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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Summer Reading – The Help

  Also known as my favorite book so far this summer. Man, guys, you wouldn’t believe how awesome this book is. Three colorful and rich narratives, beautifully constructed people and place, I can’t wait to tell you about all that I learned from Kathryn Stockett’s writing. I’m very excited about that. I’ll try to keep that out of this post.

  Anyway, I picked this book out because it’s been made into a movie that comes out August 10. And I love Emma Stone, so I thought I’d like to see the movie. But it’s necessary to read the book first, amiright?

  I took it along with me to camp at Snowbird last week and read it on the bus and during some of the breaks I could snatch. It was a quick, easy enough read. I read it back to back with All the Sad Young Literary Men which you may remember also had three narrators of the same gender. Though ATSYLM is told by three men of the nearly the same age, and The Help is told by three women of stark age difference and strikingly different socioeconomic status. It’s also set in the midst of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, right in the hotbed of Jackson, Mississippi.

  The premise sort of follows the “If walls could talk…” idea. Except these walls are known as the “help” the black maids who work for the middle class and wealthy families of Jackson. Imagine for a moment that the walls of your home were given not only the power of speech but the dexterity to write down their stories and with that power they told stories, without bias, of your best and worst moments. You’ll get a little bit closer to the idea of what it would be like to be one of the women in Jackson in the novel. Observing people is always fascinating, especially when they are not conscious of your observation.

  The book also operates under the bizarre convention of Southern pride. The kind that sweeps the truth under the rug. It’s a common trope, but dysfunction always magnetizes people. I think Tolstoy said something about that. We are drawn to dysfunction, the airing out of other people’s dirty laundry, scandal. The world is rife with such stories. Rarely do they end with the sort of resolution found in The Help.

  Possibly, my favorite thing about whole novel was the author’s note at the end. She talked about her struggle to write in the voice of  a black person, to convey the strange dichotomy of love and hate tension between the races. It was so honest. I loved it. Can we have more please?

  Though, right now I wouldn’t trade places with Kathryn Stockett for anything. The story was born out of such a personal place for her. Now she’s got a national bestseller under her belt that’s been turned into a movie in under 2 years and the pressure must be mounting. I’m back to the question that often haunts me: would it be better to write one perfect, complete novel and fade out from the peak? Or have a career of successes and failures? What do you think?