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Television and Tradition in Sherman Alexie's Flight

It isn’t a quantum leap from Scott Bakula’s television series to Sherman Alexie’s new novel, Flight. In Alexie’s narrative, Zits leaps into a variety of historical identities as he "time travels" through history. Indeed, the novel uses television and film as a starting point for examining truth in a narrative. Flight has the tone and pace of Quantum Leap while a thread of Back To The Future is embedded in its epiphany, that key moment in which Zits comes to understand the reasons behind his father’s abandonment. Like Dr. Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, Zits is given the opportunity to change small events in history as he reacts to specific historic experiences, including his abandonment by his father. Flight is thus a journey novel in reverse, a road story, and a traditional Indian hero tale. Elements of the latter are present in the phantasmagoric plot, which John Huber Cornyn labels as the hallmark of a hero story: “The Indian hero, in the most natural way in the world, performs miraculous deeds and defeats opponents hitherto unbeaten; or he attains ends hither to seldom or never attained.”

It is undeniable that forces beyond Zits’ control save him from annihilation, but in this layered vision quest anything can happen as tricksters intrude upon his journey, making self-discovery more arduous and convoluted. The words and images that surround Zits mimic the paradox and multiplicity that is a part of life in the modern world as well as the challenges highlighted by Native American folklore in which eternal truths elude the hero undertaking a traditional challenge. He is limited and mislead by the charismatic words of the fast-talking Justice and deluded by insubstantial images that are displayed on his television screen. Hurtling backwards through time, he hasn’t even the simplest clue of what path to take as he faces more challenges than an Alice and more devastation and confusion than a Billy Pilgrim.

Indeed, Flight may appear to be a simple book, but its message is complex. People cannot stand alone, and in much the same way, neither can words nor images. Words alone cannot make events real for us, while images have their own limitations. They can deceive and obscure the truth by turning villains into heroes or by sanctioning and legitimatizing genocide. The entire novel is a tribute to the blur that is our reality and a tribute to how the word, and the image, and the reader can lift that penumbra. As we read, we realize that Henry James perhaps phrased it best. Noting that to “live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same since it was by these things they themselves lived." James credited art with extending our understanding and encouraging our personal growth. In Flight, Zits learns that media-based perceptions are often skewed and that words can limit the breadth and scope of our knowledge if they are divorced from experience. It is our immersion into event that ferrets out truth from the layers of mythology that shape thinking. This immersion reshapes our images and oral tales. It enhances our understanding. It brings together words, images, and thoughts.

Like a trickster, Flight, a novel that questions visual imagery, humorously uses visual associations as a means of sustaining reader interest, moving the plot to its final conclusions and instructing us as to how the images around us contribute to stereotypes and clichés. Quickly paced like a television show, with the swift cuts of a carefully edited movie, the novel is Mr. Alexie’s most cinematic fiction work thus far. In a recent interview, he admits that his work on screenplays has made him acutely aware of how the visual imagery can add continuity to complex plotlines: "The more direct plotline of Flight is probably related to my film work, just because I’ve been doing that in lieu of writing novels for ten years." In truth, this is not a new concern; the visual image has always mattered to this craftsman. He has, on other occasions, acknowledged it as society’s most important propaganda tool since films and television shows provide a government with a means of shaping the common man’s perception of an event. Alexie underscores this link between belief and image, between the event and the picture of the event that society imparts to its public. Observing that even he “hated those savage Indians just as much as John Wayne did,” the author acknowledges the media’s power to persuade and define. It is this power that he wishes to exploit to his own purposes. It is this ability to shape opinions that Alexie employs in his own work as he corrects faulty perceptions of Native Americans held by a viewing public that grew up on The Lone Ranger and westerns that featured John Wayne.

As an artist and writer, Alexie knows that television “is the only thing that keeps us vaguely in democracy even if it’s in the hands of the corporate culture." Because it can level the playing field, he also knows that he must make his Native Americans multidimensional. Turning them into flawed heroes and thus real human beings, Alexie takes full advantage of today’s media, which shapes the minds and definitions of the masses. Entrusted with its “cultural currency,” he knows that he must spend it wisely. He's a Native American going where no Native American until now has dared to go. Engaging Native American actors and Native American production staffs, he attempts to lay bare a life that white America has chosen not merely to overlook, but also to denigrate. Traditional cinematic productions offered up the Native American as the enemy, a laconic or bloodthirsty impediment in the race to the frontier. As political correctness began to dominate the industry, movies like Dances With Wolves (1990) and PowWow Highway (1989) did their best to humanize Indians, but they were limited in scope and too few in nature. Mr. Alexie is a man of this millennium. His films are about that “emblematic figure: the Other, the Alien, the non-generalized European" who reacts to real world situations in a manner that is uniquely his or her own. In Flight, Zits’ anger spills out onto the pages that recount his fate in twenty-one foster homes. In this movie script of a book, we come to understand how that experience produced in him a profound sense of unease, a lingering inability to understand his status as an orphan and half-breed. In Mr. Alexie’s rendering, the protagonist's personality is distilled into specific primal forces: anger, despair, self-doubt, and personal uncertainty.

The central character in the movie that the author screens upon the written pages of the text explodes our societal myths as his life plays out in front of our reading/viewing eyes. This is not a youth who “dresses in feathers," as Elizabeth Bird has phrased it. Laconic Zits is no Tonto, nor is he the bloodthirsty redskin that Ford portrayed in The Searchers. He is angry with good reason, made ever more hostile by a landscape that is as barren as Ford’s frontier. He lives in a world riddled with shifting shapes and impending violence. Drunken Indians may roam the streets, but police cruisers on routine patrol are looking for other violators of the peace to pass along to social workers who, smelling of cinnamon gum, utter pronouncements their clients cannot understand.

Because the media contains society’s messages, it can never be forgotten or overlooked. In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, an earlier effort, Alexie intimates that television is directly responsible for the social and emotional malaise that affects his characters. Indian children grow up wanting to be cowboys because to be indigenous acknowledges a life tied to either loss or extermination. He tells us that feeling worthless is a part of being an Indian in white America. When Victor tells a woman that he meets at the pow-wow that she is not important because she is just another Indian, he is just reiterating a message carried into homes by televisions that are "always too loud" and consistently intrusive, "until every conversation was distorted, fragmented" by their presence. Television gives the Indians on the reservation nightmares: "Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying," a character confesses in this narrative.

Small wonder then that the Spokane community that he describes suffers from "unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings," as Gordon Slethaug has described it in his essay "Hurricanes and Fires." If the white world is responsible for feeding the Indian the wrong information, the Indian is responsible for imbibing it as readily as he downs the alcohol that flows freely in Alexie's haunting stories. Fathers are invariably absent because of their reliance upon alcohol, and as a result of their actions, their children are left rudderless in a world that can throw them no buoy. Zits, the offspring of a deceased Irish mother and an absent Indian father, can only learn about Indians from politically correct documentaries produced in the eighties and nineties: "Everything I know about Indians (and I could easily beat 99 percent of the world in a Native American version of Trivial Pursuit) I’ve learned from television. I know about famous chiefs, broken treaties, the political activism of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the Indian wars of the nineteenth century." His knowledge, although improved by the quality of politically correct programming, is incomplete because it's disjointed learning; nothing about what he knows is connected to real people and real events. Observing that he’d love a "television in [his] bedroom" because "[he's] never met any person who is as interesting as a good TV show," Zits lets the reader know that he likes entertainment more than he prizes human contact. What is troubling about his vision of the world is his dependence upon celluloid that he thinks will tell him how to define himself: "Yes, I am Irish and Indian, which would be the coolest blend in the world if my parents were around to teach me how to be Irish and Indian. But they’re not here and…I’m a blank sky, a human solar eclipse."

In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie links white hegemony to the images television produces which uphold one value system over another. The small screen is filled with happy families that contrast with life on the reservation, where broken families are as common as stars in the western sky. In Flight, his more mature effort, the media is more dangerous and insidious. Inhabiting the body of FBI agent Storm, Zits learns that the media can create false heroes, turning enemies into lionized saviors. Finding out that the IRON activists idealized in a documentary were really double agents, he discovers that they are capable of murdering fellow Indians as easily as the FBI agent who shoots an Indian dead in what he calls the line of duty. What Zits discovers is that the images presented to viewers in news reports or in documentaries are often manufactured truths, shaped by a government’s attitude or by the bosses at Paramount, CBS, and ABC. Heroes are made to fit a definition or need, chosen because they fill a propagandizing void. What becomes evident to Zits becomes evident to us. Those short clips that we see on our flat panels are the tricksters, teasing us into common mis-beliefs about a reality that is as relative as an individual’s perspective. In Flight, an author who uses reality for his own purposes raises a significant question about how we examine history without adding to the so called facts our personal biases, or individual prejudices, our egocentric slant upon another culture’s actions.

Flight is thus a novel about storytelling and how storytelling relates to things experiential. It is about those age old mythic stories Joseph Campbell analyzed. It is also about American tales and Indian narratives. Alexie’s novel is a chronicle that analyzes how the varying historical narrative threads that document our past and present fail to give us the full framework that we need to honestly judge our actions. Flight is about what we see and what we choose not to see about who we were in the past and how who we were then has turned us into who we are in the present. What Zits discovers as he flies through history is that stories are the coyote messenger. Like the Indian trickster, tales are charming representations, but they can also confuse and befuddle, casting dark shadows rather than illumination upon prevailing truths. The novel takes us on a visual odyssey that ultimately proves to us that we never know the whole truth, even if we live through it. What Zits learns as an FBI agent on the Nanapush reservation is reiterated in his reincarnation as an Indian at Custer’s last stand, in his metamorphosis into a tracker in the early West, in his identification as a flight instructor who has been betrayed by a friend, and in his penultimate leap into his father’s identity. Individuals who rely on tales of any form may not experience truth. Every man or woman’s experience is relative, the handmaiden of their perceptions, their upbringing, or their prejudices.

To drive this message home to the reader, Alexie employs techniques drawn from the media he is intent upon understanding. TV addicts will agree that Flight is keenly similar to Quantum Leap (1988-1993). In this made for TV, science fiction, drama series, Dr. Sam Beckett, who is swept back into the past, uses his reincarnations in order to change the past for the better. Al states this thesis: "God, or Time, was just waiting for your quantum leap to… correct a mistake." In Flight, Zits is handed Beckett’s power. Embedded in Sullivan’s body, he delays the cavalry’s approach, allowing the young soldier to save the Indian boy he is removing from battle. But he can only change events just so much. When Zits leaps into his father’s body, in a moment similar to Back To The Future, he cannot change what his father does. He can only understand who his father was and how those limitations contributed to their alienation. Flight intimates that anger, hate, and violence serve no real purpose in society. Understanding is what is needed as we make our vision quest, moving forward into the future, into the world that is yet to come.

Thus Flight is not just a novel endowed with a Quantum Leap teaser as a chapter break. It is a most untraditional traditional buildingsroman that has layers of meaning. The denouement is understandable in terms of the journey that has been portrayed, and the epiphany is acceptable to us because we too have been trapped inside the frames of the movies that have been Zits’ experience. Flight’s format draws upon not only Campbell’s hero quest, but the three aspects of an Indian initiation rite. There is separation, testing, and reintegration, with Justice, the elder, precipitating the action by his demands. Zits’ time travel becomes the test, the method by which he pits himself against the elements, the way in which he separates out who he really is from the celluloid images he would otherwise embrace. This is his forest, his desert, his mountain peak. N. Scott Momaday has written of the Indian hero that "you cannot understand how the Indian thinks of himself in relation to the world around him unless you understand his conception of what is appropriate; particularly what is morally appropriate within the context of that relationship." At the end of Zits’ trial, he takes from his environment what he needs to enrich himself in the ordinary adult world. He finds what is appropriate in the swirl of events that have challenged him, in the violent history of the American past that pitted whites against Indians, whites against whites, Indians against Indians. What is appropriate is found within himself, within each significant gesture he makes towards another person, who weeping, begs for mercy, understanding, or love. In finding this truth, Zits moves beyond the truisms embedded into news stories, soaps, tabloid scandals, and escapist fare that masquerades as reality. He becomes the Indian hero Momaday describes. He becomes an actualized adult.

Ultimately, the repetitiveness of Zits’ journey through the American experience symbolically underscores Alexie’s message. Zits’ time travel involves different time frames and different social stratums, and yet each experience is not a scrap of random information, but a pane in the larger patchwork quilt of life that is iterative and ultimately unifying. In Mr. Alexie’s "tribe, and in the Native American world, in general, repetition is sacred," we read in Diane Thiel's "A Conversation with Sherman Alexie." Flight thus advances to us a sacred traditional truth: we should never use our differences as a justification for violent action. As Michael morphs into Zits, he logically observes that we are in this thing called life together. If we cannot love and respect one another, we will never be anything more than isolated selves angry at the world for being a cold and cruel place in which children will always be targets. His leap backwards offers him the courage to hope that the next person who offers him the prospect of kindness and understanding will be the one who will help him learn to love.

The past and the traditions embedded in it are always characters in Alexie’s novels and movies, subtly influencing the outcome of each character’s conflict as he journeys forward into the conflicted American future. “As a colonized people, I think we're always looking to the past for some real and imaginary sense of purity and authenticity,” Alexie confesses in one interview. In Flight, Zits’ journey reconciles the two aspects of his troubled personality. His Indian and Irish selves seize some remnant of purity and authenticity from America’s unsavory past. As readers, we can appreciate his discovery and hope that it will endow him with a new tradition, one of hope and trust for a less troubled future. Without this expectation, without this understanding of whom we should be, we will all fistfight on earth and fistfight in heaven.

July 2007

From guest contributor Susan Orenstein

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