Summer Reading – What I Learned from Yann Martel

Life of Pi - Simply Laughable, Andrea Offermann
Simply Laughable by Andrea Offermann via Nucleus Gallery

 The stars were eager to participate; hardly had the blanket of colour been pulled a little than they started to shine through the deep blue. The wind blew with a faint, warm breeze and the sea moved about kindly, the water peaking and troughing like people dancing in a circle who come together and raise their hands and move apart and come together again, over and over.

The Life of Pi, pg 220

  Did you just read that word picture? Did you? Cause I read it. And then I read it out loud to my friend Brian. And I was still enamored by it. The rest of that chapter was so beautiful. There’s a lyrical quality, an intelligent lyrical quality to the novel. Martel is verbose, he uses diction that is above average, but is not incongruous with his narrator.

Middle aged Pi recounts the story to the fictional Martel. With italicized breaks the fictional author provides glimpses of the settled, relaxed Pi. It’s a tricky style choice. Some might say that the breaks draw you out of the narrative. But they are subtle, and decrease as the novel develops (or to put it another way – as the reader gets used to Pi’s voice and style).

Here’s the thing, I’m early days in developing the habit of reading Introductions and Author’s Notes, but man(!) are they illuminating. Basically, it’s the key to understanding The Life of Pi. It also establishes that the italicized voice is to be trusted and makes it less obnoxious when it interrupts Pi’s story.

The novel also dealt with some interesting elements – nautical, survival, zoological. The research necessary for all three was convincing for me. And now we’re back to the fancy language. You see, though there were very intellectual, philosophical, religious, and academic notions the novel doesn’t come across as too dense. It’s a fine line to walk Mr. Martel. I’m proud.

And now we can talk about that twist. See, I suspended belief enough to take the story just as it was. The twist totally caught me off guard. I don’t want to explicitly give it away here because I feel bad spoiling entertainment for people. But whew. I mean it’s not the first time animals have been used as metaphors for people and it’s definitely not the first story with “layers” that I’ve read. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering how many religious texts and miraculous stories he references. And yet, I found myself bamboozled by the “story” Pi saved for the very end.

Did you see what I did there? I used the word “bamboozled”. It’s a fun word, you should employ it.

Another interesting style choice was telling Pi’s story in exactly 100 chapters. The chapters had no real standard length. Sometimes they spanned pages, other times a chapter was only a few lines. Again, it can be a frustrating stylistic choice. In places it gave the narrative a choppy, disconnected feel.

The thing earlier, about the word-pictures, it happens in patches in the novel. There are other places that evoke the language and thought processes of a castaway stranded at sea. The varying lengths of the chapters helped break up these narrative shifts in a palatable manner.

I haven’t quite hit the place in my career that Martel mentioned in his Author’s Note. I don’t have a successful novel under my belt, but inspiration does sometimes wander away from me. Could I tell the story of a life in 100 chapters? Fill it with the same elements of suffering and trial? And then flip the whole story on it’s ear? Maybe… The only way to answer is to start practicing I guess.

You may or may not have noticed that the order has sort of switched around this week. That’s because there’s a special Harry Potter themed poem going live tomorrow and I felt it was more fitting for the 14th. Hope you like it.

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