Thursday, September 13, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 4th post

As ever, my posts are scrambled, but I am slowly making my way through a few recently read books.  I've also tentatively outlined the 13 books that will complete the challenge, though I think I will probably outpace 13 a bit this year.

Yann Martel is definitely going to be in the news this year because the movie version of Life of Pi is coming out.  I read Life of Pi a few years back and enjoyed it, but didn't find it life-changing like some folks.  (Actually, The Hungry Tide (2005) by Amitav Ghosh covers similar territory and might be even a bit more profound and/or moving at least to me, and I would highly recommend it. Maybe a few years down the road, I will reread the two back to back.)

Based on the success of Pi, his first book of short stories was republished: The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and other stories.  The first story (HR for short) is a novella and the second story "... the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto ..." comes pretty close to being a novella as well.  The final two stories are not quite as long.  It is kind of strange to read a book of stories with only four stories in it; it is closer to the Short Works of Joseph Conrad than an Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant collection, that's for sure.

You can certainly tell that these are early works from a promising but somewhat raw writer.  "Manners of Dying" is a fairly forgettable piece in the Twilight Zone/Groundhog Day tradition.

The last story is a bit more experimental and also has seeds in the fantastic.  There is a grandson visiting his grandmother and after a few sentences reporting her speech, the text literally goes to "blah-blah-blah-blah ...." and you then see the grandson's thoughts as he tunes out.  A somewhat unnecessary plot contrivance is that she makes mirrors that are formed by speaking words, words, words and that may be why she is such a motor-mouth (that and the fact she is old and lonely).  I don't even know if it qualifies as a twist, but years later, the grandson is kicking himself for not listening closer to what she said.

I didn't care too much for these two stories.

The Donald Rankin piece seemed like it was also going to be rooted in the fantastic -- a tourist wandering around DC finds an unknown theatre and goes and listens to a piece of music by an unknown composer.  But Martel is going for something different here, more grounded in reality: the theatre is indeed a shell of its former self (they sit on folding chairs) and the performers and composer are all army vets, putting on these performances as a kind of therapeutic outlet.  What is a little hard to buy is that the Canadian narrator would actually have the nerve to chase after Rankin and that Rankin would let him into the bank where he works as a janitor.  I guess there wouldn't be much of a story otherwise...

This story was better but still not that memorable.

No question the strongest piece is HR, which does justify reprinting this collection.  In some ways the set up is even more hard to credit, but the reader just has to move beyond that.  Two college boys meet and become close friends.  The narrator is a senior and Paul is a freshman.  The bond is so close that when Paul gets very sick, the narrator more or less loses his mind, stops caring about classes and fails his final year.  What is a bit unusual is that it is just a friendship and not a sexual relationship between the two.  Honestly, it might have been a bit more believable had the positions been reversed -- a freshman idolizing a senior.  In any case, Paul contracts AIDS in the most blameless way possible -- his father gets in a car accident in Jamaica and Paul needs a blood transfusion and there you go.  (You could call it the Immaculate Transmission, given how far Martel goes to make Paul a paragon of virtue and later suffering.)  When the father finds out his role, he beats his car to death and sets it on fire.  This is transference of course, since they had been driving another car (for a minute I thought I had caught Martel in a lazy error ;) ).

Anyway, the narrator more or less gives up his studies for 9 months and begins visiting Paul whether he is home or at the hospital (mostly at the hospital).  They decide to tell each other stories of a huge clan based in an alternative universe.  Each story represents a year from 1901 to 2001.  The stories are supposed to be inspired by some event in the real world from that year.  The concept is a little like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, though the story that they tell each other sounds a bit more inspired by Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suppose it isn't a surprise that Paul's stories get darker and darker, regardless of the real world events (i.e. the early 40s stories should be darker than those based on the 50s).  It's also not that much of a surprise that the stories get cut short (stopping at 1962) when Paul finally succumbs. 

I kind of wish Martel had stuck with the core of his idea and ditched the AIDS victim frame, since I don't think he had earned the right to use such a device so early in his career.*  Maybe he had indeed been touched by AIDS-related suffering at around 19 or 20, but it strikes me as a cheap or even lazy way of making the story more profound and sentimental.  I'd also say the same about trying to piggyback on the trauma faced by Vietnam War veterans in the second story, which as a Canadian writer, he'd have no real connection to.  I don't mean that any topics are literally off-bounds for a writer, but a writer who goes to these themes (without having more or less earned their stripes) is a cheap hack, heading straight towards Hallmark greeting card or Sunday movie-of-the-week territory.  I think even Life of Pi has some of this easy sentimentality, but is a stronger piece of writing.  I suspect Martel is never going to be a writer I respect,** but I will probably reread Life of Pi once again (and perhaps catch the movie -- once it shows up on TV ;) ).

* My own claim is stronger than Yann's -- my mother spent the last part of her career working for an AIDS hotline and social service agency -- bringing that stress home and so on, but I would really shy away from using/exploiting that in my own published writing.

** Having taken a minute to check what else he has written, I see that Beatrice and Virgil, his latest novel, is described as an allegory of the Holocaust. I guess he has surrendered to his worst tendencies and is already in hack territory, trying to piggyback off of others' suffering to make his work profound.  Maybe I won't bother with Pi after all.


  1. You make some interesting comments on Martel's choices as an author. The only thing I have read so far by him is the much-acclaimed Life of Pi. It was recommended by one of my son's high school teachers as "bonus" supplementary reading in a philosophy course, and he wasn't too taken with it and handed it to me for my opinion. It was reasonably enjoyable, but I thought it was longer than it needed to be for the limited plot. "New Young Author Writing About Big Deep Subjects" was writ large throughout - it appears that this judgement is correct, from your assessment.

    Good review, thank you.


    1. Thanks. I always hope that authors continue to develop and improve, but I really have my doubts about where Martel is headed, based on his latest novel (which I will not read). He definitely wants to tackle profound subjects, but I think he too often succumbs to sensationalism.