The other night I slapped my book closed, flung the bedroom door open and confronted my wife as to why she let me finish my book. She had previously read it and therefore had the responsibility to warn me, to stop me from finishing. Should she have stopped me because it was bad? No. She should have stopped me because it was so darn conflicting that I can't give any kind of recommendation either way! And that is terribly frustrating.
The book in question is Yann Martel's new novel Beatrice and Virgil. Laura and I were both quite excited about this because we were absolutely enraptured by Martel's Life of Pi. If you ask either of us for a book recommendation we will almost certainly include Life of Pi in our list. That book was a masterful tale of survival told with visionary creativity. It was unique and captivating; it thrilled the imagination. And so we both greatly looked forward to the release of Beatrice and Virgil.
The basic plot is this: Henry is a successful novelist who fails at writing a second book. His first novel had animals as the main players. His second novel was about the holocaust. After rejection from his publisher, he walks away from writing, and he and his wife move away and live off his royalties. But Henry is a polite fellow, and so responds to all his fan mail. One day Henry receives a very puzzling letter, a short story and a request for writing help. Normally Henry would decline, but he was very intrigued by the story and it so happened that the fan lived in the same city Henry had just moved to. And this fan calls himself Henry.
Henry, the fan, is a taxidermist. He has a shop not far from Henry's home- Henry, the author. So the author goes to visit the taxidermist and is bewitched by the skillful creations of this taxidermist. The taxidermist has written a play whose characters are animals, a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. And the taxidermist needs help.
If you haven't picked up on the postmodernist threads yet, then allow me to elaborate. From the very beginning of B & V, it felt like Martel was laughing at his reader, if only through his Henry. At first, Yann Martel, an author of a wildly successful book starring animals is indistinguishable from his main character, Henry. Henry is an author. He wrote an impressively successful novel. The novel had animals as major players. Henry was called upon to help Henry. Henry is a taxidermist who is also an author. He wrote a play. His play uses animals as the major players. And there you have it, postmodern lit; the blurring, no, swirling of fiction and real life until they seem interchangeable. Though, this book takes the swirling to levels I've never read before. In some ways, this was unique, fun, and enjoyable. In many ways it was tedious, confusing, and seemingly stupid.
To make it worse, the first 20 or so pages seemed like they were written as a mocking apology from Martel to his reader (even if under the guise of Henry): Yes, (in a snooty tone) I'm ridiculously successful, handsomely rich, will never have to work another day because my book is so popular, and oh, I am so tired of being recognized on the streets, everyone wants to tell me how great my book is. I know how great it is.
The rest of the plot bounces between Henry's new life and working with the taxidermist on the play. Working isn't the right word. They never actually work on it. The taxidermist simply reads disjointed parts to Henry. These parts of the play are included for us, the real world reader, but as I said , are disjointed. The taxidermist does not seem to read his passages in any kind of order. Beatrice and Virgil talk about a pear. Then they talk about whether they should leave or not. (For a while, it felt very much like the play Waiting for Godot, but in a bad way.) It is all very strange, and though it is a very quick read, it was hard work to motivate myself to actually finish it. When I did sit down to read I flew through the pages. It was the between readings where it was easy to think about giving up. I think I'm glad I didn't.
I don't want to give away too much about the end because really it is a bit of a surprise ending. What is surprising is how Martel is able to pull together all the plot pieces in a way that made sense. I found this surprise to be satisfying enough. And there were a few parts in the end that almost brought me to tears. And it is because of the ending that I am stumped on forming an opinion. For a majority of this book, I was left confused, unsure what the point was, if there even was a point, and why I cared about the point. But I found the ending to be understandable, even impressive, if not satisfying. But books are journeys and I'm not entirely sure that this journey is worth it.
One last comment about this book's postmodern workings. In the end, Martel, the author writes two books. One is fiction, one is non-fiction, just like Henry's failed second book. And I enjoyed the complexity that Martel's final "fiction story"/game (if you read it you'll understand) and how it lent itself to the postmodern framework.
Beatrice and Virgil is 197 pages.
Up next is Stephen King's brick of a book Under the Dome, weighing in at 1070 pages.