Written by Lauryn Smith
Reaching the next stop on the my-life-through-books tour required me to trek through some muddy waters. No, quicksand. Maybe lava?
You might think that the new shelter-in-place era we now live in would be prime time to work on personal projects and accomplish non-work-related goals. Well, not when you are a recovering perfectionist. Self-doubt, fear of failure, and questioning whether you, of all people, have anything to say that is worth hearing all make procrastination quite appealing. Amirite?
But Sam Laura Brown has re-inspired me to overcome my subconscious self-sabotaging habits, at least in terms of blogging. In fact, I thought I might switch things up beginning with this post and instead of merely reviewing a book, also reflect on how it applies to my life, what it meant to me personally, and so on. It may get a bit stream-of-conscious-y. Who knows. Ready? Here goes.
Let’s start by talking about Zits. (I could so easily make a joke about stress breakouts here but shall refrain.) Zits is the main character in Sherman Alexie’s novel “Flight.” He is a biracial teenager with Native American ancestry living in the Pacific Northwest. What’s more, he is a self-described “time-traveling mass murderer.”
Written in the first person, “Flight” drops readers into the mind of Zits as he struggles with feelings of extreme shame and alienation. We observe Zits try to endure one negative foster family experience after another and see him turn to drink, drugs, and stealing.
Unable to temper his dislike for his current foster family, Zits performs an act of aggression and is taken to jail, where he meets Justice, a young white boy who befriends Zits and eventually instills in him a new way of thinking, one that glorifies violence.
One day Zits finds himself pulling out guns in a bank as part of a planned mass shooting, an effort to initiate a modern Ghost Dance. In the ensuing excitement, Zits perceives that he has been shot in the head, which sends him back in time. After leaving the present, he experiences firsthand the plights of various people in a range of circumstances.
Despite being written over 10 years ago, the vignettes within “Flight” reflect many of the same societal issues we struggle with today. For example, one of the characters he transforms into is an FBI agent in Idaho amidst the Indigenous Rights Now! (IRON) movement. The scenario echoes the Black Lives Matter movement of today. The agent and his partner are in opposition to the movement, and when they are presented with an IRON member who refuses to divulge any relevant information, the partner shoots him dead. Zits persona shoots the corpse, effectively making him a participant in the murder.
After a series of these involuntary flashbacks and body hops, Zits lands back in his own body in the middle of the bank with yet another new perspective on life, one in which he questions his place, and the place of violence, in the world.
If “Flight” sounds pretty heavy, that is because it is. But Alexie’s conversational writing style, which incorporates both humor and a touch of crassness, makes the heaviness a bit less overwhelming (though to be honest, the text might be too crude for some). It was written in 2007, but the topics Alexie examines, from racial inequality to gun violence, are just as relevant now, perhaps even more so.
Books like “Flight” promote awareness of and invite discussion into subjects that might otherwise be uncomfortable to talk about openly. The way in which Alexie incorporates topics like adolescence, family, and morality makes these themes more accessible to a wider audience. I could easily see this book being used in a Socratic Seminar in a middle school or high school English class, for instance. If we really want to work toward a genuinely compassionate and inclusive society, meaningful discussion among young people is a requisite, and “Flight,” which is largely geared toward adolescents, can be an avenue for this.
Zits is basically an antihero. He is young and impressionable, and much of his life experience has led him to believe that he is an unlovable misfit. When we are introduced to him, he is prone to taking his anger out on those around him. But from his “flights,” during which he is forced to witness rather than react, he learns that violence has dire consequences.
That probably sounds obvious. But sometimes a lived experience is needed to truly internalize such understandings. By witnessing all that happens to Zits’ through his eyes, readers are able to vicariously experience varied contexts of violence and, hopefully, walk away from the book with renewed appreciations for life and love, just like Zits does.
Speaking of life and love, since I have lately been hyperaware of the less-than-ideal ways in which women are portrayed in many aspects of life, here is a quick side note.
During his flights through history, Zits only experiences male-centric scenarios. Normally, I would find a way to rationalize this, but the themes in “Flight” are pretty gender neutral, so I cannot help but see the book as contributing to the underrepresentation of women in media. Yes, the story is told from a male teenage perspective. But couldn’t a female character have been given a role in at least one of the flashbacks? The book’s only memorable female character is a maternal figure who appears at the very end of the story, which once again reinforces the notion of women as temperate, unobtrusive figures destined to nurture and nothing more. I suppose that I cannot fault Alexie for using a traditional family model to illustrate Zits’ transformation (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say his revelation). It is classic. Very Rockwellian.
Now, the grad student in me says that I should also talk about the somewhat recent sexual harassment allegations against Alexie since they caused some uproar at the time, with many people advocating against reading his work and pulling his books from library shelves. It is true that book and author are inextricably linked, but I am choosing to treat the two as separate and give THE BOOK the attention it arguably deserves (though I also feel that an author’s background adds depth to the discussion of a book, which is why I am mentioning the allegations at all). Alexie has since addressed the allegations, but if you choose not to read his work due to his #MeToo involvement, I completely respect that decision.
On that note, I should begin to wrap things up, lest my new style experiment result in a novel of my own.
Let’s take a lesson from “Flight” and end on a hopeful note. I mentioned earlier that shame is part of Zits’ identity. Alexie uses “Flight” to demonstrate that shame in a person is an indication that change is possible. What I mean is that Zits’ core being is not violent or hateful, though that is what he has been exposed to most and has thus internalized. On top of that, he is acutely aware of the racism and stigma attached with being Native American. But he is unaware of or less concerned with how the past affects and informs the present. Then one day, a life-altering event shakes him out of his reverie of shame, despair, and distrust and puts him on a path of empathy, both for himself and for others. He becomes more outwardly focused and less self-absorbed and bent on (self-)destruction.
Nothing as extreme or magical is likely to happen to us, but we can learn from the past and grow our empathy by listening to the stories of others. Even if we take just small steps, kindness toward and acceptance of ourselves and others are things worth striving for.
Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Grove Press
Published: March 28, 2007
List price: $16
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