Monday, April 02, 2007


by Yann Martel

Way way back in the very early days of this blog one of the first posts I made was in regards to Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a Booker prize winning novel that I rather liked. Self is an earlier novel by the same author, and I didn't like it nearly as much.

The two books are in some ways quite similar, they both play little games with the narration and the reader's expectations, but in very different ways. This novel is supposedly an autobiography, although right from the start the reader is told this with a wink and a nudge. It is hard to say what parts are real and which are imagined, but I would guess that the bulk is probably true to life. Certainly the descriptions of boy's boarding school and university rang very true to my own memories of those kinds of places, but one can also be fairly certain that for example the scenes when the author spontaneously changes gender may not have happened in real life strictly as they appear on the page.

All the scenes and anecdotes in the book are rendered in clever post-modern literary type ways, but for every conceit that turns out to smart and witty there's another that is indulgent and grating. Most of the time it just gave me a desire to reread Dave Eggars' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but unfortunately it's buried somewhere in a box back in New Zealand.

The ending of the book takes a sudden and disturbing turn to the genuinely horrific which is more than a little unexpected. I hope for the author's sake that this particular section is not truly autobiographical but it's rendered with such vividness that I fear that it may actually be factual. At any rate it's an upsettingly memorable way to end what is up until then a very wry, distant autobiography.

It is a clever book in a lot of ways, and I'm sure plenty of English classes could be spent describing the themes and structure (I did like the way that things would have played out the same for the author regardless of the gender he/she wore at any given point in the novel), but the writing is not quite strong enough to support it. It's seems as though the author had plenty of good, intellectual ideas, but not quite the experience to pull them off successfully on a gut level. Of course it's an early novel and any roughness to it can be more than forgiven considering how well Life of Pi turned out.

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