In a discussion about which book should win the 2011 Giller prize, Andrew Gorham said he could hear the voiceover for the movie trailer of one of the novels, “A grand epic narrative of familial obligations, lost loves, sweeping across generations and continents, confronting the major political, spiritual and emotional upheaval of the 20th century.”
Now that I’ve read over 200 Booker novels, like Gorham, the novel he describes makes me flinch. But it is an apt description of many of the Booker novels, and other prize novels. I’ve noticed other patterns in short-listed books:
- Novels that look at a major historical event from the viewpoint of a marginalized nobody. Perhaps particularly in the UK these types of books appeal to post colonial guilt.
- Often on Canada Reads the “celebrities” who are championing a book will say “I really identified with the character” or “I really sympathized with the main characters.” Those types of characters are frequent in prize-listed books.
- Subject matter of moral or social importance, as perceived by the jury—“issues” novels.
- Straight-ahead narrative trumps experimental. One reviewer called this style “formal conservatism.” Thinking outside the box doesn’t make the list.
- Historical often trumps novels set in the modern age. As of the 2002 list I’ve yet to read a Booker novel with a character with a cell phone.
- Many of the novels also follow the pattern of affirmation or transformation, like a coming of age novel or fairy tale. The main character makes mistakes, then is contrite, recovers and reaches a type of salvation. Or gets the girl.
- Genre novels don’t make the cut, except historical romances.
Over the last decade there is an increasing craze for first and second novels from very young writers. Jurors want to be star-makers. But the task of the jury is to reward achievement not to anticipate it. I received the following comment from one of my readers:
For me, The Sentimentalists wasn’t even close [to being the “best” book of the year, or the Giller short list]. Fatigued, seen-it-before prose, limp narrative line, a seemingly willed lifelessness. And moments of overwriting forgivable in a “poetic” first novel, but not in a national prize winner.
It seems to me that many of the juries from the early 2000s and after are more focused on picking books that will be popular or “readable” rather than celebrating high literary merit. They want to pick bestsellers, manufacture the hits of the year. And if that is true, then they are reading like marketers not like literary critics. There seems to be resistance to difficult books—they want easy reads with wide appeal.
The big prizes are anointing a star culture and endangering a whole range of writers who don’t make those lists.
I will be finishing this project with the 2012 Booker short list of novels. Starting with 2002, I will add a note that makes some comment about the “readability” factor of the book and also if it is the author’s first or second novel.
Jury: Lisa Jardine CBE, a British historian of the early modern period, professor of Renaissance Studies and Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London, and Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. David Baddiel, an English comedian, novelist and television presenter. Russell Celyn Jones, novelist and critic. Salley Vickers, novelist. Erica Wagner is an American living in the UK. She was a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. She is the literary editor of The Times and frequently reviews for the New York Times.
William Trevor—The Story of Lucy Gault VPL
In the first chapter of the book I thought, ah, another novel by Trevor about the Irish problems in the early 1920s. Houses in the vicinity of Captain Gault have been torched late at night. The Captain hears some people, shoots above their heads but actually injures one of the young men. Containers of gasoline are left behind as the men flee, seeming to confirm their ill intentions. But tensions are high and in the end the Captain and his wife Heloise (who is English) decide to move to England until things settle down. Their daughter Lucy, about 8 or 9, is distraught and runs away. After weeks have passed, the grieving parents accept that Lucy has drowned and leave (careful details are established to make the parents easily come to this conclusion). En route to England, moved by grief, they decide to abandon that plan and just stay on the road. But Lucy has not drowned and is eventually found by Henry, the gatekeeper who has been tasked with attending to the estate in the absence of the Gaults. Such tension. Will Lucy recover (well, of course she will—the novel is named after her). How will the grieving parents be found, having left no forwarding address? Can anyone do Gothic as well as the Irish?
Part 2, Lucy is now 21 and her parents have never returned, never been heard from again. Lucy’s life has affected the whole community. The young man who was shot has become a railway porter, but gives that up to become a house painter, then joins the army. He is haunted that his actions caused the split between Lucy and her parents. The trusted lawyer and clergyman continue to care for Lucy over the years, as do the people tending the farm. But they are all in limbo. Ralph, a young man tutoring boys of a neighbor, stumbles on the house, falls in love with Lucy but she sends him packing. She loves him but can’t draw him into her suffering. The sections about Lucy are interspersed with chapters about her parents, lingering in Italy, still deeply mourning and dysfunctional, seeking peace.
Thirty years after the Gaults left, Ireland is at relative peace and WWII has ended. Heloise gets influenza and dies. Finally, the Captain returns to Ireland after the death of his wife and finds out Lucy is still alive. Of course, he forgives her for her childish gesture of running away. Redemption? Not quite. “Love is greedy when it is starved.” Lucy is tortured by the marriage opportunity she has missed with Ralph. Once Ralph finds out that Captain Gault has returned, he is tortured that he can’t be with Lucy, having married the year before. His wife doesn’t know about his former love; Ralph never told anyone.
The suffering is out of proportion to the crime. In the hands of a lesser writer the book could have quickly become oppressive but The Story of Lucy Gault is melancholy rather than melodrama. Trevor achieves richness and complexity through deceptively simple style and understatement. And, of course, the whole story is really about Mother Ireland and how her troubles will continue to torment and torture for generations, despite the appearance of peace.
At the time of publication of this novel Trevor was a senior and well-established writer. Easy reading.
Carol Shields—Unless VPL
Reta Winters (nee Summers) lives a nice life and writes books on the side. She lives in a nice rural house, beautifully restored. She’s married to a nice man, a doctor with a passion for fossils. She has three nice daughters. She writes books in her spare time; her primary writing activity is translation of the work of Danielle Westermann, an aging and prominent feminist. Reta’s first novel did quite well, for reasons her publisher doesn’t understand. It even won the Offenden Prize:
Clarence and Margot Offenden had established the prize back in the seventies out of a shared exasperation with the opaqueness of the contemporary novel. “The Offenden Prize recognizes literary quality and honours accessibility.” These are their criteria. Margot and Clarence are a good-hearted couple, and rich, but a little jolly and simple in their judgments, and Margot in particular is fond of repeating her recipe for enduring fiction. “A beginning, a middle, and an ending,” she likes to say. “Is that too much to ask?”
Reta is now working on another novel.
I have no idea what will happen in this book. It is a mere abstraction at the moment, something that’s popped out of the ground like the rounded snout of a crocus on a cold lawn. I’ve stumbled up against this idea in my clumsy manner, and now the urge to write it won’t go away. This will be a book about lost children, about goodness, and going home and being happy and trying to keep the poison of the printed page in perspective. I’m desperate to know how the story will turn out.
I guess she’s going to wait for her characters to come to life. But they don’t and neither do the characters that Shields is writing. I don’t believe a word of it.
Into the nice life of Reta comes a problem. Her oldest daughter Norah has quit university, dumped her boyfriend and become a vagrant on a street corner of Toronto, refusing to speak but wearing a sign across her chest, “Goodness.” Once a week Reta drives to Toronto (she lives outside of Orangetown), goes to the street corner and leaves food, warm clothing and other items.
Part of the concern of the novel is isolation and women’s rights. Danielle represents the self-sufficient and gutsy feminist, childless. Reta represents the woman shut out of the real world, but bonded to her children. Reta has a group of friends who meet at a coffee shop every Tuesday morning to share their lives (it’s Sex and the City, without the sex and without the great wardrobe). Here’s one of their conversations:
“Men aren’t interest in women’s lives,” Lynn said. “I’ve asked Herb. I’ve really pressed him on this. He loves me, but, no, he really doesn’t want to know about the motor in my brain, how I think and how—“
“I’ve only had a handful of conversations with men,” I said. “Other than with Tom.”
“I’ve had about two. Two conversations with men who weren’t dying to ‘win’ the conversation.”
“I’ve never had one,” Sally said. “It’s as though I lack the moral authority to enter the conversation. I’m outside the circle of good and evil…We’re not thought capable.”
And that is the crux of the novel—that women, by birth, are apart: “that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever and those like…my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang. That’s the problem.”
This novel takes place in 2000. At that time I was exactly the same age as Reta. These women are the not the women of my generation. Category: Chick Lit, or Poor Us.
One of the things often told to creative writing students is “show, don’t tell.” Shields shows us very little but tells us everything, in painstaking and “pitiless enumeration.” If you are interested in a novel about the creative process, a novelist within a novel, writing a novel and reflecting on how to shape things, edit, and what the literary act is all about pass on Unless and read Atonement.
Reta’s character is charged with writing “light romantic comedy about quite ordinary people—a quick read, with no broad canvas in sight.” This is exactly what Shields has done.
In the front of the copy I read from the Vancouver Public Library in pencil is written “Fast read.” I guess that is where the Vancouver Public Library shelves this novel, and rightly so. It’s an easy and fast read with nothing difficult. Little to slow you down, or make you think.
When Shields won the Pulitzer for The Stone Diaries it turned her into a literary star. So, like Trevor, she was a well-established writer at the time Unless was published.
Rohinton Mistry—Family Matters VPL
Another door stop from Mistry. This novel is set in Bombay in the early 1990s and as I’ve said before, like Shields, Mistry doesn’t spare us any details; a family saga with all the minutia of daily life.
In some ways the novel is Mistry’s rewriting of King Lear. The family patriarch Nariman, already suffering from Parkinson’s disease has a fall and ends up with his leg in a cast, confined to bed. He lives in his large seven-room flat with his stepchildren, the bitter Coomy and the docile Jal. His youngest and birth daughter Roxana lives with her husband Yezad and two sons in a two-room flat. Coomy, who makes Goneril seem sweet-tempered contrives to remove Nariman to the small flat of Roxana, repelled by the body odors and bedpans.
The move to Roxana’s home has reverberations for the whole family. The root of Coomy’s anger at Nariman, and the world at large, is rooted in Nariman’s life story. As a young man he fell in love with Ruth, but since Ruth was not Parsi his family refused to support the relationship. After 11 years, Nariman is persuaded to give up Ruth and marry Yasmin, a widow and also the mother of Coomy and Jal. Coomy blames Nariman for her mother’s unhappiness.
The outline of the plot sounds like soap opera. The incidents of Nariman’s move to Roxana’s home and the bigotry of Nariman’s parents about non-Parsi women result in the deaths of Ruth, Yasmin, Coomy, a neighbor, and Yezad’s employer.
Despite the allusions to Lear, Nariman is not a Lear character. The novel mentions politics and some of the actions are precipitated by the political turmoil of India in the mid-1990s but the political scene is not much more than a backdrop to the family story. The novel is a slice of a world, not a fully realized political world. Though obviously the reader is to think of Nariman as India itself, diseased and dying.
There are many moral lessons. “A terrible thing, anger.” The Parsi spirit is the “ability to laugh in the face of darkness.” Love can move mountains. Although Yezad gains some redemption by caring for his ailing father-in-law, he regresses when he allows religion to take over all aspects of his life, becoming a bigot like Nariman’s parents, pointing to the dangers of religion.
An ongoing theme in the novel is displacement. Yezad laments that reading Enid Blyton does “immense harm, it encouraged children to grow up without attachment to the place where they belonged, made them hate themselves for being who they were, created confusion about their identity. He said he had read the same books when he was small, and they had made him yearn to become a little Englishman of a type that even England did not have.”
At another point Yezad “felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, fetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated.”
Mistry is the former type of novelist. Realist, in the tradition of C19th novels. As with his previous novels, this one is heavy on nostalgia and is highly sentimental:
The unhung washing was waiting on the balcony. She shook out the clothes, fretting about the wrinkles already settled in the fabric, and kept glancing inside the room to make sure Jehangoo was behaving himself. The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year-old happily feeding seventy-nine.
And then it struck her like a revelation—of what, she could not say. Hidden by the screen of damp clothes, she watched, clutching Yezad’s shirt in her hands. She felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the precious moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength.
Or another moment:
And Vilas, writing and reading the ongoing drama of family matters, the endless tragedy and comedy, realized that collectively, the letters formed a pattern only he was privileged to see. He let the mail flow through his consciousness, allowing the episodes to fall into place of their own accord, like bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. He felt that chance events, random cruelty, unexplainable kindness, meaningless disaster, unexpected generousity could, together, from a design that was otherwise invisible. If it were possible to read letters for all of humanity, compose infinity of responses on their behalf, he would have a God’s-eye-view of the world, and be able to understand it.
Many critics have pointed to the universal themes of the human condition, and Mistry makes that claim within the novel: “Everyone underestimates their own life. Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories — your life, my life, old Husain’s life, they’re the same. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story: of youth, and loss, and yearning for redemption. So we tell the same story, over and over. Just the details are different”
I would argue that is exactly what Mistry does. There is nothing new or fresh in this novel, compared with his previous two. If you like the storytelling aspect, you will probably enjoy this book. If you are looking for writing that moves and excites, you won’t find it here.
But what do I know? Comments from reviewers:
“A masterpiece of illumination and grace. Like all great fiction, it transforms our understanding of life.” The Guardian(U.K.) “This novel has the courage to remember and to reaffirm who we are, one by one; it continues, in the tradition of the great novels, to celebrate the luminous and unquenchable human spirit.” Globe and Mail “Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry.” Time “A towering masterpiece by a writer of genius….” The Independent(U.K.) “An astonishing novel…full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life.” Wall Street Journal “A work of stature…in scope, insight, and above all compassion for human beings.” Montreal Gazette “Those who continue to harp on the inevitable decline of the novel ought to…consider Rohinton Mistry.” New York Times Book Review of Books “The story unfolds with the grace and beauty of a butterfly’s wing…extraordinary.” The Times(U.K.) “Mistry has demonstrated once again the enduring power of fiction to make sense of it all simply by telling a story…Read it.” Vancouver Sun “Every word of it seems like a fleck of brilliant light on a dancing ocean….A major achievement.” Scotland on Sunday “A compelling book that manages the rare feat of being both entertaining and compassionate.” India Today “Compulsively readable; also funny, intensely moving and, like Bombay, pullulating with humanity.” The Independent(U.K.) “Impossible to put down.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia From the Hardcover edition.
This novel is Mistry’s third appearance on the Booker shortlist so he’s hardly a novice at this point in time. I’ve already voiced my opinion about style and readability.
Tim Winton—Dirt Music VPL
Another highly unusual and deeply compelling love story from Winton. Georgina Jutland is living with Jim Buckridge in White Point, a successful West Australian fishing community, near Perth. Georgie was a nurse, but has been traveling, getting in and out of relationships and picked up Jim, attracted by his good looks and neediness—Jim’s wife had died about a year before they met. The relationship, never really vibrant, is stale and Georgie is bored, restless and drinking too much.
Red necks and rich fisherman mostly populate White Point, and Buckridge, like his father, is considered to be a man who doesn’t put up with problems and usually deals with them himself, not always within the law. Like many small towns, White Point is full of secrets. And like many small towns White Point has the bad family, the bunch who are never fully employed and usually poor. In White Point it’s the Fox family. Luther Fox is the only remaining member of the family that had all been musicians. Lu’s brother, sister-in-law and their two children were killed in a car accident in their own driveway. Lu’s family has had lots of bad luck. Lu has been getting by financially by poaching the Buckridge fishing lines in the middle of the night.
You guessed. Georgie has a quickie fling with Lu in Perth, and then returns to White Point where things continue to go off the rails.
Later, in bed, she lay beside [Jim] almost certain he was asleep, and thought how cheap it was, bolting for someone else. She’d left men before but they were always bastards and she’d gone without a pang. But she’d never abandoned anyone for another man. It robbed you of the high ground, clouded the purity of your purpose. And, choosing one over the other, that felt bitterly close to shopping.
There is a great collection of oddball minor characters and like Lu, Georgie and Jim; they are all grappling with various demons, loss and grief.
Winton captures Australian vernacular without it dominating the narrative. He has a fine ear for dialogue, as well. Often acerbic, the novel reminded me of the best genre writing in crime fiction. But in this novel it is the character of Australia that is most intriguing. We are in the C21st where mainstream consumer society is running amok. Hoards of retired seniors roam the highways in their camper vans. The young and unemployed party and tune out with drugs. The rich zoom around in SUVs. Winton portrays a world were everything is being commodified—neo-feudalism.
It isn’t done with lots of long descriptive passages, but Winton presents the largeness of Australian landscapes, from the ocean to the outback. I’ll watch for future novels by Winton.
In 2002, Winton was 42. One previous novel was on the Booker and several of his other novels had won big Australian prizes. The writing makes you aware of language.
Sarah Waters—Fingersmith VPL
The lives of two orphans, Sue and Maud—one raised by petty thieves after her mother is hanged, the other raised in a lunatic asylum where her mother died—are entwined by the greed of a fallen member of the upper class, Richard Rivers. The plot is a labyrinth that catches all the characters. It’s a titillating page-turner driven in part by the lesbian Victorian plot.
When she is 10 or 11, Maud’s uncle retrieves her from the asylum to be his secretary. It takes some time and much physical punishment to tame her, but eventually she grudgingly complies. The uncle is compiling a detailed index of Victorian erotica, or to be clearer, Victorian smut. After dinner Maud reads passages for her uncle, and other male guests. It is all foreign, uninteresting until her own libido is awakened by Sue, come to be her maid, by the design of Rivers to marry Maud and gain half of her substantial inheritance. Category: Bodice Ripper, with a twist. And then another twist. And yet another, etc.
If you are thinking this plot is melodramatic and Dickensian, you are correct. The characters are all familiar, the lunatics, orphans, pickpockets, prostitutes, et al. Waters likes detail and shows off her research, “Charley Wag [the dog] lay before the fire and twitched, chasing hansoms in his sleep—his tail was kinked where a cab-wheel had caught it.” So what? Who cares?
At one point Sue tells her story, essentially the plot of the novel, to a doctor. He replies, “If you might only hear yourself! Terrible plots? Laughing villains? Stolen fortunes and girls made out to be mad? The stuff of lurid fiction?” Waters, in part, is pointing to the hypocrisy that was intrinsic to Victorian society and morals. But the doctor is correct—this is a melodramatic romance novel, with an undertone of violence and anger. I did, however, read all 548 pages—mostly, I was skimming often during the long descriptive bits.
This novel is Waters third. All are historical romances and I suspect she has a large fan base. The size probably disqualifies it from the VPL “Fast Read” section but it’s that sort of writing.
Yann Martel—Life of Pi WINNER (does anyone in the western hemisphere not know that?)
Life of Pi has sold 7.5 million copies. Martell got a 3 million advance on his next novel, Beatrice and Benedict, which was number one on the bestseller list the week it was published, with much hype including a lengthy interview on CBC news, etc.
Jean’s Booker Club does Life of Pi
There had been some rumbling before our meeting on this book that indicated the natives were restless. George threatened to leave home at one point.
When the novel won the Booker, there were a lot of newspaper articles that suggested the plot had been plagiarized from Max and the Cats, a novel by Brazillian writer Moacir Scliar. We began our discussion with George and Judith giving brief appraisals of Max and the Cats, which they both liked, though George much more so. I read for the group Martel’s explanation about the inspiration for the novel:
Martel says he read a scathing review by John Updike but never read Max and the Cats. Later Updike said he never wrote such a review, in fact never read the novel. Subsequently Martel said his memory was faulty and has declined further comment on the topic. Martel romanticizes the role of the novelist “for the sake of the greater truth.” Oh, please.
The novel was charged with being preachy, pompous and full of lectures to show off research. The supposed tolerance, both of other religions and other cultures, was found to be cloying and without substance. The approach is pseudo-intellectual—I was often reminded of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull or The Alchemist (two books I find cheesy). There are too many similes, declarative statements and long, boring descriptions of activities like tying knots.
But, said George, the description of the fight between the shark and the tiger is good. And the descriptions of the animals are good.
The novel revels in depravity. It is utterly humourless, but full of violence and cruelty. George Stanley argued that Pi is not a boy, that Pi is not human.
Charlie was unable to attend but sent his response by email:
“I read the book several years ago, mostly in the bathroom at my friend’s family’s cabin (I wasn’t feeling well; the book didn’t help). The novel had been recommended to me by a religious friend, a Sikh, who told me that it captured very well why he was a believer and what he got out of religious belief — that seemed, to me, to be a book worth reading. (I’ve since resigned to the fact that, though this friend means the world to me, I can’t stand his taste in books; also, though Life of Pi left me with no greater understanding of the believer’s mind or of a believer’s experience, I did later find a book that did just this, a lovely novel called ‘The Rent Collector,’ about an observant Montreal Jew in the shmatte business…)
“I confess that I wasn’t prepared to re-read the book for our club, and had been planning on going from memory. It just wasn’t a book I was willing to go through twice. Not that it’s the worst book ever, but I did first read it long after the initial wave of plaudits and laurels, and was decidedly underwhelmed at the time. Mostly, I found the passages boring and technical. The polyreligious bits at the beginning, the Pondicherry stuff, all seemed a propos of absolutely nothing.
“And the ending — puke! I can’t stand trick endings (I do make an exception for the punchline ending to Portnoy’s Complaint, but what do you expect from a comedian?), but Life of Pi’s sleight of hand, recasting the entire story as a self-conscious allegory (of course it was obviously supposed to be an allegory, but the last pages indicate that even within the world of the book it was a metaphor) which basically boiled down to a variant of the soap opera “it was all dream” trope, was particularly cheap because it couldn’t account for one of the centre-pieces of the book, that weirdo island with the teeth! What was THAT supposed to be, given that everything else turned out to have a literal corollary? A friend of Yann’s confirmed my suspicion when he posited that the island passage was padding…
“I can’t see why my religious friend would have liked the book; to the extent that it says anything about religion (and it hardly does, seriously anyways), it seems to present it as a child’s metaphor to shut down having to deal with pain… the typical, sneering atheist’s assessment, by my count. Anyway, apparently Ang Lee is making the book into a movie, so good thing that weirdo island part is in there, otherwise it’d just be two hours of some kid in a frigging boat with a tiger.”
We wondered if Martel was trying to capitalize on the huge popularity of novels by NRI, non-resident Indians including Rushdie and Mistry and argued the result is false piety and orientalism.
George Bowering argued that the novel is the work of an unsophisticated writer, though a sly one. It is the work of an amateur, new to anti-realism.
Why did this novel win the Booker? Why is it so popular, and so often taught in high schools? Aaron Peck reports, “Oh I’ve had to teach that piece of crap to IB students before. I have been VERY creative in making it bearable for me, at least. The scary thing is, religious students love it. That book is profoundly conservative.”
Well, there is no sex or sexual thoughts, and what an odd thing that is considering the narrator is a teenage boy. It purports to be about multiculturalism and tolerance, though there is no complexity or nuanced argument about those issues. Renee suggested the success has much to do with a post-911 audience who want to appear to be tolerant and want to feel good about themselves. On a scale of 10 with 10 being a great book we scored Life of Pi from 1 to 2.47.
We concurred that the interesting thing about the novel, the thing that keeps you reading, is the concept. And that concept is stolen. That led into a discussion about the seeming acceptance of pop plagiarism. I showed a clip of Billy Collins reading his lanyard poem. Then showed a clip of Shane Koycyzan performing the same poem, as if it were his own. Rex’s jaw dropped to his knees.
But the success that can result when mediocrity is rewarded or when pop plagiarism creates success goes unchallenged. Maybe. One result of mega-popularity and writers’ celebrity is a new type of list starting to appear online and in newspapers. The 10 most over-rated writers. Billy Collins is on the list from the Huffington Post. Yann Martel made the National Post list:
Like Coupland, Martel has not won a major Canadian award, although the Man Booker Prize is a fair substitute. He nabbed that honour in 2002 for his second novel, Life of Pi, a cutesy fable with a premise that owes more than a little to Brazilian writer Moacyr Scilar’s comic novel Max and the Cats (Martel may be the first institutional CanLit star of the Internet generation, where the line between appropriation and plagiarism is perilously blurry). He followed that up with the misguided Holocaust allegory Beatrice and Virgil, a book that became a bestseller despite savage reviews in the U.S. and Britain (Canadian critics, as is their wont, were more polite). Give Martel credit for this much: he is at least ambitious and is not unwilling to experiment with different styles and techniques. Unfortunately, to date his most successful stylistic experiment is his first novel, Self, which is, not coincidentally, also his least known.
His follow-up novel, Beatrice and Virgil, made the Globe’s list of most over-hyped books for 2010. An instant bestseller based on the popularity of Life of Pi, the novel has provoked strong response. Here’s one from Robert Priest:
About the book: he spends the first half of the book playing the metafiction game — so it’s about a guy who’s won the big writing award with a book about a tiger. He finally goes to turn in his next book and it’s a book about the Holocaust plus upside down on the other side is an essay about the Holocaust. He does a lot of preamble about how fiction really hasn’t taken on the Holocaust and it should. (Ignoring It’s a beautiful life, the White Hotel, Sophie’s Choice etc. etc.). In all of this he uses a self mocking tone and then when all his publishers and editors reject the Holocaust manuscript he stops writing for a while. So he sets up his whole background about how hard it is and in fact how verboten it is to attempt to take on the Holocaust in fiction. For the second half of the book he’s dealing with this guy who’s written a play about animals but which could conceivably be about the Holocaust. So since we the readers know that the play within the novel is actually written by Yann Martel we realize that having explained the necessary great boldness in taking on the Holocaust he now boldly takes on the Holocaust. The play within the novel by the way as he acknowledges in a roundabout way is pure Beckett. he dangles the question is or isn’t the play about the Holocaust and is or isn’t the guy who wrote the play a survivor or not pretty much to the end. Then he shows his hand. If at that point he could’ve come up with some genius ending to his play maybe the whole egotistical tap dance would be justified. But it’s the opposite. the depiction that emerges of the Holocaust via his tasteless efforts is one where the Holocaust becomes a big payoff — as it is in Sophie’s choice which I hated but not as much. But in this case he takes it as an opportunity to heave up the most macabre aspects as a kind of final hectoring to the reader. And it’s all done in this slightly surreal/game mode. As if somehow we, his readers, had not quite got the import of the Holocaust on a personal level. As if we, the reader, needed an allegory to help us understand on a personal human level what it must’ve meant to individual humans. So the end result after much tedious writing is that you get the payoff that an earnest grade 11 student newly inducted into righteous consciousness might give you.
“In short he sets himself a challenge, paints himself as a bold risk taker, and while rising to his own challenge tap dances his way over the very gassed bodies he thinks he is somehow bringing to the light. I’m afraid I haven’t been very articulate and just to be clear I think the Holocaust is not beyond the reach or explication of fiction. But not tasteless bragging writer as hero fiction like this. he does mention maus the graphic novel, which somehow does work. so…”
I was concerned that we may have fallen into that oh-so-Canadian habit of being motivated more by a need to be in opposition to something hugely successful and less by critical evaluations. I asked my database of readers if they had read Life of Pi, and if so, what they thought of it. The most common response was a variation on “tried to read it but couldn’t get past page 40 or 50.” Of those who had read it only two said they liked the novel. One was Marc Cote, whose critical opinions I admire and respect so I asked him for clarification:
I loved the elegance of the writing — how the novel begins just like a memoir and then moves into fiction and fantasy absolutely seamlessly. I loved the plotting. And I loved the ending, when Pi Patel is confronted with the truth of his experience and his response is to say, What would you believe? The novel begins with “I will tell you a story that makes you believe in God.”
I liked the philosophical aspect to the book: God is a tale we’ve created because reality is too harsh.
Yeah, there were places where I would have trimmed a bit, but, really, those were quibbles.
The Life of Pi is a great story and it’s about something and it has substance.
I decided to start at the beginning of the novel, with the “Author’s Notes” and do a close critical analysis.
The first time I read Life of Pi it took several attempts, over a period of weeks, to get past the first page. The first sentence—“This book was born as I was hungry.” Does that even make sense? Perhaps, This book was born while I was hungry” or This book was born because I was hungry. Am I quibbling over nothings already? Perhaps, but to my ear that “as” has a tone of pretentiousness.
Of his first novel the author/narrator/Martel says “Reviewers were puzzled, or damned it with faint praise.” The construction of that sentence suggests to me that the a/n/M thinks the reviewers weren’t smart enough to understand the novel.
The first paragraph ends with a simile; “Books lined the shelves of bookstores like kids standing in a row to play baseball or soccer…” For sure similes are a useful tool in a writer’s backpack of tricks but they often are the fallback of young writers still learning the craft. This suspicion that I am in the hands of a young writer is further encouraged by a/n/M’s description of his “visions” of himself slaving away on his new book, “Green hills heavy with mists would lie at my feet and the shrill cries of monkeys would fill my ears,” etc., “Thus set up, pen in hand, for the sake of greater truth.” Come on. “Thus”! And these days who uses a pen to write a novel? By the time a/n/M mails the failed manuscript “to a fictitious address in Siberia, with a return address, equally fictitious, in Bolivia” I’m befuddled. And I want to know how this self-important young writer who compares himself to Tolstoy gets his money.
Marc wrote, “I loved the elegance of the writing — how the novel begins just like a memoir and then moves into fiction and fantasy absolutely seamlessly.” Yes, I can see that. But it’s partly that device that causes my confusion. Is the Writer-Narrator being presented to us with irony? As with the narrator of The Good Soldier are we to understand that the Writer-Narrator is a self-important sentimentalist? Because I find the descriptions of what fiction is about, how it works and the role of the writer highly sentimental.
Near the end of the “Author’s Notes” acknowledgement for the “spark of life” for the novel is given to Moacyr Scliar. I looked up the Powell’s interview to see what Martel says and found that at the beginning of the interview Martel is asked, 1) Can you tell us how you became a writer? His answer:
It was never on my list of things to be. But by the end of my adolescent years I had struck out being an astronaut and a politician, and at university I eventually struck out everything a bachelor’s degree could deliver, from archaeology to zoology – each chosen at one point or another because of the pageant and drama they seemed to promise. I was 19 years old and desperate. I was wasting my time at university, didn’t belong there, but was terrified of the working world. So, I wrote.
I find it interesting that he doesn’t mention that both his parents are writers. In fact, his father won the Governor General’s award for poetry.
But here’s the section where he talks about Scliar:
2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
I would guess that most books come from the same mix of three elements: influence, inspiration and hard work. Let me detail how each one came into play in the writing of Life of Pi.
Influence: Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer I’d never heard of, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title, and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable. His review – one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive, without critical teeth, as if the reviewer were holding back – oozed indifference. The story, as far as I can remember, was about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate, to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther. What could displease Updike about such a story? Was it that the allegory marched with too heavy a tread, the parallel between the black panther and the Nazis too obvious? Did the premise wear its welcome out? Was it the tone? The style? The translation? Whatever it was, the book fatigued Updike, but it had the effect on my imagination of electric caffeine. I marvelled. What perfect unity of time, action and place. What stark, rich simplicity. Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise. I felt that same mix of envy and frustration I had felt with Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, that if only I had thought of it I could have done something great with it. But – damn! – the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse. I looked for the book. It was nowhere to be found in Montreal. I chose not to order it. I didn’t really want to read it anyway. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on. I wrote my first novel. I travelled. Romances started and ended. I travelled some more. Four or five years went by.
Inspiration: I was in India. It was my second time. The start of the trip had been rough. I had arrived in Bombay. I felt terribly lonely. One night I sat on my bed and wept, muffling the sounds so that my neighbours would not hear me through the thin walls. Where was my life going? Nothing about it seemed to have started or added up to much. I had written two books that had sold about a thousand copies each. I had neither family nor career to show for my thirty-four years on Earth. And if that weren’t enough, the novel I had planned to write while in India had died. Every writer knows the feeling. A story is born in your mind and it thrills you. You nurture it like you would a fire. You hope to see it grow and eventually be born on paper. But at one point, you look at it and you feel nothing. You feel no pulse. The characters don’t speak naturally, the plot does not move, the descriptions don’t come to you – everything about your story is thankless work. It has died.
I was in need of a story. More than that, I was in need of a Story.
I got to Matheran, the hill station closest to Bombay. It’s a small place high up, with beautiful views over the surrounding plains, and it has the peculiarity of not being able to accommodate cars, autorickshaws or motorcycles. You get there by toy train or by taxi, and then you must walk or ride a horse. The closest you get to the noises of a motor on Matheran’s streets are the rumbling, horking sounds of Indians spewing out betel juice. The peace of the place is blessed and utterly un-Indian. It was there, on top of a big boulder to be precise, that I remembered Scliar’s premise.
Suddenly, my mind was exploding with ideas. I could hardly keep up with them. In jubilant minutes whole portions of the novel emerged fully formed: the lifeboat, the animals, the intermingling of the religious and the zoological, the parallel stories. I was telling myself the story as I created it.
I now had a reason to be in India.”
After this interview was posted people looked for the Updike review. It doesn’t exist. The only review in the Times of Max and the Cats raved, saying the novel is “brilliant.” The tone of voice of this interview sounds exactly like the tone of the “Author’s Notes”, doesn’t it?
After the story broke, the Brazilian press make a case that this was just another example of theft of culture—apparently Rod Stewart did quietly pay off a Brazilian musician who threatened to sue over “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” Following is an excerpt from a response to the controversy, written by Dennis Loy Johnson:
Still, even if Martel’s lying and he did read the book, does it matter? I’m reminded — to return to the idea of plundered music for a moment — of a John Lennon quote. Asked if he minded the fact that his songs were regularly ripped off, he said, “Well, there are only eight notes to go around.”
Likewise, it’s often said there are only so many plots in literature — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy does or doesn’t get girl back, for instance. And to a certain extent it’s true.
But to me, it comes down to this: A little boy survives a shipwreck to end up sharing a life raft with a large, predator cat.
It’s not exactly a generic premise, and highlights how some ideas are just so unique and evocative it’s silly, if nothing else, to re–use them so precisely — writing a story about a man who wakes up to find out he’s turned into an insect, for example. How could anyone read such a story and not think of Kafka? It seems too distracting a starting point to this critic. What’s more, I’d suspect it would to Martel, too. After all, an awful lot of people know the Kafka story, “The Metamorphosis.” But how many people know “Max and the Cats”? Maybe those Brazilians have a complaint after all. Maybe it was a kind of cultural arrogance that made Martel think he didn’t have to make Scliar’s premise more his own, which it seems to me he could have easily done.
In any event, a positive outcome to all this would be if people discovered the work of Scliar, whom everyone seems to have forgotten is also the author of the acclaimed 1980 novel “The Centaur in the Garden,” which was widely translated.
And meanwhile, what does Scliar think about the whole Martel mess?
He told the Times, “In a certain way I feel flattered that another writer considered my idea to be so good, but on the other hand, he used that idea without consulting me or even informing me. An idea is intellectual property.” In the end, however, he decided not to sue.”
Winning a major international prize does subject a book to more analysis that it would otherwise receive. Life of Pi does not stand up.
Life of Pi is Martel’s second novel and the Booker win has turned him into a millionaire superstar. It’s not a difficult read and there is little nuanced argument which makes the book highly teachable in the same way as To Kill a Mockingbird; everything is black or white, good or bad.
Lisa Jardine, “Looking back, I can’t believe I felt thrilled at the prospect of reading so many books, under pressure and on top of a day job … but I did! And when it came to it, the goodwill and caliber of my fellow judges made it an easy matter to agree on a really outstanding winner.” Come on. The only way you could do this much reading and pay any real attention to the books is if your day job is a parking lot attendant.
Salley Vickers, from the Guardian
I was a judge the year Life of Pi won, and there is no doubt that our choice was a rip-roaring popular success. The booksellers loved us for it. It was me, in fact, who first drew the other judges’ attention to the novel. I was given it while on tour in Canada, by a Winnipeg bookseller, and read it excitedly on the plane home. We used to have extra meetings at the home of our chair, Lisa Jardine, and I recall telling all the other judges – Erica Wagner, Russell Celyn Jones and David Baddiel – about the book, which at that time had not been entered by Canongate. I was very glad to see it on to the shortlist, but it was not my final choice (the other books on the shortlist were Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters, Carol Shields’s Unless, William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music). However, Lisa was a skilled chair. She wanted a unanimous verdict and, much as I admired the book, I couldn’t give her that. So she said, “Salley, it was you who brought the book to our attention. Will you give the decision your blessing?” Well, I couldn’t refuse.