Monday, March 11, 2013

Life of Pi

I've been torn about whether or not to promote this book ever since I first read it, and the current movie version has now pushed me over the edge.  I originally thought I might add this to my "Contemporary Lit" series since it was published in 2001.  However, I've been wrestling with whether it really contains the depth I require in order to assert that a book ought to have "Classic Literature" status.  Yes, I realize that I am being too hard on myself and my guidelines.  If I like a book, I should just write about it, shouldn't I?

Well, no.  If I want to be true to my original intention for this blog, it was to advocate for great literature.  The literature I have written about is the literature which has most shaped me, moved me, challenged me, and impacted me.  I have read every page of these books, and I believe they are largely responsible for forming who I am.  Some of them were a struggle and others were a breeze; all of them were intensely satisfying.  I write about these books because I want you to read them too.  I want you to grow in your desire to invest in truly great literature and not just the flippantly entertaining pieces.

Now here I am, writing about Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  If it weren't for the last few pages, I don't think I would be doing this.  The entire novel is an enjoyable read, and I don't want to negate the value of reading simply for pleasure.  I'm not quite so pretentious that I scorn such books or never indulge in them myself.  Yet in order for me to write about it on my blog, I needed it to be more.  And the twist at the end made me realize that it really was.

I don't think I can talk about this without slipping some spoilers, so *please stop reading* if you don't want to ruin something for yourself.  I usually avoid spoilers, but this ending is so critical for understanding the depth of the story that I cannot neglect it in my discussion.  For the majority of the novel, we are taken on a journey of magical realism and fantasy, as a young boy is stranded at sea with wild animals from his family's zoo.  In particular, we read about Richard Parker, the regal Bengal tiger which Ang Lee's movie amazingly brings to life.*  We learn that Richard Parker is neither tame nor vicious, and Pi spends months trying to connect with this animal passenger who unexpectedly joined him.  Yet most of all, this story is about survival against enormous odds as Pi and Richard Parker float in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days.

In the final chapters, two Japanese colleagues visit Pi in the hospital in order to investigate the cause of the shipwreck.  They listen to Pi's story and submit a report to the Maritime Department.  After telling them all about Richard Parker and the story we just read, Pi eventually gives them a second story, which has a number of obvious parallels.  This second story is far more tragic than the first; it's heart-wrenching and gory and shocking.  It changes everything.  Suddenly, the whole story takes on new meaning and interpretation, and it's tempting to immediately re-read the book in order to fully appreciate that.

I think that my favorite thing about this novel is that it illustrates the power of story.  I have long believed that there is a power in narrative and fiction, and that it can teach us things we wouldn't truly be able to understand otherwise.  It opens doors to our hearts and minds and allows us to access feelings and messages that we need to receive.  Martel beautifully reveals this with a compelling force of imagination and deeper meaning.

So at first, I felt that this was an adventure story but not necessarily a truly great work.  But I am challenged by Pi's words at the end:

"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality."

Perhaps that is what I wanted, and perhaps I nearly missed the greater story.  Perhaps my stubborn attachment to Classic Literature is inadvertently blocking me from some wonderfully imaginative pieces.  And you know what?  Life of Pi is a marvelous novel, fully deserving of its acclaim.

*Ang Lee's recent movie is a true masterpiece of cinematography.  Moreover, it is extremely faithful to the book and an excellent representation of the original novel.  I definitely recommend it!


lacy blaine said...

Amy, I'm so happy you took a risk and reviewed this book! I was given a copy by a friend, but I passed it over in favor of something more...serious. The movie absolutely blew me away with its insight and beauty, and I think your recommendation is just what I need to give the book a try. There's something to be said for experiencing great literature before it becomes "classic"!

Amy said...

Aw thanks, Lacy! I'm glad to hear that, and I do hope you read it!