Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not Just a Survival Story

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator of Life of Pi tells us that his story will make its hearers "believe in God." I'm not sure any story can quite live up to that. However, this novel's journey certainly isn't limited to what the protagonist endures at sea.

The novel is divided into three sections. Each is named for a place, which is a bit ironic, since the protagonist's sense of place has been disturbed by the events of his life. In the first section, "Toronto and Pondicherry," we meet Pi as the adult looking back over his life and story. He tells about his desire to learn about religion and how he become Christian, Muslim, and Hindu at once. This part provides most of the comic part of the story, but also lets us in on what sort of person young Pi is before the tragedy that marks his life.

Part Two, "The Pacific Ocean," is the longest part of the book. It tells of the accident which brought Pi to be lost at sea with Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. (On board the lifeboat is also a severely injured zebra, and orangutan, and a hyena, but they don't last long.) This is where the narrative really takes off, as one might expect. Having no nautical training or knowledge of survival skills, I cannot tell how realistic this adventure really is. However, Martel's narrator is so detailed about what he does to fashion a raft, catch turtles and fish to eat, and training the tiger, that I could not help but believe it all was true. The prose here is striking and vivid, better than the first section, the reader left to believe on the story's own merits.

The last section is called "Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan Mexico." It is here where Pi, after 227 days lost at sea, finally finds civilization. While recuperating in a hospital, he is visited by two men representing the Japanese company who owned the downed ship. They do not believe his tale of survival with a tiger and there is an interesting argument about what it means to believe. Pi offers a different version that seems more plausible, but even darker than what readers are likely to think actually happened. At this point, I'm not sure whether we are supposed to choose which version is real. I also cannot decide whether I like that an alternate story has been offered or why.

I can say that for most people the middle section of Life of Pi is going to be the part of the story that most readers will hang on to and remember. But the other two sections are important and keep this from being a mere adventure story. Without them, we only have an incredible physical journey. And most as most of our philosophies and religions teach us, the body is only one segment of the self.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Recognizing The Beautifully Absurd

Tenth of December: StoriesTenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tenth of December, George Saunders’ new book, is overwhelming. Reading these stories sometimes gives the effect that one is being pelted with foam bricks. You blink and jump at first because you realize you are being assaulted, but then you realize thrower isn’t trying to injure, just get your attention. That isn’t to say that cumulative effect isn’t painful, even though you pretend everyone is just playing.

"Victory Lap" is a bit confusing, not so much because of the three different points of view, but because it is not clear whether the central action of the story is a rape, a killing, or both or some other type of assault. Perhaps it doesn't really matter. One point of view is from the young girl who has been assaulted. Another is from the attacker. For me the most interesting point of view was from the neighbor boy who seems to have a crush on the girl and who has witnessed some of the event, but we are not quite sure what.

In "Sticks," a pole in the yard become where and how a father expresses what is on his failing mind. Like so many of Saunders' tales, it is both whimsical and sad.

"Puppy" is about a "family mission," led by a hopeful mother to get rid of a family dog it seems only the father doesn't want. The narrator says, "Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get him better." This is a powerful story about the conflict inherent in trying to control one's environment as one gives in to the need for companionship, a theme I sensed from many of Saunders' stories.

Convicted murderers become participants in experiments on behavior and drugs in "Escape from Spiderhead," an engaging and disturbing story. Its tone is well-controlled, and the climax scary and a little beautiful at the same time. This is followed by another story with the absurdity of authority as a principal theme: “Exhortation.” Here a boss tries to encourage his underlings, via memo, to take a more positive attitude and stop second-guessing those in charge. Both stories are comic and tragic, revealing the logical conclusion of the Peter Principle.

In “Al Roosten,” a middle-aged single man participates in a charity auction and thinks of the many ways life has held him down. This is followed by "Home," the story of a court-martialed soldier returns to his wacky, dysfunctional family. When the protagonist arrives, he finds his mother and her recent husband have been evicted and that he isn’t trusted around his sister’s baby. People continue to thank him for his service to the country at the same time they add to his misery.

In “My Chivalric Fiasco,” a man is put in a difficult position when he realizes his boss has had sex with his co-worker. The question of whether the affair was consensual keeps coming up, but never gets quite answered. The protagonist finds out that doing the right thing has negative consequences, not only for him, but for the person he expects to save.

The collection closes with the title story, about an imaginative boy who falls through the ice in a pond after thinking himself a hero to a young girl, and is saved by a man with cancer who is trying to kill himself. The story encapsulates a number of themes found throughout the book: the flights and limits of imagination, the ugly reality of being a hero, the fragility of all existence, and how closely we are connected to people whose existence we are unaware of.

George Saunders' fiction may take some getting used to, particularly for readers who want their stories to have clear cut, happy or sad endings or characters we can easily "relate" to. But like the work of Flannery O'Connor, what we find with Saunders is that the more we look at his characters, the more we recognize them. Then what passes as absurdity becomes frighteningly real.

View all my reviews