grist

 

Saturday, September 13, 2003
Guilty pleasure alert--as I've started listening to more audiobooks, my old Puritan kicks in and snorts dismissively--somehow it's better in that dark corner of my own mind to listen to another near-naked 14-year-old bleating out overproduced synth-pop, than trying to take in a reasonably good book either over the radio or iPod. For a while I rested on the wobbly fence of listening to less literary works (DaVinci Code OK, Bleak House, Not OK). Then just poetry on the serious side, then things go muddy. So I tried Life of Pi, a book I was vaguely suspicious of for some reason not clear to me. But after a friend raved, and said it reminded her of my own writing, some mix of envy and vanity and curiousity drew me in.

One of the problems with audiobooks is that a poor reader can really damage your enjoyment of the book, and I don't think the Life of Pi reader was a great one (though not as terrible as the dismal French accents of Dan Brown's reader--I guess there are only so many Jim Dales).

The book started off with great promise--the passages described how he got his name and his nickname were terrific--taut and funny and bright--as were the zoo information about animal behavior, running a zoo, and animal training. I was finding excuses to take walks with the iPod and volounteering to run errands for a few minutes in the car.

But the religious studies section of the book, where he decides to become Christian, Muslim and Hindu was terrible, I thought. Over-long and not particularly rich, or particularly clever. I dragged through it, hoping that it would cleverly turn into something that was genuinely profound, or deal with the overlapping elements of the different religions in a substantive and complex way, but it did not (and, as you will see below, even the eventual turn of the narrative that redeemed the book for me did not redeem this section).

The shipwreck, death of the animals and taming of Richard Parker were all solid and often much better--especially the process of understanding that he needed to tame the tiger to survive, and the process of doing so. Through all of this, I had in the back of my mind the nagging questions of what my friend (a trusted one, and a good reader) had seen in this that reminded her of my own work.) I had heard enough about the book ahead of time to be on the watch for allegory--a form I usually like, but had not seen it yet--I was fearful of some overdrawn hindu/muslim/christian animal symbolism, which, fortunately, did not develop.

As the book turned to survival and starvation, I began to see more resemblances--my own book features starvation, cannibalism, going blind, and other unhappy accidents, and mostly without the leavening of the humor in Life of Pi. The fantastical island of algae was quite good, but it ended abruptly and somewhat implasuibly, and the book fell off precipitously--the flat remainder of the trip (most of the Pacific) and the odd, supposed-to-be-funny conversations with the Japanese men.

Redemption did arrive, and in so unexpected a fashion and so completely, that I was irritated that it worked so well, and that I was forced to concede so much more value in a book that I had, for long stretches, not particularly enjoyed reading--err--listening (here's where the guilt comes in).

So I'm left with this odd conflicted feeling--the book has done something remarkable and within that has some real originality and sparkle, but it is certainly uneven, and it is flat for long stretches (and it is that, in part, that I think reminds my friend of my own work which--I hope--has these same flaws, if it has virtues). So: 4 and 2 stars in measure, rather than the milquetoasty 3. I think also that the book has so many threads in it that his next book could make this one seem much better or much worse as different strains of his own exploration come out in it.



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