Novel: The Messenger by Markus Zusak

AUS Paperback (2002)

The Messenger is a writer’s book at heart. While the plot is original and amusing, what I enjoyed most was Australian author Markus Zusak’s playful walk along the outermost edge of realist fiction.

Narrator Ed Kennedy is a 19-year-old cab driver with no ambition, a hopeless crush on his best friend, and steadfast but deadbeat friends. One day, when he blunders into an amateur bank robbery, something compels him to stand up and save the day. Inadvertently, he becomes a local hero.

Soon thereafter he begins receiving mysterious messages on playing cards, which propel him into the community to help total strangers—to “protect the diamonds, survive the clubs, dig deep through the spades, and feel the hearts.” Bewildered, but with nothing better to do, he obeys and starts spending his spare time sweetening the lives of the lonely, the battered and the poor, carrying out varied interventions: buying an ice cream for a lone mum, impersonating a hit man.

Slowly, we see Ed’s personal growth away from his humdrum life with his poker mates towards responsible adulthood. At the end of each day, Ed returns to his shack with his best friend (and the stinkiest dog alive), the Doorman, with a growing sense of commitment to his role as saviour. In the final part of Ed’s mission, he must look inside himself and risk everything to push himself and his friends out of their dead-end comfort zones.

But if Ed is the messenger, who has sent him, and why? It is this mystery that carries Ed, and the reader, through the book.

The story unfolds relatively prosaically, but as Ed ventures further into his mission, hints of artifice begin to glimmer at the edge of one’s consciousness. Endearingly irritable Blues Brothers-type thugs turn up out of the blue to nudge the action along, and more messages arrive for Ed with impossibly perfect timing. The author, the narrator and the characters begin to dance around each other—teasing, bickering and wondering aloud where the hell they’re all going to end up.

Mostly, this is great fun, and I enjoy being taken for a ride, albeit on something you might find in a fairground. However, like most fairground rides, the jolt you experience as the car clangs to a stop somewhat undermines the glory of your flight. Similarly, as the story mounts to its conclusion, Zusak can’t seem to help himself, opening the back door to show us all the complex latticework supporting the structure of his book. And when the secret director of Ed’s messianic crusade is finally revealed, theclang sounds, and the entire novel deflates into a single moral morsel.

Yes, the concept is clever, and it’s interesting to me as a writer, poking as it does around the borders of reality and fiction with courage and curiosity, pondering at what makes a story “true”. Nevertheless, all the characters resolve themselves in a similarly sudden, one-dimensional and moralistic way, however beautifully. One might excuse this on the grounds that The Messenger is a children’s book—or meant to be, although the plot involves marital rape, alcoholism, murder and other grim, cynical themes. Of course, it ultimately has a silver lining, but I fail to see how the book would appeal to anyone not old or jaded enough to be open to its hopelessly hopeful message.

Zusak’s prose, however, is superb, as ever. The Messenger is told in an understated conversational tone which beautifully sets off the sort of multi-dimensional metaphor I love in his work. He also treats us to his distinctive skill at capturing those little moments of human existence that knock the wind out of us:

When the job’s done, he smacks me on the shoulder and we run off like handsome thieves. We both laugh and run, and the moment is so thick around me that I feel like dropping into it to let it carry me.

The Messenger is also funny. Zusak writes wonderfully original, quirky action and dialogue capturing the absurdity of life. For instance, as Ed and two friends lie on the floor during the bank raid, fear doesn’t obliterate the physical discomfort of the situation:

‘I wish this bloke’d hurry up,’ Marv speaks.
‘I said that already,’ I tell him.
‘So what? I can’t make a comment of my own?’
‘Get your foot off me,’ I tell Audrey.
‘What?’ she responds.
‘I said get your foot off me – my leg’s going numb.’
She moves it. Reluctantly.
The gunman turns around and shouts his question for the last time. ‘Who’s the bastard talking?’

Markus Zusak

Zusak is better known for his later work, The Book Thief (2005), but The Messenger is also worth a read for Zusak fans. It may not be a “great” book, but it has earned its awards and our attention through its originality, its vivid characters, and its  sparkling simplicity of style. It also deserves the respect of fellow writers for being a book that reveals the innermost workings of their craft.

The Messenger was first published in 2002. Ebook available from Pan Macmillan AUS and in hardcover and paperback from Amazon UKThe Book Thief is available from Random House.

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