Winter book reviews–Life of Pi, Invisible Man

“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

You’re joking.

A high school English teacher with three preps, over 150 students (with all their, um, writing to grade), 30 college students (and all of their beginning eportfolios to facilitate), an over-50 year old man who is founding a 501.c.3  and has a part-time job web-mastering still has time to read books of his own choosing?  Impossible.

But it’s true… to a certain extent. Before you go assuming that teaching is too an easy gig, consider:  I got my extra reading done over long weeks of time, and could never have done so were it not for audiobooks, which allowed me to listen/read as I walked and biked between gigs. So hold your taunt, and get ready for some touts.

In November/December I re-read the book that, about thirty years ago, blew my mind–it is the coming-of-age-into-racist-America (and so politically revolutionary in 1952) Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Prior to this book, I had harbored the racism of low expectations for African-American writers (having only read poetry by them before this book). Prior to reading this book, I had never read such an urgent, political bildingsroman;  it spoke to my life as an emerging human adult. It mirrored some of my anger and alienation. That it was a black man that bespoke my situation made it all the more mind-blowing and disillusioning (so inherently racist was my thinking about culture).  The book humanized me. For that alone, I owe Ralph Ellison huge thanks.

One never reads the same book twice, and thanks to Joe Morton‘s very fine voicing of Ellison’s text, I was able to appreciate many things I did not on the first reading. Among them:

  • the precise (if sometimes possibly excessive) descriptions he gives to his settings and characters.
  • the phantasmagoric, hallucinogenic race riot of Harlem that takes up the last many pages
  • the transcendentalist alongside the existentialist, as in quotations such as this, in which the protagonist reflects on all of his sufferings: “I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unloveable in it, for it is all part of me.”
  • the pre-Ken Kesey nightmare of electroconvulsive shock therapy that the protagonist endures after the explosion in the (white) paint factory
  • the epiphanic moment when the narrator emerges from the horror of the hospital and discovers that for he has had a wonderful fear-ectomy
  • the negative portrayal of unionism, which almost outdoes Elie Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954)
  • the way that Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), with its benevolent white northerners and positivist outlook is ironically inverted, even as it informs the southern half of the book
  • the funny way in which ideology is subverted by biology, as the narrator’s black studliness is exploited by female fellow travelers; nonetheless, I’m pretty sure my feminist friends will find the book somewhat sexist.

Rather than suggest that the book be given to “regular” 11th graders, I would reserve this book to the honors sections, or to courses that deal with African-American or “modern”  literature. It is still powerful, but I find its appeal more limited than I may have in my more enthusiastic youth.

What a holiday present one of my friends gave me when she suggested I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002) over winter break!  Whether Ang Lee’s film is good or not, this is one outstanding novel: it is definitely on my Best-in-the-last-few-years list. Its carefully-written, polydimensional portrayal of a young man’s journey to self-awareness earns it a place in my ideal junior English curriculum. Since one of its themes seems to be the nature of being a civilized adult, this is truly a book for all civilized adults.

It’s also a book I will re-read. But from a first reading, many salient virtues can be listed from Life of Pi :

  • the way it subverts traditional narrative form with its 100 chapters (for, as Pi says, “I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape”), interspersing objective, post-plot information before the book is even half-way over; one knows the end in the beginning and so reads with more focused (because less suspenseful) attention
  • the way it portrays mankind as inescapably animalistic–the idealistic, vegan Pi–by the book’s end–consumes flesh he has killed like the most bestial fellow animal by book’s end. Pi says that “Without Richard Parker (the Bengal tiger)
  • the way it deeply symbolizes in its nightmarishly hallucinatory “monster island” chapter–a waystation for the merely contented life, vs. the fulfilled one?
  • the way it celebrates narrative itself–storytelling as a  tool that redeems the absurd suffering of life (the technology of story-telling), as in these quotations:
    • I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.
    • If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?
  • the way it celebrates the products of technology, as in this passage after Pi discovers the storage locker on the lifeboat:
    • Oh, the delight of the manufactured good, the man-made device, the created thing! That moment of material revelation brought an intensity of pleasure–a heady mix of hope, surprise, disbelief, thrill, gratitude, all compressed into one–unequalled in my life by any Christmas, birthday, wedding, Diwali, or any other gift-giving occasion. I was positively giddy with happiness.
  • the way it provides fascinating zoological insights into several species–among them the Orangutan, Spotted Hyena, Three-toed Sloth, and, of course, the Bengal Tiger.
  • the way it provides a primer and critique of religions–specifically Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, each of which the young Pi universally accepts as valid for explaining reality. Along with narrative, the technology of religion is explored in this book
  • the way it provides a gloss on the technology of nuclear families, as in this passage:
    • To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures who people the tree of your life and give it new branches. To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you. It is like losing–I’m sorry, I would rather not go on.
  • the way it provides the younger reader a manual for living in some passages. I particularly appreciated this passage on fear:
    • It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

So, dear reader, if you are looking for a book combining adventure with philosophy, you cannot go wrong with Life of Pi, regardless of how much free time you have. By breaking away from it so utterly, it helps you appreciate civilized modern life.

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