ALA Debrief: Markus Zusak

Mom,

i am the messengerWell, we’re back from ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas. I seem to have been the only librarian there who kind of enjoyed Vegas, although the heat was truly terrible, but I’m glad to be home nonetheless. You and I went to several programs together and a whole bunch separately, so hopefully we’ll have a few thoughts to post to this blog, but the very first thing I wanted to get up is about Markus Zusak’s speech at the Margaret A. Edwards Award brunch.

Since I write and work for School Library Journal (which sponsors the Edwards Award), I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to the brunch and an invitation to meet Markus beforehand. He was incredibly kind and gracious and I thought his speech was lovely, discussing his development as a writer and his desire to write books that “only [he] could have written.” But the piece I want to discuss today was a brief digression that I might have missed had I not been discussing the very same issue with a friend. Zusak was talking about I Am the Messenger (or The Messenger as it’s known in Australia and as he referred to it), and he said, “I think I really screwed up the ending.” That’s a direct quote, the following is a paraphrase: “some people really got it, some people didn’t get it at all, and some people thought they got it but didn’t.”

The_Messenger_Au_CoverI’m sure you remember, but for our readers’ benefit, the ending of I Am the Messenger has Ed, our narrator, encounter an unnamed character who, it quickly becomes clear is Markus Zusak himself, who explains to Ed that he has written Ed’s story. It’s one of the more purely metafictional moments in YA fiction–it lays the ground for the final lines of the book, “I’m not the messenger at all./ I’m the message”.  And it is undoubtedly strange since nothing has really prepared us for this moment of stepping out of the story this way. At the time I read the novel the first time I was reading heavy doses of metafiction so it didn’t really even phase me. So I was surprised when a friend of mine read this for the first time and reacted negatively to it. And then I was even more surprised when Zusak got up at an awards ceremony and admitted to screwing it up!

I don’t know if this post is of interest to anyone other than myself and my unnamed friend (if he/she wants to reveal him/herself in the comments, feel free!), but I thought it was worth writing about since I don’t often hear authors so blatantly admit to faults in their writing. I know you’re a bigger Zusak fan than I am, especially of I Am the Messenger. What did you make of the ending at the time? What do you make of it now?

- Mark

3 Comments

Filed under Awards, Books, Teens

3 responses to “ALA Debrief: Markus Zusak

  1. It’s of great interest– I listened to the audiobook last year and haaaaated the ending! I don’t know if that means I got it or not. :)

    • Mark Flowers

      yeah, it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether he was saying that he just didn’t do a good enough job of making himself understood (hence the question of whether people “got it”) or whether he thought that whole concept was too muddled to be “gotten.”

  2. Yes, I am that unnamed friend who found the ending disappointing! In fact, as I was reading I was prepared to pronounce I AM THE MESSENGER Practically Perfect In Every Way (and Mark knows how difficult it is to please me)…but then the ending happened. Aside from what Zusak may or may not have been trying to say about messages and messengers (and what *is* he saying?), it ruined the literary magic to have the author show up in the book at the last minute, with no metafictional warning, announcing that the whole thing was a construction, a fabrication. I was fully transported until that moment–Ed was so beautifully real–and then I was smacked out of the story. I also felt it was an awkward mistake because of the potential hubris: given how many spiritual references there were in the book (Father Thomas, Ed’s prayers, Ed’s ruminations on Milla’s and Jimmy’s souls), a reasonable interpretation of who arranged Ed’s experiences is an intelligent designer–an all-powerful spirit. By fleshing out his characters so believably, and then taking credit for their creation, Zusak risks equating himself with God!

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