Wednesday, May 25, 2005

LIfe of Pi by Yann Martel

My graduate workshop recently covered this novel, and I (and it appeared they) found it an ingenious novel of ideas. Interestingly, on first reading I really thought of this as an action novel. There are, after all, life or death stakes when you put a tiger and a boy on a lifeboat and set them adrift in the Pacific for 227 days. But on second reading, I realized that while there is an immediate tension to that scenario, it’s really a premise not a story. And for two hundred pages this is a first person novel with only one person (and a few animals) in scene. There is nobody for the narrator to speak with, little for him to react to, and little for him to do. And the reader knows from the start that the narrator survives—this is not one of those stories narrated by the dead—so the life or death stakes really aren’t so tense. As a result, Martel must find atypical ways of creating a sense of plot. One thing he does is use very short chapters, so that the reader feels as if she is moving forward quickly. Another is creating mini goals—fishing for the first time, building a raft, taming a tiger—and fulfilling them one by one. But the most interesting has to do with this being a novel of ideas...

Martel uses the first section of the novel, about a hundred pages, to establish our narrator—a teenager—as a thinker. He gives him expertise in zoology--his family runs a zoo--he makes him an expert swimmer, and he makes him a religious seeker in three religions. Because the first section of the novel is set on land and peopled by many characters, Martel can use conventional means—scene, dialogue, new characters, action and reaction—to hook the reader. So the hook for the novel—which you might think would be the concept (boy and tiger in lifeboat) is actually a conventional hook—a really compelling character who the reader wants to hear about. Then because of who this narrator is (as established in section one), Martel can do a lot of point of view work (our narrator thinking about this and that) in section two and get away with it.

What elevates this from a good novel to a great novel, however, is section three, where back on land our narrator is visited by two fairly comic Japanese insurance men who question his story. There Martel nearly falls into a surprise twist ending but recovers magnificently when he leaves the reader up in the air as to what has really happened, so that the book becomes not just a meditation on faith but one on storytelling.

One of my students, who attended a summer workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia said an editor at Harcourt told their group that the novel was published because one editor really fought for it—literally staking his job on its success. This kind of story makes some people bemoan the state of publishing, but it actually gives me hope. Write a book this good and someone will stake their job on it.

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