A Review of Yann Martel's Life of Pi
The soon to be released Ang Lee film of this story got me interested in reading the novel. A runaway bestseller since publication, THE LIFE OF PI is not your standard bestselling fare. But, of course, the question on every pulp fan's mind is: is the novel pulp?
The answer: it is and it isn't.
So why not judge for yourself Here's the premise in a nutshell:
Pi, a sixteen-year-old boy, is sailing from India to Canada with his family, and a selection of animals from the family zoo aboard a Japanese freighter in 1977. A sudden explosion below decks sends the ship into chaos as she starts to sink quickly. In the scramble, Pi is tossed into a lifeboat as the ship sinks from view beneath the waves. He is the only human survivor. All of his family has perished along with the crew and the zoo animals. Well, not all the animals. It turns out a zebra had leapt into the boat during the storm accompanying the sinking, breaking a leg in the process. A hyena is also aboard and an orangutang manages to scramble to safety the next morning. Pi is now trapped on a lifeboat he shares with a selection of wild animals. Oh, did I mention that a 450-pound Bengal tiger is also along for the ride?
Now if that's not the recipe for a great, pulpy adventure yarn, then what is? And it delivers – for the most part.
The hyena soon makes quick work of the zebra and the orangutang, the tiger (recovering from shock and being doped prior to the sinking) takes care of the hyena. The only thing left on the menu is Pi and a battle of wills ensues that, once read, cannot be forgotten. Pi soon realizes that instead of letting nature run its course with a tiger deprived of food and water, he must instead keep the beast alive and well fed so it won't kill him in a crazed, starvation-driven frenzy.
These aspects of the book are riveting as Pi goes into full-blown Robinson-Crusoe-Tom-Hanks-talking-to-a-volley-ball survival mode, staying out of the reach of the tiger in the process. I defy anyone to put the book down while reading these sections. There's even a mysterious island of deadly algae along the way as Pi deals with his grief and keeps the tiger at bay by using his brain since brawn will do him no good against the beast. Done right, and Ang Lee is the man to do it, the movie should keep viewers glued to their seats.
Now for the bad, the novel is so poorly written in places that you'll want to throw it across the room. Endless pages scroll by with little or nothing to add except pointless filler. Pi's family doesn't even step aboard the ship until 120 pages in and long sections of the novel slide into Moby Dick territory with brain-numbing pages dedicated to the particulars of the various fish and animals Pi encounters. Some of this dreck is mildly interesting, some of it is there to expand the themes, but most of it takes away from the grand adventure this tale is meant to be and the horrors lurking behind Pi's situation.
I never thought I'd say this, but I urge readers to pick up the book and skim through these 'intermissions'. As a writer myself, I could have my quill confiscated for even suggesting such a thing but I feel the adventure sections of the novel are just too good to throw out with the bath water. The other option is to wait for the movie where, no doubt, the endless, needless passages will be excised. But, hey, this is a book review.
All in all, LIFE OF PI, has all the makings of a truly great adventure yarn. You will root for Pi and grieve with him. He is in a no-win situation but refuses to give up – the very essence of a pulp character. Whether you try the book or await the film, this is a story not to be missed.