Review of Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/18/05
Having been raised by Great Depression Era parents I was steeped, as a child, in that greatest of all sins- waste. This sin is most noticeable in contemporary writing. I have railed for years against the prose broken into lines that passes for poetry these days, not stating it’s prose merely because it lacks music, but because it goes counter to the notion of concision as a poetic ideal- the most said in the fewest words. Of course, real prose is not immune to the sin of waste. Contemporary memoirs, such as Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius go on for hundreds of pages when they lack the well written paragraphs and actual story to fill even a ten page short story.
Such is the case with Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life Of Pi, which comes in at 354 pages, yet is, at best, a solid-good short story of perhaps 25-30 pages, consisting of perhaps five of its first part’s 103 pages, twelve or so of its 215 page second part, and eight pages in its final 36 pages. Add in a few pages to connect and there you’d have it. But, I’d still have advised Martel to go back, condense the tale, then add some leavening narrative connectors.
As it is it is a bad novel, whose critical praise seems dependent upon its being merely a bad novel vis-à-vis its competitors' horror as novels. You see, Martel actually tries to do something different than the self-indulgent, flatulent prose that passes for fiction these days, and for this alone the book has gotten wild praise. Yet, the truth is that risk entails a greater chance of failure, and Life Of Pi fails grandly, however nobly. Part of why it fails is the setup the author gives the novel in a postmodern, self-serving, Author’s Note that starts the book. In it he tells how he stumbled upon the idea for the story, is a ‘story that will make you believe in God.’ Already the savvy reader is thinking anything less than something on a Moby-Dick scale is gonna really piss me off. I can assure you that this book is no Moby-Dick. What a tag line like that was really angling for was a nod as an Oprah book club selection.
The Note also serves as an obvious trick- the idea that the tale within is true, like the movies-of-the-week on tv, years ago, that all claimed to be based upon a true story. The best and rare example of this working was with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a filmic release. Here, Martel claims he stumbled upon the real Pi on a trip to Pondicherry, India to research his third novel, after his first two were failures. Of course, Melville tried a similar approach to involve readers, and succeeded in setting up the ‘reality’ of his tale in the first two sentences: ‘Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.’ To bolster the ‘reality’ and journalistic approach in Moby-Dick Melville every so often has intercalary chapters that break from the narrative and give descriptions of the realities of 19th Century whaling. Martel’s way of trying to invoke this feel is to merely have Pi’s eventual tale constantly doubted by other characters. Yet, in order to do so, the tale would have to be possibly believable to the other ‘internal’ characters, while being obviously allegorical to us. It is not, and no one- fictive nor real- would likely take Pi’s tale of shipwreck seriously, so it loses any allegorical power.
Yet, it earnestly tries to be something more than just an adventure tale, or a bodice-ripper, or a sci fi fantasy. In a sense, its closest literary antecedent might be some of Kurt Vonnegut’s allegorical stories, like Galapagos, with their mythic elements. Unfortunately, Martel has none of Vonnegut’s humor, and the book’s plot is a Twilight Zone episode reject, or tenth rate Pirandello- whichever’s worse. I leave it to those who plowed through the book to choose. Of course, the ending is a classic ‘twist’, but you know after the first few pages of the fantastical part two that what is happening is merely a screen for some real ‘truth’, and that it is likely to be melodramatic. I could see the end coming a couple hundred pages away.
The reason for this obscenely long excursion is to try to give to addle-minded (or pinheaded- again, choose your poison) readers a sense that they are reading something of depth, having to do with religion, and faith. Aside from the Author’s Note, this is the whole purpose of part one, which is a stew of mindless, PC banalities about religion, and the sketching of Pi’s past which is supposed to make him a character worth following: as example- he was teased with the name Pissing, as a child. Such banal revelations do not endear him to us. Nor does part one, Toronto and Pondicherry, serve as an adequate setup for who the tale’s hero, this Piscine Molitor Patel, is.
This is a great flaw in the book, one of many, because the utter transparency of Pi as mere plot device renders him useless as someone to empathize with. Not once did I sense this was a real person. I was never taken away from the clumsy mechanics of the tale, and lost in a good read, partly because of the tale, and partly because of its pedestrian telling. The book becomes a series of literary sight gags that go nowhere, and certainly illuminate nothing, unless your idea of depth ends at Dick and Jane books. That said, the book is also very preachy, in the obviousness of its symbolism, and the heavyhandedness of what’s going on. Even before we are told that part two is really a screen in part three, a smart reader knows he’s reading an attempt at allegory, because the symbolism is so clunky, and the situation so utterly absurd. In order for allegory to work it has to be plainly acknowledged that what is going on is unreal, or the shift from reality so slight that a mnemonic speedbump gnaws at a reader, forcing him to go back, read again, and more deeply. Neither situation occurs here. The allegorical characters are not as loopy and weird as in Waiting For Godot, nor are they as real as in Robinson Crusoe, two obvious influences.
It is the fact that these things are so obvious, and anyone in a beginner’s writing workshop can see what Martel is doing, that it is impossible to lose yourself to the tale. Imagine seeing a Picasso replica with the numbers of the paint-by-numbers on the canvas showing through the paint. It ruins the illusion that this could even possibly be a masterwork. Of course, after the first few pages of the book, rife with quasi-mystical cliché after quasi-mystical cliché an astute reader is wondering whether Yann Martel is merely Yanni, the horrorshow of a New Age musician. We also get pointless anecdotes about how Pi got his name and how he became a Hindu, Moslem, and Christian, which are supposed to serve a reader well, as connectors of depth in part two, but do not, as nothing is ever made with these reaches into koan.
Yet, these koans are just aperitifs, not meals, for Life Of Pi is a book that claims alot, but is really about nothing- not human endurance, not religion, nor even storytelling, for it is so obvious and mannered in its heavy-handed relation of plot to the reader. Of course, the dimwitted will claim as they do for all art- good or bad- that it is about truth, and certainly Martel plays this up at the end of his Note, by stating, ‘If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.’ This sentence can be read as Martel, himself- the real author- making a direct PC appeal for funding bad art like this, or, as the faux journalist Martel, within the story (the one who writes of the fictive Pi’s adventure as if real) trying to shill for his ‘interior’ book, within that framework. This might, on the face of it, seem like auguries of depth, but it’s not. It’s an easy illusion any reader of consequence can see through, for it would have to be buttressed by great writing and ideas, which Martel is seemingly incapable of, and which any writer who has gotten beyond a workshop can spot the heavyhandedness of.
That said, it took just a quick online search to find out that Martel ripped off his plot from a South American novelist named Moacyr Scliar, who wrote a book about a boy on a lifeboat with a jaguar, called Max And The Cats. Martel acknowledged this steal by claiming he hadn’t read the book, but said he got the idea from a negative New York Times book review by John Updike– although the claimed review never appeared. Yet, oddly, almost all the blurbs for the book declaim its ‘stunning originality’, in an almost surreal display of the banality of the quote recapitulating the banality of the described. I’ve not read that book, but I suspect that it was more in the overrated ‘magical realism’ category, which this is not for the break from reality is so total in part two that we never, for a moment, believe it could happen, whereas magical realism, when it rarely works, is the real pulled like taffy, not wholly sundered.
The book opens with Pi’s childhood as the son of the Pondicherry zookeeper, one who terrifies his sons with tales of animal savagery from even the most benign of beasts. This allows an assortment of wholly forgettable anecdotes about nature and spirituality to be told, and seem natural. In endless detail we learn factoids of zoo life, lion training, Pi’s youth, and his search for meaning/God. This causes him to choose all three of the major religions- Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity- he encounters as his own, until the three local religion’s leaders try to force him to make a choice. Unfortunately, the scene is neither humorous nor deep, and the religious characters mere caricatures. Pi, as a boy, supposedly recognizes the wretched nature of these three faiths, yet somehow chooses all three, with no explanation- save faith itself, which surfaces again at book’s end, in a pallid attempt to ‘tell’ us that storytelling has magic, without giving a great story that ‘shows’ that claim. As part one finally grinds to a halt, as five pages of material (at most) are stretched to over a hundred, the zoo is closing and the animals are sold off to other parts of the world.
At the age of sixteen Pi and his clan are likewise ready to leave India for part two, The Pacific Ocean, starts as the ship sinks. Why it does we are never told, and Pi is tossed by sailors into a mere twenty-six foot long lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan named Orange Juice, and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Within days the animals finish each other off until it is merely Pi and the tiger left for 227 days at sea and 215 of the longest pages in English language history- alternating between implausibilities in reality ands its own universe, and dully written passages describing the most mundane aspects of life on a lifeboat, and the smallest minutia- like weather- just to add ‘authenticity’, but without a drop of insight and without a hint of poetry in the way these dull things are described. Just by describing rote things well, or interesting things dully the book would have been enlivened. But Martel cannot even go one for two. As for the implausibilities, one can accept a different set of cosmic laws in a fictive universe, but not new ones that bend merely to serve every purpose the writer desires. Through a series of impossible circumstances Pi fends off the tiger, dashes his vegetarian ways, and makes it off a cannibalistic living island. The problem is that through the series of actions described it is obvious that Pi is far more than ‘just a teenaged boy’, for even though this is his tale told years later through an intermediary the claimed actions simply are not believable, despite the schizoid insistence art times, and demurral at others, and the tiger is even more manifestly not really a tiger. The giveaway for this is the awkward reason concocted for the tiger to have a human name, Richard Parker- anthropomorphism to the max, although the other animals also react in ways that are distinctly unreal to their species. So, knowing that this whole adventure is a feint, possibly setting up a Rod Serlingesque twist, why make it so long?
Part three, Benito Juárez Infirmary, Tomatlán, Mexico, is Pi’s questioning by agents of the owner of the vessel that sunk, and revelation of what really happened in the lifeboat. It is the most preachy and overbearing part, except for about eight pages where Pi is forced by his interrogators to describe what really happened. The interesting thing, though, is that Martel, through Pi, claims that the reason he made up the long unbelievable tale is that it’s a much better story, and presumably far better written, in the exterior aspect of the novel, than the ‘real’ tale of Pi’s survival, which included human survivors, murder, and cannibalism, even as Martel claims the fanciful story is ‘what stories are about’.
The real story has parallels with the fake story, but there is much embroidering in the 200+ page fanciful version vs. the eight page ‘real’ version, that have no parallels. Suffice to say that in the fanciful version Pi is the human and humane side of Pi, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, the cannibalistic killer side of Pi, Orange Juice the orangutan is Pi’s mother, murdered by the hyena, the murderous, cannibalistic side of the French cook, whose good side is represented by the French castaway, with the Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg represented by the zebra with a broken leg. When the tiger kills the hyena it is Pi getting vengeance on the cook, who also killed Pi’s mother, Pi claims, and who gives up no resistance to a boy he could have easily killed- as though willing to pay for his own crimes. Although this is muddy for Pi, alone, may have killed both his mother and the French cook because there is a passage where in a delusion, the tiger tells Pi that he’s killed both a man and a woman. Without parallels, it’s possible that Pi is the lone killer and the made up tale his cover for his crimes. The problem is that my observation is far more cogent about the point, while Martel’s point is lost in a fog of written blandeur, so no reader is going to really care whether there is a ‘truer’ story than the ‘true’ story Pi counterpoints the fabular one with.
Those things without parallels are the carnivorous living island in the fanciful version, unless one takes it as an Adamic allegory, but even if so it is pointless, and adds a few dozen pages easily excised, as there is no payoff to the digression. This is the bane of Life Of Pi- it is a story with potential that is far too long, far too dull, and has no real point, nor payoff. At one point in the book Pi states ‘My greatest wish-other than salvation- was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One that I could read again and again, with new eyes and fresh understanding each time.’ Well, the character got the seeming length right, but only Pi and simpletons will believe the last sentence was fulfilled.
But, let me return to an earlier point, the fact that Martel (via Pi, and in interviews) is tossing up the idea that the made up tale is better because it is so ‘fantastical’. I say the ‘real’ tale is better and better written. As proof I give you a selection from page 133, in part two, describing the removal of the zebra’s leg:
‘The zebra’s broken leg was missing. The hyena had bitten it off and dragged it to the stern, behind the zebra. A flap of skin hung limply over the raw stump. Blood was still dripping. The victim bore its suffering patiently, without showy remonstrations.’
Look how plain, slightly coy, and matter of fat the piece is, utterly void of emotional resonance. Now, read its counterpart on page 338, in part three, describing the removal of the leg of the Taiwanese sailor:
‘It was the cook’s idea. He was a brute. He dominated us. He whispered that the blackness would spread and that he would survive only if his leg was amputated. Since the bone was broken at the thigh it would involve no more than cutting through flesh and setting a tourniquet. I can still hear his evil whisper. He would do the job to save the sailor’s life, he said, but we would have to hold him. Surprise would be the only anaesthetic. We fell upon him. Mother and I held his arms while the cook sat upon his good leg. The sailor writhed and screamed. His chest rose and fell. The cook worked the knife quickly. The leg fell off. Immediately mother and I let go and moved away. We thought that if the restraint was ended, so would his struggling. We thought he would lie calmly. He didn’t. He sat up instantly. His screams were all the worse for being unintelligible.’
Look at the realistic descriptions counterpointed by poetic touches like, ‘Surprise would be the only anaesthetic’ and ‘His screams were all the worse for being unintelligible’. Compared to ‘The victim bore its suffering patiently, without showy remonstrations’, and, well, my point is made. In eight pages the real tale of Pi on the lifeboat far surpasses the fanciful one almost thirty times its length, just as the real world, in all its beauty, is far grander than myths or religions. Yet, the book would also be better without the eight page ‘explanation’ because it so utterly makes redundant and wipes out the manifest allegory that one wonders what both the author and the editor were thinking.
Of course, such cogent points have no place in the world of book reviews, for they were way over the top. The Los Angeles Times wrote it’s ‘a story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction and its human creators’ Ok, sure. Whatever. A review in The Nation magazine said, even more hyperbolically ‘If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel is surely a contender.’ Yeah, like Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront! Publishers Weekly called Martel an ‘emerging master’- I’ll let its utter logical contradiction alone. But, reviews like that are off-the-rack blurbs that have no relevance to the work. They are paste and cut reviews that are recycled for any work in their scope. The truth is that more than half of published critics and reviewers actually do not read the books they are sent. They skim, read other reviews and blurbs, and then cobble together their generic reviews. You are probably saying, ‘I knew it all along!’
Let me give you two reviews, however, that are far worse, for they actually believe Martel’s book is good, and try to rationalize it. First up is a piece from The Hamilton Spectator, a major Canadian newspaper- ‘I guarantee that you will not be able to put this book down. It is a realistic, gripping story of survival at sea. On one level, the book is a suspenseful adventure story, a demonstration of how extreme need alters a man’s character.... On another level, this is a profound meditation on the role of religion in human life and the nature of animals, wild and human. His language…is vivid and striking. His imagination if powerful, his range enormous, his capacity for persuasion almost limitless. I predict that Yann Martel will develop into one of Canada’s great writers.’
Bear in mind that in no way, shape, or form, is the novel realistic- not in its hamhanded anthropomorphic allegory, nor when it describes minutia that are no more attached to reality than the allegory. Reread that selection’s second sentence. From that the histrionics that follow are mere comic relief. But, even that review is not as bad as this selection, from a review by a W.R. Greer, at http://www.reviewsofbooks.com/life_of_pi/review/, that begins like this:
‘I turned around, stepped over the zebra and threw myself overboard.
When you stumble across sentences like that, you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.’
I kid you not. Forget about Greer’s inability to discern the babble of a bad novel, he cannot even reckon a good sentence from a wholly functionary one. What great storytelling technique is involved in this sentence? And it was this singular sentence, alone, he quotes. When I think of great sentences I think of the long sinewy sentences that make two or three turns in any of William Kennedy’s novels, not this straightforward one that merely serves an obvious purpose. Yet this ‘critic’ sees ‘mastery’ in that sentence. Yet Martel’s sentence construction, even in purposely ‘deep’ parts, is so pedestrian, and larded with utter philosophic clichés that it leaves me agog reading quotes like the above. Martel writes simplistically, not simply, and there is a difference! Ach du lieber Gott in Himmel!, as my dad used to moan.
Yet it’s critics like this who have praised this book. Martel’s writing, on a word-by-word choice, sentence, and paragraph construction basis, is wholly generic. There’s not a run of sentences, nor images, that will leave you saying, ‘Ah, Martel!’ Of course, wholly serviceable novels have been written, carried along by the great idea of the plot, with banal constructions. This is not even one of those novels, unfortunately, because the premise is strung over an interminably long plot.
The lack of any deep thought can be summarized in this excerpt from a Martel interview: ‘The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.’ Except that Martel’s ‘real’ story of Pi is better narrative, and better written, as I’ve shown. That he does not get this is because his whole argument is that imagination, be it Pi’s fabulous tale, or religion, is always better than the real. This is in line with his nonsensical PC damning of religion on the one hand, yet accepting it as the better alternative, on the other. Thus, all tales and religion are one, and Pi comes to love Richard Parker, the tiger, for the two are also one. Real deep, I tell you. Or, as Martel says through Pi: ‘Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.’ Were this a sly dig after a real exploration of depth it might be a good wink or feint. But, this is truly the level of analysis and depth Martel provides about the differences in organized religion.
Boy, it would be hard to come up with a more banal revelation than ‘God is good because God is not real life’. In other words, God is a myth, but a nice myth that gets you along. Yet, this is a major fulcrum. Of course, since Pi rejects the major religions, yet accepts them all, he is really a New Ager that picks and chooses reality, and can therefore feel able to get away with utterly meaningless statements and those void of profundity- like the first sentence in the book: ‘My suffering left me sad and gloomy.’ Wow. I always thought suffering left one with wisdom and joy! Isn’t that a koan, too? Art and suffering. No? Oh well, if the book can be willy-nilly in its approach so can its author. The only positive thing that the opening line, in retrospect, gives is that no one should be expecting any greater level of profundity nor insight later on. This is a very lowest common denominator book that only appears deep to those suckled on Dave Eggers-level puerility. Any deviance from the poor norms of the day are praised just because they are different. As for the ending- there is too much explaining, after the real story is revealed, as if the obvious parallels and symbolism could be missed by anyone. Not to mention the pointless, and hell-mell, use of a weird font when Pi is interrogated.
As with so many other books that reach print I have to ask ‘Where the hell was a competent editor?’ 350+ pages? C’mon! This is a possibly solid 25-30 page short story, and maybe a decent 80 page novella if there were some meat added, in the form of well-written passages, and a real aim. Because it has neither any props I might be tempted to give it for trying I take back. It also leaves little for a reader to imbue, because it does not involve a reader, but most telling of all there is not a thing here that no one else could not have written, and the indelible stamp of a particular writer is the hallmark of a great writer. There is none here. In a sense, with all the animals, I felt I was reading a sort of bad Babar tale from my youth, save there were no elephants. This is not Moby-Dick, nor is it a lean The Old Man And The Sea. It is a banal, half-hearted endorsement of religion, and a gray mush of a to b to c writing that really does not deserve such explication, but what the hell? If Yann Martel and Pi Patel can waste 350 or more pages of my attention then I can take a few pages to warn you. That’s karma, or caramel, or something in between, sort of like Life Of Pi, or a slice of pie, or….I shall not waste!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 2/05 Hackwriters website.]
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