Monday, August 22, 2011

Beatrice & Virgil is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

 If you want to know what Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi) is about, this sums it up:

 But I don't think Beatrice & Virgil is about what it is about.
It's about the way the book makes you feel.
And what it feels like to read Beatrice & Virgil is something else entirely.
It could've been something wonderful, but I suspect this book was ruined by a publishing deadline.





You remember Life of Pi? Beatrice & Virgil is by the same guy who wrote Life of Pi, and they have just one similarity: They both made a fool of me. And both times, I liked it. When I began reading Life of Pi, Martel described the events in such a way that I believed I was reading nonfiction. I'd shelved this book at work in the fiction section many times, and the story was about a boy safely floating across the Pacific in a tiny boat with a hungry tiger, and I still believed it was all true until I was nearly halfway through the story. Shame on me! But it was so fun to believe that such improbable and fantastic things could really happen.
When I began reading Beatrice & Virgil, I was determined not to be fooled again. I opened the book, and began reading about the life of a famous author. I assumed this was a forward written by Martel himself. Thirty pages in, I was thinking This is a very long forward for such a short book. I flipped ahead and saw that I was reading the novel, not a forward. It was a strange feeling; I had to mentally adjust my understanding of everything I'd just read. I'd fallen down another rabbit hole, and I respected the author for writing so well, I truly believed his fiction. If you enjoy being completely immersed in a story, believing it is true, and blurring the line between truth and fantasy, you will enjoy that aspect of that book. Unfortunately for me, it was the only thing I liked about the story. That's not to say that there aren't pages and pages of beautiful prose. The writing is by turns thought-provoking and picturesque (until it becomes a horror story, but let's not talk about that yet). The passages about literary genres, flip-books, taxidermy, and the physical properties of a pear are special treats. But these passages feels like the results of good writing exercises, cobbled together to form a novel that doesn't coalesce into anything solid. Just as the story begins to build, it unravels in just 5 pages and comes to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. You want spoilers? Keep reading!

The story opens with the protagonist, Henry, inviting the reader into his life, then quickly switching to a discussion of the distinctions (or lack thereof) between literary genres, and the difficulties an author encounters when trying to reveal the truth in a way that is either entirely fiction, or entirely nonfiction. Henry wants to tell the story of the Jewish Holocaust outside the traditional framework of fictional realism or memoir. He champions the flip book, explaining that the form can marry fiction and nonfiction with no beginning or end. At this point, I was enthralled. As a lover of literary arts, the idea fascinated me. As a librarian trained in the science of cataloging, I wanted to scream "WHERE DO I SHELVE YOUR BOOK IF IT IS BOTH FICTION AND NONFICTION OMG OMG BRAIN MELTDOWN!"

Soon Henry meets a strange fan of his first novel. This man is a professional taxidermist and an amateur playwright, and he needs help completing his play. The play is an allegory about the systematic extermination of entire species of animals, told within the framework of the Jewish Holocaust. The play's main characters are Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. Henry is drawn to this nontraditional Holocaust tale, and also to the taxidermist's strange shop, where animals seem frozen in time. The taxidermist is often rude, but Henry forgives this easily. The reader suspects the taxidermist is a Holocaust survivor. 

The taxidermist slowly reveals different parts of his play. One day the two men are writing and brainstorming in the taxidermist's shop when the play takes a horrifying turn. Let's just say there are many pages of intense, stomach-turning, detailed descriptions of extreme brutality to animals (I skipped some paragraphs because it made me feel sick). Henry suddenly realizes the taxidermist isn't a Holocaust survivor; he is a former Nazi. Henry refuses to work on the play anymore, and the taxidermist calmly stabs him in the stomach. Henry stumbles into the road and is rescued as the taxidermist sets fire to his own shop. He presumably perishes in the fire. Henry survives, and the story ends.

SERIOUSLY?!?!?!

Yeah. Seriously. In 5 pages, the writer is stabbed, the shop and creepy dude go down in flames, and the book ends. All this after spending SEVEN PAGES describing a pear. If that wasn't due to a literary deadline, I don't know what it

1 comment:

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