Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

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WataMote: No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!

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If you live under a rock, you’re probably impressed by Family Guy‘s and South Park‘s ‘dark’ humor. They show you people suffering, dying and cursing. They expect you to laugh because people are dying, suffering and cursing. You’re supposed to be shocked that the creators don’t mind putting these characters though such a pain, but that’s not a major achievement. Terrorists do it all the time, but it doesn’t make them comedians.

A truly dark comedy is not that one avoids that darkness. It’s one that forces us to confront the darkness of it and still laugh. Even Borderlands, where the whole joke is that everyone thinks dying is a joke has insight into violence and how we perceive it. It’s an exaggeration of the flippant treatment most video games have for violence. Likewise, WataMote is an anime that stares into the eyes of the abyss that is being socially retarded

WataMote is a dark comedy. It’s far darker than any so-called ‘for adult’ cartoons from the West. It doesn’t create a bunch of punchlines and try to make the premise fit the jokes. It’s aware of the how crippling Tomoko’s situation is, and it tries to find humor among all the darkness. It uses humor not to downplay the darkness, but as a means of coping.

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Shyness is cute when you look at it from the outside, but so is a panda bear caged in a zoo. Tomoko has the privileges of the Western world, such as running water and food. How much of a consolation is it when you have no way to relate to the world?

Human beings are social creatures. Isolation is one of the worst type of punishment you can bring on one. That’s where solitary confinement comes from. Without feedback from others to keep us in reality, it can feel like it’s slipping away from us. A similar process can happen with sensory deprivation.

This is what happens to Tomoko. There is a gross contrast between how she views herself and the world, and how it really is. The world outside is not very hostile. In high school, the popular kids are too busy having fun to bully you. People will talk to you if you initiate. At worst, they’ll be indifferent.

Indifference isn’t harmful in and of itself. It doesn’t target you. When that’s the only feedback you get, it becomes scary. Tomoko barely spends any time in the real world. We spend most of the episodes inside her head. In her inner monologues, she talks fast, with a steady pace and a hard voice. She’s full of energy and life.

Then she opens her mouth and barely a word comes out. The people often react in confusion. You can’t expect them to react in any other way to a person who can barely utter a phrase. Since it’s not complete approval, Tomoko’s dualistic worldview sees it as negative and she runs away.

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That dualistic worldview is another aspect of being a social retard. Tomoko sees things in black and white. There are popular kids, and losers like her. In her eyes, Yuu turned from a loser geek to a ‘popular slut’, although all we see is that Yuu developed breasts and dyed her hair. Tomoko tries a little to fit in, and when it doesn’t work she throws the bathwater with the baby.

The absurdity of social anxiety is that it makes you fail in basic, day-to-day interactions. Tomoko’s failures wouldn’t bother and otherwise well-adjusted person. People say embarassing shit all the time. Most of them say so many things that one failure doesn’t bother them. Tomoko always bets all her money on one single moment.

The comedy comes from the darkness itself, from how absurd it is. We’re talking about a barrier that doesn’t exist physically. Nothing prevents Tomoko from talking with people but herself. She’s fighting a shadow. Seeing a person fight something invisible is both sad and funny at the same time.

Sometimes the comedy is just from Tomoko’s failures. Thankfully, the creators are imaginative enough. They make these realistic failures, rather than inserting a poop joke or a sex joke like a lot of Western comedy does. There is also a powerful use of silence. It’s another way of pointing out the joke, but it lets the situation stand on its own. Besides, it’s a more realistic reaction to absurdity. Something absurd is something we don’t know how to react to. We may need time to think it over.

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Tomoko would’ve nothing without her voice actress. It’s a brilliant performance. She has to play different characters. Tomoko is a megalomaniac world-dominator in her monologues but a coward when she speaks. Her voice actress doesn’t just capture this World Dominator in her speech, but she performs it with chinks in the armor. She exaggerates the confidence so much that it’s clear Tomoko tries hard to convince herself. As for how she does Tomoko’s stuttering, I doubt any person can replicate it so well. The fact a dub was even attempted is a brave, but probably an Icarian feat.

The character design fares a little worse. Tomoko isn’t really ugly. She looks odd and a distortion of the Moe design. Her eyes are huge, but have a darkness in them that looks frightening. Her figure or facial features aren’t special enough to cause any shock. She looks likes she’d rather listen to My Chemical Romance and Avenged Sevenfold rather than look for a boyfriend.

The state of comedy is a poor one. Too many comedies are references to sex and shit in-between random words. It’s hard to find a comedy that understands comedy’s purpose – finding humor in the absurdity of life. If it can find humor in the darker parts, then all the better. Whatever you think of anime in general, WataMote is a great work of comedy.

4 anxiety fits out of 5