Zits, the Time Traveler (and Powell’s)

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The Longest Preface Ever to a Book Review

When we went through Portland, we spent some time at the biggest new and used bookstore in the world. I’m not even sure if that’s a true statement, but when you wander around Powell’s City of Books, it sure feels like it’s the biggest.

Whenever I visit, I’m always amazed that it’s still around, still not bought out, or squeezed out, by a corporate book peddler. Instead, it’s mushroomed into a big chunk of downtown Portland. And it’s sent off spores, with annexes all over town devoted to such things as cookbooks and technical manuals. It also has a great alternative to Amazon, a more soulful online service that respects the reader and the book. I encourage you to try it: powells.com

Over the years, I’ve seen nearly all my favorite independent bookstores go out of business, thanks to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders. I’m not angry or sad about it. Change happens. Industries always mutate and transform, just like everything else.

I miss leisurely perusing used bookstores. But I also like that I don’t have to wander through a dozen bookstores to find something obscure. Or wait a few weeks while a special order finally arrives in whatever condition the postal gods allow. Now I can just do a search on Amazon or Powell’s and there it is.

This is especially nice if you live in Japan. New books in English are about double the price in the US, and they’re mostly of the Michael Crichton/Danielle Steele variety. There are three English language used bookstores in Tokyo that I know of. As a matter of fact, one is right in my neighborhood. It’s not bad. But I never find anything that I specifically want. I’ll go in there when I have a free hour and maybe buy something that I would never buy in the US. But my hunger for literature is so great that I’ll eat whatever scraps the expats before me have left behind.

So that’s why when I was in Powell’s I bought a bagful of books. A nice thick stack that I’ve been gnawing through since I’ve returned. I just finished the first one and here’s my review.

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Finally, the Actual Review

Flight by Sherman Alexie

I love reading Sherman Alexie. His protagonists are angry and funny, and barely sympathetic. He’s not afraid to experiment with narrative, and the experimentation never gets in the way of the story. He also writes hilarious essays on basketball.

Sherman Alexie hadn’t written a novel in ten years. He’s mostly a short story writer. The short stories often fit together into an overarching narrative. And his novels read like a series of short stories. Flight is a hallucinogenic action-packed series of visual episodes, patched together into a novel.

Sure there’s a single main character throughout the novel. But the 15 year old orphan does a bit of time-traveling as well as finding himself inhabiting different people. The time-traveling teenager, named Zits, is a mess of angst, undirected frustration, shame, bitterness, hurt, and lots of acne. He’s been in over 20 foster homes, was abandoned by his dad at birth, and abandoned by his mom when she died of cancer.

The rage and alienation that Zits feels leads to the moment before or after a horrific act that ends in his death. Most of the reviews that I read about the novel paint it as the boy acquiring redemption through inhabiting different perspectives via time travel, and thus preventing the act. But the cozy sit-com happy ending just doesn’t fit into the awfulness of his crappy life. It seemed like a glib way of ending the story. Did Alexie lack the courage to continue the cynical hopeless voice of the teenager, and bring his life to its logical conclusion?

I refuse to believe this. I suspect that in the last moments of his death, Zits hallucinates a fantasy ending, a delusional alternate life. The main reason I believe this is because he befriends the most unlikeliest of characters, a Nietzsche quoting pale white boy he meets in jail who rescues him from a halfway home. Inexplicably, Zits, who doesn’t let anyone get close to him, opens up to this boy, is armed by him, and then told to shoot up a bank.

Clearly, the white boy is a projection of his mind, one of the many voices in Zits head. He schizophrenically inhabits the minds of various people throughout history, including his imagined father. They compete for his attention in the last jumbled moments of his life. And they all represent aspects of his shattered self.

But then again, it could just be the happy ending that Alexie intended. And it doesn’t matter if it was real or not, as long as that’s the way Zits experienced it, trying to bring peace to a short unpeaceful life.

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