Book Review

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

i, basic, enjoy some popular fiction

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a screenshot from Spotify, during that period where everyone was smugly bragging about how “cool” they were because they were in the top 1% of global listeners to, I dunno, some boring obscure music one could only convince oneself is pleasurable if you hate yourself and your critical facilities have been decimated by long term abuse of the coward’s opiate, marijuana.

I was not in the top 1% of global listeners to some edgy psycho trance or whatever, I was instead anointed with an accolade arguing against my hipness. I just took a DNA test and it turns out I’m 100% that bitch who is in the top 1% of global listeners to Lizzo.

I tweeted a screenshot of this with a caption mocking my pedestrian tastes (using the no-longer-zeitgeisty term “basic”) and thought little more of it. Then, this week, I read a book with a similar level of popularity to something by like Paulo Coelho and – finding myself loving it – realised that maybe I am basic. Truth, to quote my second favourite pop star (after George Michael), hurts. Bom bom bi dom bi dum bum bay.

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When did I start feeling guilty about how much I was enjoying Life of Pi by Yann Martel?

Well, it’s a reasonably-recent Booker Prize winner (well, 2002) which in itself is a red flag.

Booker Prize winners – though often great novels – tend to be of broad appeal, especially to the kind of people who think things like racism doesn’t exist any more and that capitalism is a flawless system.

Novels that win the Booker Prize defend the status quo – most of the time implicitly rather than explicitly – and they have always done so. The only exception I can think of (off the top of my head) is 2016’s winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which – though a great novel- was misjudged, misrepresented and deeply misread by the literary establishment as a knockabout comedy, which it isn’t…

I felt guilty when I began to read Life of Pi. As a novel from this millennium, it’s not old enough for me to feel comfortable reading it, knowing that it would inevitably proffer some kind of conclusion that is deeply establishment. Also, it was adapted into a big budget Hollywood film, which is also a sign that it’s not a book for the literarily curious, but rather for the – that word again – basic reader.

Why did I read Life of Pi?

Well, for a start because it’s a contemporary classic that I didn’t read when I was younger and less snobbish about reading contemporary mainstream literary fiction (yes, this is a snobbishness I would of course drop if I tried writing mainstream literary fiction again and made something good enough to publish), also because it’s a Canadian contemporary classic (and even though I don’t do any socialising here, I still feel obliged to at least try to engage with Canadian culture here) and also because, as is weirdly normal in Toronto, I found a copy of it in the street so I didn’t have to pay for it.

These are the main reasons why I read it. Also, I’m depressed and bored and I wanted to read a book I knew would be easy and fun and probably make me cry a little.

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Life of Pi – for those of you who haven’t read it or seen the film – is about a trans-Pacific boat ride made by a teenage boy and a tiger. The novel is structured in three parts – the first section alternates between: a) passages about a Yann Martel-foil meeting the “real” Piscine “Pi” Patel in the present and b) reflections of Pi’s childhood growing up as a zookeeper’s son in Pondicherry, India. During the Emergency (see Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance), Pi’s parents decided to pack up and move to Canada. Although they were to give up their zookeeping life, a handful of their zoo animals would travel with them to be sold on to American zoos. In the flashback, everyone gets on the boat and this section of the novel ends.

Part Two is the story of Pi’s journey across the ocean in a lifeboat with a massive, hungry, tiger. There’s lots of graphic detail about catching, gutting and eating turtles and fish, but there are also beautiful evocations of loneliness and ingenuity, of hope and hopelessness, as well as fear and bravery and the usefulness of mythology.

The third – and shortest – part of the novel is presented as a transcribed dialogue between Pi and some insurance agents representing the owner of the sunken ship.

Pi, malnourished and freshly ashore, is recovering in a hospital bed while he recounts the story that the reader has just read. The insurance agents doubt the tale’s veracity (a tiger on a boat for nine months in the Pacific!?) and ask for the “truth”, so to appease them Pi tells them a second – much shorter, much less exciting and much bleaker – narrative about his time at sea. There are parallels between the two stories, and in the second there is a darker portrait of humanity, and a villain far less knowable that a simple – if terrifying – tiger.

The third section is heartbreaking where the second was life-affirming; it is sad where the other was emotive. There is nothing exciting or unexpected here: only what is inevitable, only what is necessary, only what is human. It made me cry.

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I stayed up for almost two hours – after getting in from work at one am – to finish Life of Pi, because I was enjoying it so much. It made me laugh and it made me cry. It made me feel a wide array of emotions, as it intended to, as the Booker judges promised me that it would.

I thoroughly enjoyed Life of Pi, like the uncomplex, unpretentious, simple man that I am. 😦

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I was going to do a video of me singing a Lizzo song to emphasise my basic credentials but I’m not home alone and I don’t want to force my lover to endure the hour of awkward practising that would require. Also I’m too shy. And tired. Lololololololololol. laaaaaame

Bye bye.

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