Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quick Review: Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel's Life of Pi was an enormous hit; it enjoyed the kind of commercial success that writers of literary fiction daren't hope for because very few ever experience anything like it. And I can imagine that it was hard for Martel to process. One day you are an obscure writer and suddenly, improbably, your book is translated into 40+ languages and selling millions and millions of copies. What, for the love of all that is holy, do you do next?

Unfortunately, for Martel and for us, what he did next was spend eight years writing a mess of a book. It's a little hard to know where to start. I suppose some plot summary is in order, but hold on to your hats--it gets weird. Beatrice and Virgil begins with about 30 pages of what would seem to be thinly-veiled autobiography; a writer named Henry is trying to write a follow-up to a best-selling novel. After struggling for five years, he comes up with an idea to write about the Holocaust as fiction and non-fiction simultaneously (I would explain more about this, but it was so titanically boring the first go-round that I can't bear to go through it) only to find that both his publisher and editor killed it dead. O that they would have done us the same favor here.

Anyway, distraught at the end of this project, Henry and his wife move to a large unnamed city where Henry regroups by joining a theatre cooperative, working at chocolate shop, and answering fan mail. Now, let the coincidences pile. First, Henry is captivated by a bizarre fan-letter that includes a highlighted Flaubert short-story, a draft of a surreal play featuring a monkey and a donkey (the titular characters, we'll soon discover) discussing pears, and a terse request for help. Henry, for reasons passing understanding and credulity, is interested and decides to find the guy. Luckily, he lives down the street. And guess what? He's writing a Holocaust allegory! Whoda thunk it. The rest of the novel unravels in ways that manage to be both contrived and oddly predictable.

I'm usually willing to overlook a certain "serendipity" in narrative, but the plotting here just seems so lazy and the metaphors so ham-handed. Acutally, it would be one thing if the metaphors were ham-handed, but here they are also clumsily explained. Martel, apparently worried that we may not understand every last detail, has his protagonist "realize" things that would be best left for the reader to ponder on their own. The combination of spoon-fed symbolism and nakedly artificial plot makes the work feel condescending. One of the admirable qualities of Life of Pi is that the central metaphor of the novel went largely unexamined or explained until the very end. In short, the story worked on its own; Beatrice and Virgil is an allegory in search of a story.

My advice? Leave Beatrice and Virgil be. If you are still interested, then do yourself a favor and wait a few months for a remaindered copy--they are sure to be bountiful.