Saturday, March 19, 2011

Flight

The semester schedule has really put a dent in my reading, not to mention my posting. I’m hoping I can at least get through a couple of things this week before it is back to the grindstone.

First up is Flight, a young adult novel by Sherman Alexie that has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for a couple of years. I don’t really read a lot of young adult fiction, and, on top of that, I’ve also found that I have liked Alexie’s films more than I have his fiction. When I read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a couple of years ago, I enjoyed the few stories I had read before, but the book as a whole didn’t really impress me.

That said, I think Flight works very well. The novel opens with an epigraph from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, “Po-tee-weet”: a bird’s sound that chirps along no matter how good or bad the events and thus mocks our sense of some controlling, caring power that shapes events. And, as in Vonnegut, violence cannot be solved from above but through only through human determination. Alexie plays off of Vonnegut’s structure as well: the multi-racial teenager Zits travels to different points in time, but rather than visiting other moments in his own time-line, he inhabits the bodies of others throughout history.

In doing so, Alexie ties contemporary violence and racial anger to its history without oversimplifying the connection. More importantly, he has a knack for complicating character(s) so that readers can simultaneously understand and even sympathize with the events that drive people to violence while also maintaining our responsibility for our violence and the need to overcome it.

Flight is the type of book I would like more teenagers to read for pleasure (to the extent that any teenagers read for pleasure any more). I’m using the term “pleasure” here loosely, as the issues and events of the novel are by no means “enjoyable” in the usual sense of the term, but I think it is generally true of aesthetic pleasure—and especially literary pleasure—that it cannot be simply reduced to happy thoughts or feelings. Here, Zits has been shunted from one foster home to another, and Alexie, as in much of his other work, is concerned with the way violence (racial and otherwise) perpetuates itself through history, often in intimate ways. Some people might see this as a bit “heavy” for teenagers, but Alexie makes a good case for why teenagers need exactly this kind of book: it is a time in life when most people feel disempowered and angry, and writing that takes those feelings seriously, without condescension, is something to value.