"Call me Zits.
Everybody calls me Zits.
That's not my real name, of course. My real name isn't important."
Part of the experience of reading is, no doubt, influenced by more than the book itself. Just as the story or atmosphere can transport the reader into a different reality, the circumstances of reading, the reality of the reader, can change the reading experience.
I'm convinced of that.
So, what happens when you read a book about a lost 17-year-old who is at the brink of a meltdown, who is filled with rage and self-loathing, who is about to commit an act of violence on innocent bystanders, the day after an 18-year-old goes on a shooting rampage in a Munich shopping centre?
While we cannot know what went on inside the head of the youth in Munich, it was hard to read Flight under the circumstances without wondering if there were any similarities between the Munich gunman and, Zits, the protagonist of Alexie's novel.
Zits, is a young man who never knew his father, who lost his mother to cancer when he was six years old and who has been homed with twenty foster families. He's half-Irish and half-Native-American, and he has more questions than answers about who he is as a person.
"Yes, I am Irish and Indian, which would be the coolest blend in the world if my parents were around to teach me how to be Irish and Indian. But they're not here and haven't been for years, so I'm not really Irish or Indian. I'm a blank sky, a human solar eclipse."
When Zits has another confrontation with yet another new pair of foster parents, he runs away, gets arrested and ends up being drawn to the persuasive character of Justice - another vengeful renegade - who offers the confused and frustrated Zits a way of making himself matter - with disastrous consequences.
Luckily for Zits, this is a novel and Alexie is a master at weaving in an element of magic which lets Zits walk in the shoes of some other individuals and in other eras throughout American history - providing an opportunity for Zits to experience the outcomes of acts of violence like the one he is about to commit and a chance to change his mind about letting his rage and numbness towards the world take control over his own persona.
Flight was a compelling read. It was a difficult read, too. Alexie doesn't shy away from writing gritty dialogue and detailing scenes of violence. And of course, it is one of those books where the realistic elements of the story outweigh the fantastic ones. I.e. where you know that everything he describes has probably happened at some time somewhere, might be happening someplace now.
And yet, for all the books focus on violence and revenge, the message is about the importance of kindness and empathy. How recognizing people and their struggle may just make change somehow.
"Who can survive such a revelation?
It was father love and father shame and father rage that killed Hamlet. Imagine a new act. Imagine that Hamlet, after being poisoned by his own sword, wakes in the body of his father. Or, worse, inside the body of his incestuous Uncle Claudius?
What would Hamlet do if he looked into the mirror and saw the face of the man who'd betrayed and murdered his father?"
As I said at the beginning, it is impossible to draw connections or seek out similarities between the Munich gunman and Zits, but this is one occasion when current events have influenced my reading experience, and when reading Flight, I could not help but ponder about how fucked up it is when a 17-year-old (or an 18-year-old as the case may be) feels that killing other people is the only way for them to engage with the world - whether it is as a means to be heard and feel that they matter or for whatever other reason.
"There's that man again, the one who told me I wasn't real.
I think he's wrong; I think I am real.
I have returned to my body. And my ugly face. And my anger. And my loneliness.
And then I think, Maybe I never left my body at all. Maybe I never left this bank. Maybe I've been standing here for hours, minutes, seconds, trying to decide what I should do."