Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life of Pi explained

Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of the most analysed, discussed and debated books of recent years, not just because of its plot, but because it makes the reader question what they have read and what they believe.

The Booker Prize winner author was one of the major draw cards at last weekend’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and he didn’t disappoint. He spoke about his motivation for writing Life of Pi, and how researching the story changed his life along the way.

In this post, I’m going to share a few of the things he spoke about. Those who haven’t read Life of Pi – and intend to – may want to look away now. Don’t spoil the experience of discovering the book’s talking points for yourself.

Life of Pi provides the kind of literary experience fans tend hold close to their hearts. Yann understands that, and opened his talk by promising to try and do “the least damage” to individual interpretation of the story. Because the interpretation of this story is everything.

The tale begins with Pi, the son of a zookeeper in India, who becomes curious about religion and simultaneously practices Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, much to the consternation of his respective religious teachers.

Pi’s religious instruction is interrupted when his family decides to relocate – along with a large menagerie of animals – to Canada. Tragically, the ship sinks during a storm.

What follows is a fascinating, perplexing and occasionally disturbing story of survival.

When Pi finally washes up on the shores of Mexico 227 days later, he recounts two versions of his story. The same facts are offered, with a different interpretation.

In the first, Pi is the sole human survivor on a life boat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a huge Bengal tiger called Mr Parker. The second has no animals and is far more brutal. One requires suspension of disbelief, the other is “reasonable”.

Yann said the very structure of the story itself is designed to force the reader to subconsciously choose whether they are prepared to walk away from the “reasonable” to accept the better story. In other words to have faith, when to do so makes no sense.

The background to how the novel came about is interesting in itself, but this post is more concerned with the story what makes it such an original piece of narrative fiction.

The key for Yann was the question posed by Pi at the end of the book to the Japanese shipwreck investigators: which is the better story? For the author, this is the question at the heart of choosing a life of faith.

While researching Life of Pi, Yann – who describes himself as being “secular” before writing the book – read a lot of scripture and books about scriptures. In doing so, he started to ask himself “what would it be like to have faith?”

To find the answer, he put aside the aspects of religion that repel him and went to India’s diverse holy places “pretending” to have faith. He candidly admits that once inside that space, he didn’t want to leave.

Up to that point, Yann says he’d always considered himself a “reasonable” person. “When you’re reasonable, you have to make sense of everything.”

But he said being reasonable didn’t leave a lot of room for religion. “And when religion is ignored, art suffers. Society doesn’t dream when it is being uber reasonable.”

Life of Pi was his personal protest to stop making sense. To believe in a reality beyond the chemical.
One of the great moments of the session on the weekend was Yann’s explanation of the purpose of “the island”, one of the more obtuse plot developments in modern literature.

He said it served the sole purpose of making the “animal” version of the story harder and harder to believe. Even more so than the chance of a blind boy and blind tiger, coming across another blind shipwreck survivor, it’s at the point of the island that disbelief breaks down and the reader wants rationality kicks in.

“Many readers assume it is something deeply symbolic they just don’t get, or it’s an hallucination –they need a reason to prop up the fiction.”

But in his own words “religion goes beyond the confines of the reasonable”.

The second story – the one without animals and strange flesh-eating islands – involves no faith. “It’s all about man’s inhumanity to man. That’s not the reality I want. I want to go back to the first story and choose to believe.”

For him, life is a matter of subjective interpretation of objective reality. Ultimately, Yann presents a very post modernistic perspective (all stories have equal validity – there is no ultimate truth, only what you believe).

Having said that, the author admits that after looking at all major religions, he’s become “pretty comfortable with Jesus”, although it’s safe to say he is not a member of any organised religion.

Regardless of whether you share his views on religion or philosophy, there’s no denying Life of Pi is an amazing use of narrative structure to encourage readers to think beyond the story – to even question what they believe and why.

Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil: my review

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Twilight series - the verdict

Given that the web is awash with reviews and comments about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, it seems almost superfluous for me to weigh in to the discussion.

However, I’ve spent more than 2,300 pages and the past three weeks working my way through the four books, so to not discuss them would seem a waste!

Now, I know people either love or hate this series, so I’ll say upfront I generally enjoyed the overall experience (and yes, I hear the ink-stained toe-poker howl in pain).

For me the first book, Twilight, remains the best from a tight storytelling perspective (perhaps not surprisingly, it is also the shortest). New Moon and Eclipse develop the mythology and progress the story arcs that all come together Breaking Dawn, the fourth book.

At the core of the series is the romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll kill her if he loses control.

Their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. As the story progresses, particularly in the third book, the focus becomes on Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire, which Edward opposes.

For those who haven’t read the books, I won’t spoil the twists that arrive in the final 754 page instalment. Some readers have complained the first three books are a little too much the same, but – regardless of any other criticism - there can be no such complaints with the fourth book.

It takes the story in a different direction and has more sex and violence than the other three books combined – but still falls a long way short of being a “horror” story. It also sets the scene for further stories (although Meyer has said she won’t write any more from Bella’s perspective).

I’ve read Meyer talk in interviews about how much she loves her characters and loves spending time with them, and my greatest criticism with these books is that she indulges that love more than she should – or needs to - from a narrative perspective.

Plot points are demonstrated more than once, because the author clearly loves how the characters interact on the page. I grew continually frustrated – particularly in the middle two books – when it was obvious a scene or chapter was simply reiterating something that was already well established (for example, that the werewolf Jacob was in love with Bella … and don’t get me started on that relationship. Never been a fan of romantic triangles, and this one really annoyed me – but it does resolve itself with a nice sense of ironically in the end).

At nearly 800 pages, Breaking Dawn is longer than it needs to be, but, in fairness, an enormous amount happens plot-wise.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Bella and Edward’s relationship was a metaphor for sexual restraint, and while that symbolism continues through the bulk of the story, it takes a back seat to the growing mythology. (Although, maybe her desire to be a vampire is symbolic of the transformation after marriage...)

When Meyer set out to write these stories – inspired by a vivid dream – I doubt she imagined she’d sell the number of books she has, or spark the kind of rabid fans and critics who now populate blogland.

I think she’s a writer who loves her characters and loves writing them. Enough people are devouring the series to send a message she’s not alone in her affection.

I may not be willing to don a “I love Edward Cullen” badge, but I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy large slabs of this story.

So bring on the jibes…

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Expectations met - Markus Zusak

We’ve talked on this blog about whether or not as readers we’re influenced by the way an author presents themselves in person.

The general consensus is that it shouldn’t matter: stories should be judged on their merits alone. However, it’s fair to say that when it comes to our favourite authors, we often harbour a secret hope their personalities somehow do their stories justice.

Regular readers of this blog know Markus Zusak is among my favourite writers (not just for The Book Thief – which still tops my list – but for his other four books as well). Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend time with him at a literary breakfast, and then writers’ workshop (hosted by the very author-friendly Logan Libraries in Queensland). And the news is all good.

One of the things I love most about Markus’ books is the honesty, warmth and poetic use of language that infuse his narrative. It turns out those qualities don’t just exist on the page.
It's not often fans get to know an author beyond their publicity blurb, but those who gathered for the sessions on the weekend – fans and writers alike – were given that rare opportunity.

Here’s a writer who openly talks about his self doubt, how he doesn’t have all the answers about writing and style, and that the secret to success is to have a deep passion for telling stories and a willingness to put in the time necessary to craft something above the ordinary.

In a truly remarkable moment, Markus read the opening chapter to his new novel. The reading was remarkable because the story is still a work in progress, and the final version may have little resemblance with what he shared (particularly given his penchant for continuous editing).

The reading didn’t disappoint. Fans lapped it up, hopefully realising how rare it is for a writer to share something not yet completely polished - particularly from a writer of Markus’ international reputation.

Gutsy move. (Hey, even the Ink-stained Toepoker was impressed...)

Of course Markus also spoke about The Book Thief, and the endless drafts he worked through (re-writing the first 90 pages between 150 and 200 times) before he finally found the narrative voice that would elevate the novel to realm of a classic: by having Death as the narrator.

People either love or hate that book. Here’s what I wrote when I finished reading it back in 2006:

It is one of the most beautifully and uniquely written stories I’ve read. So many writers have crafted stories in an attempt to capture the power of words, but this story did that better (and more profoundly) for me, than anything else I've read. It also clarified for me the unique role literature has in storytelling, and how it differs (or at least should differ) from other forms, like film and theatre. I laughed, I cried, and thought about life, suffering, and hope.

Ultimately, Markus Zusak is a great storyteller who loves the power of words. He's prepared to spend as much time as it takes to craft his story, making sure every sentence, every word -every piece of the puzzle - does what he needs it to.

I certainly walked away inspired, and motivated to be a better writer. I'm also now a little more patient in my wait for his next work ... I'm willing to bide my time until Markus Zusak to be happy enough with his new project to hand it to his publisher and share the story with the rest of us.

(And yes, I’m actually including a proper photo of myself for the first time on this blog. That’s me on the right with Markus and my favourite librarian – and breakfast/workshop organiser – Janet Poole.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Something to sink your teeth into

You don’t have to be a fan of horror to know that stories about vampires are ripe with metaphors.

Lately, and quite inadvertently, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about vampires – and what they represent metaphorically - thanks to my reading material.

First, I finally bit the bullet (or the jugular, as it may be) and started reading Stephenie Meyer’s mega-selling vampire series, starting with Twilight. I’d been putting this off for a while (as a Josh Whedon fan, I was concerned about stereotyping myself as a fan of all things vampiric).

After I’d read the first two Meyer books, a novel I’d on order from the library became available, The Opposite of Life by Australian author Narelle M. Harris. It was about – you guessed it – vampires.

It was an interesting exercise reading two different stories about vampires back to back, and analysing how the authors tackled the mythology and metaphorical aspects of their tales.

While Joss Whedon used vampires, demons and other “big bads” in his Buffy stories as metaphors for real-life monsters and personal battles, Meyer and Harris take different tacks – along the way also providing refreshingly different takes on vampire mythology.

What prompted me to finally pick up Twilight was an article that revealed Meyer was a practicing Mormon and that – the first book at least – contained no sex and barely any violence. But what really piqued my curiosity was the description of the story as a metaphor for sexual restraint.

At the core of the four-book series is a romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll her if he loses control in her proximity.

And so, their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. The first book captures this tension and conflict remarkably well - to the point of becoming addictive. The second and third books (I’m halfway through the latter) focus more on the mythology Meyer is building, along with Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire so they can be together forever. (I’ll save my critique on the series until I’ve finished the fourth book.)

Harris, on the other hand, takes a more poignant approach in a tale that’s also fresh, witty and – most importantly – original.

Her vampires – who stalk the streets of Melbourne – don’t need human blood to feed their thirst; they need it to “feel” anything.

In this story, wanting to become a vampire is about avoidance. Not avoiding death, but avoiding life and all its pain, which is a palatable option for narrative character Lissa. Too many people in Lissa’s life have died – including some unfortunate souls in Melbourne’s coolest gothic hang-outs – so when she befriends a remarkable unsexy vampire, she seriously considers becoming one herself to avoid any more pain.

Despite the bleak undertones, The Opposite of Life is an easy read and one I really enjoyed. It’s apparently the first of a series featuring Lissa and her forays into the world of vampires (Melbourne’s real underworld), and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. Harris' style is somewhere between chicklit and goth horror. And it works.

In both stories, the narrative characters have a choice to make about eternity. One is driven by love and desire, the other (at least in Harris' first offering) is driven by sadness and grief – ultimately tempered by revelation.

I, for one, am enjoying seeing a classic mythology being given new treatment in hybrid genres. But I think once I’ve finished Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, I’ll take a break from the creatures of the night for a bit.