick the crap out of each other.
The idea was pretty routine?guy with boring life becomes hero. Snore. Bet he gets the girl in the end anyway. It was only my faith in Zusak's brilliance that kept me going. Ed was a compelling guy, but he was no Narrator Death. What kept me reading were the flashes of downright breathtaking writing that Zusak pops into his novel every few pages.
I suppose he'll [Doorman] die soon. I'm expecting it, like you do for a dog that's seventeen. There's no way to know how I'll react. He'll have faced his own placid death and slipped without a sound inside himself?.I'll wait for him to wake up, but he won't. I'll bury him. I'll carry him outside, feeling the warmth turn to cold as the horizon frays and falls down in my backyard. For now, though, he's okay. I can see him breathing. He just smells like he's dead.”
He blends beautiful “placid death” prose with humor and the reader never really quite knows what to expect-except that it'll be well written. “I also fear that nothing really ends at the end. Things just keep going as long as memory can wield its ax, always finding a soft part in your mind to cut through and enter.” Yes.
The ending is either the most kick-ass ending ever, or it's an ending so cheat-y it makes the “I woke up and it was all a dream” ending look like the most original conclusion ever set to print. I'm not sure which way I lean. On one hand, I didn't see it coming, and in retrospect it seems like the only possible ending (which Flannery O'Connor says is exactly how a good ending should be). On the other hand, when I read the last few pages I said, and I transcribe for you here, “Wait, what? What? Wait. Seriously? What?? No?” I flipped back a few pages and reread. “Seriously? He's? What? What the?Dude.” But I'm still thinking about it, so apparently I'm on the “most kick-ass ending ever” side of the playground.
One thing is for sure: Zusak takes a risk. It's the same risk one takes when allowing Death to narrate a novel about the Holocaust. Was it too big for a thirty-year-old writer? Maybe. But, I've discovered that there's little more in this world I like than a writer who is willing to take a calculated risk-not for the sake of being experimental or non-mainstream or to challenge the norm, but because sometimes a novel needs a little Death. Or a little Ed Kennedy. Zusak says, “No matter what anyone ever says about that book [The Book Thief], whether good or bad, I know it was the best I could do, and I don’t think a writer can ask for more of himself than that.” Fair enough.