Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Analysis of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I've been meaning to talk about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak for several days now. Briefly, it tells the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, as she is raised by her foster parents during World War II. I don't want to review the book--there are plenty of good reviews around. Instead, I want to talk about the book from a writer's standpoint, because it made me think about effective writing and why this book "works" in some ways and not in others.

To start, though, I'll say that I didn't love this book. When I read the prologue, I was excited to continue. But, for me, as the book progressed, I felt a little cheated. I felt like there was a lot of material that was trivial, so those pages were a waste of my time. I guess I wanted the prose to be more dense.

That's not to say that I don't admire Zusak, though. He has a lot of strengths as a writer. I'm going to talk about some of what I thought were his strengths and then digress a bit into some more general views and questions.

Zusak's characters in this book were particularly strong to me. What made them effective was that they were clearly rendered and stayed true to the initial personalities established in the beginning of the book. Each character had a strong personality and had a mix of both positive and negative traits. I found, though, that they weren't particularly complicated. For the most part everyone could be quickly understood and classified as "good" or "bad" with the exception of the Mayor's wife, who was by far the most interesting character for me. Compared to other literary characters such as, I don't know, say, Anna Karenina, Zusak's characters were flat. But, I realized that these flat characters, in part because they were flat, also made them memorable. They were simple and clear, like a nursery rhyme. And I wondered if maybe the more complicated a character is, the harder they are to render in the same memorable way.

Zusak also chose an interesting setting for his story. Setting the story in World War II naturally allowed the book to inherit a lot of emotion and drama. With the devastation of war in the background, even the most ordinary events could come off as haunting. When I was in graduate school, I had a teacher tell me that our stories should be about individual people, but hung against a backdrop of something that is more universal. Zusak did exactly that when he portrayed this German family in the middle of war. But is it "cheating"? Does such a dramatic subject matter serve as a crutch that lets a writer get away with not creating as much emotion on his or her own? The emotional climaxes of this story were completely reliant on the emotional events of war. In a way, it didn't feel earned, and yet it was still effective.

I'm neutral about the structure and formatting of the book. For those who haven't read it, the book contains some short and bolded lines like headlines, along with some illustrations and comic-book type sections. For the most part, I thought they worked, but there was quite a bit of redundancy in the headlines. Often I felt as if I had read something only to have to read it again in headline form. It became too cute for me. The illustrations, however, worked, and I did appreciate that variation from the norm. As far as the structure of the story went, I thought that was clean and straight forward. Like I mentioned in the beginning, some (and I might even say many) of the scenes felt trivial. I don't skim through books, but I wanted to in several spots while I was reading this.

What I found most interesting about this book, though, has to do with my post a couple of weeks ago on the changing definition of "literary" writing and the combination of insightful prose with other elements of the story, mentioned here. While The Book Thief did not have what I would consider to be beautiful, literary prose (in the best sense of the word) it did have the other elements that I find missing in some contemporary literary work: character, plot, premise. These are important elements! I feel as if we as writers have somehow separated prose quality from all the other important parts of a story and wrongly classified them as two distinct genres or branches of fiction. The snoots care only about the beautiful prose, while the mainstream writers care about everything else.

It may seem like an obvious choice. After all, prose is only one element in a story, and apparently not always a very relevant one. But, what I find among the best prose writers is that it is in those small moments that the deepest emotions of life come forward. A good prose passage provides dozens of insights into the world instead of simply guiding a reader towards The End the way simple prose does.

Take this short excerpt from Nina Barberova's story "The Resurrection of Mozart":

The silence was so complete that when they stopped talking and returned to their own private thoughts, they could hear through the open windows the clock ticking in the large old house. The sky was green, clear and lovely, and the stars were just beginning to shine, so few and far-flung that they failed to form any definite pattern. The old trees--acacias, limes--neither breathed nor trembled, as if standing stock-still were a safeguard against something that was invisible to men but somehow immanent in the summer evening. The hosts and their guests had just finished supper; the table had not yet been cleared. Some wine-glasses were still on the table. Slowly, the green light of the darkening sky transformed the faces of the seated company which was not obscured by shadows. They were talking about war and about the omens of war. A young woman, a guest who had driven out from town with her husband and sister, restraining her brassy voice, remarked that she had seen a meteor a fortnight before.

The way I see it, all of the other elements can lead to one good story, but good prose creates dozens or even hundreds of additional good stories draped over that one good story.

The truth--or at least what I believe to be the truth--is that readers want it all. Perhaps when given the choice, some would choose plot over prose or vice versa, but the only reason they have to choose in the first place is because so few books are able to combine all the elements that make up a truly excellent book. I don't think that lets either camp off the hook. I believe we should continue to challenge ourselves to truly reach that balance.


  1. What a great post. Personally I loved the book thief I was completely wrapped up in it and read it like a reader not a writer, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much!

  2. Charlee, thanks for reading. I read The Book Thief in the first place because two writers I really admire both recommended it to me. There are a lot of lovers of this book!

  3. Oh, how I loved this post. First of all, I'm really excited to find someone else who didn't love this book. It's a good book, yes, but not one of the best I've ever read. Not even one of the best Holocaust books I've ever read. (I began to wonder if I'd just read too many Holocaust books and it's going to take something monumental to really impress me with that setting.)

    I also felt the prose tried very hard—sometimes too hard. In one review, I likened it to watching a beautiful dance—but every so often, the dancer screamed "LOOK AT ME, I'M DANCING!!!"

    I also think that such a dramatic subject/setting can definitely be a crutch. To me, the climactic event in TBT actually felt like a gimmick, and I felt cheated. So I guess it didn't feel earned and I didn't find it effective for me.

    I really appreciate your thoughts on prose vs. other elements. I'd really like to have both in my work. (Working on it.)

  4. Jordan, I felt the same way about the climax of the story. It was inevitable, I guess, but I still wanted to be caught off guard somehow. I wanted emotion to come from some other source.

  5. Excellent thoughts, Davin. My favorite:

    A good prose passage provides dozens of insights into the world instead of simply guiding a reader towards The End the way simple prose does.

    That's so true. I strive to reach all the elements you talk about. It's my main goal in writing, and I believe in brief moments I have reached it. Of course, that's me thinking that. Sometimes it's all subjective, though. What one person sees another won't.

    I'm not sure I'd love The Book Thief with all those flat characters. That kind of characterization - or lack of it - usually drives me crazy.

  6. Thank you so much for your analysis. Thoughtful, insightful, as usual. I started reading this when it first came out but didn't finish it, and don't remember why. I do remember wondering why I didn't love it as much as so many others did. Maybe I'll go back to it with different eyes.

  7. Simple and clear characters do not equal flat characters. Personally I loved The Book Thief and enjoyed the characters. They were simple, but you have to remember they are being seen from Death's point of view. He tends to see things a little less convolutedly (that should so be a word) than humans. I know that no book will please everyone and I agree with you about the formatting.

  8. Great post. I have to agree with you. I struggled to finish this book, which speaks volumes. I only ever struggle to finish a book if I feel something is missing, if something doesn't feel quite right. I don't know what that was but I think you've explained it nicely. :)

  9. Michelle, glad you liked that line. It just occurred to me last night because, for some reason, I value prose a lot and I had to understand why. I did a lot of comparisons between books with prose I liked versus books with prose I didn't like, and I just found my imagination traveling so much farther in the books with good prose.

    Yat-Yee, two of the people who recommended the book to me are in my writer's group. I'm looking forward to asking them what they loved about the book. In reading some of the reviews, I get the sense that the German perspective felt unusual and valuable for a lot of readers.

  10. S.P., as I was writing this post last night, I was asking myself if I could quickly recall a complicated character. They exist, but I think they do get blurred out when they are too multi-faceted. This books simple characters made them stand out, which I think was a good lesson for me to learn. I did find myself liking a lot of the characters, especially the Mayor's wife.

    Lou, yes, I somehow got slowed down too. I was going strong for the first 200 pages or so, and then I found myself stuck for a long while.

  11. Hey, I've been reading the Literary Lab for awhile now (found it via Scott GF Bailey's also excellent solo blog), but this is my first time leaving a comment. Anyway, I just wanted to chime in and agree that this was a terrific post. I haven't read The Book Thief, but the issues you raise about fictive technique are incredibly thought-provoking and clearly laid out.

    I especially like the point you make about simple vs. complex characters: "They were simple and clear, like a nursery rhyme. And I wondered if maybe the more complicated a character is, the harder they are to render in the same memorable way." George Orwell made a similar point about Dickens' characters when he wrote, "[T]here they all are, fixed up for ever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids, completely fantastic and incredible, and yet somehow more solid and infinitely more memorable than the efforts of serious novelists." It's funny that the idea of being a "literary" writer is so connected in people's minds with subtlety, when subtlety is just one approach (and not always the best).

    Anyhoo, kudos on the post!

  12. Hi The Chawmonger! I like saying Chawmonger. Thanks for your comment and welcome! Feel free to chime in anytime whether you have something good or bad to say, serious or silly. Funnily enough I just started reading Great Expectations two nights ago for the very reason you mention here. Several years have passed since I read any Dickens, and I wanted to see how he was pulling off his characters.

  13. Ta awfully for commenting, Ms Smith! I've stayed silent on this post because I haven't read The Book Thief either and I make too many generalizations as it is.

    But Dickens, yeah. A monacle, a medal, a mustache and a catchphrase: voila! Instant general! I don't think Dickens was so interested in drawing subtle portraits; I think his subtlety was in his authorial editorializing; his use of the narrative as social critic accomplished primarily by addressing the reader directly as the author of the piece. The characters illustrated his editorials. Nowadays we're told that this is unsophisticated writing and we should weigh our elements in the opposite manner. I'm not so sure of this. My current work-in-progress trades fairly heavily on stereotypes (but with surprising inner lives! yes!). We'll see how that goes.

  14. Scott, I doubt the supremacy of subtlety these days. I've been more annoyed my musicians who have been creating this quiet music that is meant to fade into the background. No. Don't face into the background!


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