Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'Life of Pi'

‘This book will make you believe in God.’

It’s a big claim to make. If asked which book was responsible for the highest number of Road to Damascus moments, most people would probably suggest the Bible, or the Koran, or even The Tao of Pooh.

Yet this is the claim made by Yann Martel in the prologue to his Booker Prize winning, best selling, world changing novel Life of Pi. Here is the conceit: on his travels, Martel meets a man in a coffee shop in Pondicherry. The man offers to tell him a story which will make him believe in God. The story, not surprisingly, is that of Pi: his life. When Pi is 16, a cargo ship he is on sinks, and he is stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger.

Silly is the word which came right into my head when I tried to sum up how I felt about this book. Silly.

Despite the massive sales of Martel's book, reports of an increase in the number of believers were thin on the ground after it appeared on shelves, and in retrospect it appears he might have overstated the power of his tale to inspire religious belief. You could even say that making such a claim in the first place was, with hindsight, a little bit silly.

Silly is the word which came right into my head when I tried to sum up how I felt about this book. Silly. Not dangerous or inappropriate or misguided. Not boring or repetitive or irksome.

Just silly.

Life of Pi has talking tigers in it. It has blind sailors. It has carnivorous islands. For some reason, all of these things do not strike me as original or cunning or any one of the other adjectives lavished upon the back and inside cover of my copy. They strike me as silly.

Fans of the book might, at this point, level an accusing finger at me and say your problem isn’t with Life of Pi! Your problem is with magical realism! They would have a point. Magical realism and I make uncomfortable bedfellows, because I have this firm and unshakeable belief that talking animals and girls with green hair and carnivorous islands are the kind of fantasy material most suitable for kids, not adults. The moment I stopped believing in fairies was the moment I stopped enjoying adult fiction which uses talking animals as a metaphor. I feel no need to use fiction to reconnect with my inner child, because she is still right there, sitting beside me and finding YouTube videos of pratfalls hilariously funny. For me, as an adult, fiction is about finding ways to explore my adult concerns: sex, death, vampires, and why people ever started eating artichokes. Magical realism, of which Life of Pi is an example, does not help me do any of those things.

But! The fans might cry, Life of Pi is about religion and existence! These are adult concerns! (when fans of books I hate argue with me, they always use a lot of exclamation points).

They would have a reasonable case. Life of Pi isn’t a novel without insights. I still remember being struck by the main character’s innocent assumption that a person can belong to not one, but two or even three religions. Why not? I thought. You could be Christian and Muslim and Hindu if you wanted. Where does it say that you have to choose?

And the boy in the boat, trapped with a tiger for company for 227 days. What an arresting image. Martel's concepts might lack subtlety, but he has a knack for creating a picture from words. Judging from the rave reviews of Ang Lee’s film adaptation, Martel's word-pictures have made the jump from page to screen intact, although you wouldn’t expect anything else from Lee. This is the director who took E. Annie Proulx’s grim short story about gay cowboys and made it work as a movie, mainly by dint of using the harsh, forbidding, ravishing scenery as a third character in the action.

...if you like it, or Paulo Coelho, or books about talking animals, or pictures of sunsets on Facebook, I’m sorry if I made your day less inspired and spiritual. Don’t take it to heart.

But pretty pictures on their own aren’t enough. If I want those, I can turn to expert practitioners like Barbara Kingsolver to supply them. Good fiction does more than that. It inspires, challenges and confounds. It sets the reader mental tasks, questions to be puzzled over for days and months after the book is done. It also engages the reader on an emotional level, by offering them characters they can identify with and care about.

Life of Pi fails on that emotional level. The main feeling the eponymous Pi inspired in me was slight irritation. I realize I’m in the minority here; many readers identified with Pi so closely they were reduced to tears at his plight. But anyone who tries to argue that zoos are a good thing on the basis that the animals in them are safer and better fed than their counterparts in the wild deserves, in my view, to be confined to a small box for the rest of his life and surrounded by gawkers. It’s hard for me to like Pi, who speaks with pompous authority on many subjects -- Canada, Islam, animal behavior -- and is prone to make statements like ‘The presence of God is the finest of rewards’: cod-philosophical stuff of the Paulo Coelho type which sounds right and true and meaningful up to the point at which you really think about it. Reward for what? Would the presence of God be unrewarding? Why do I find this character so irritating?

Probably for the same reason I find Coelho annoying and spend valuable time playing juvenile games like subverting his quotes on Twitter when I could be writing (and if anyone cares to bring along their inner child for a twitter playdate with mine, you can find us here). Pi pretends to be deep when he isn’t. Like Coelho, his insights appeal for the same reason pictures of sunsets are popular on Facebook. They are unobjectionable and contain sentiments that are hard to argue with.

Which brings me to the first thing I mentioned that good fiction should do – set mental challenges. Again, Life of Pi falls short of its grandiose ambitions. There are signs that Martel intended to try and incorporate the mathematical in his grand scheme to enhance our spiritual understanding of Everything. Pi is on the boat for 227 days. Pi (as we all know) is the name for the mathematical constant used to calculate the area and circumference of a circle. Pi is equal to 22/7. Circles are symbols of the infinite. Pi is a number which never ends and never repeats. You get the picture. There’s a subtext here about recurrence and infinity and (probably) the reason we eat artichokes, but it’s never developed into anything substantial. That would take real thought, so instead what Martel gives us are references so clumsy and obvious, that I’ve picked them out without any assistance from the many guides which litter the internet. If this book contained anything of real complexity, I shouldn’t have been able to do that.

That’s why Life of Pi sucks and if you like it, or Paulo Coelho, or books about talking animals, or pictures of sunsets on Facebook, I’m sorry if I made your day less inspired and spiritual. Don’t take it to heart. It’s not that these things are bad or awful. It’s just that they are a just little bit silly.

Image of Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Price: $10.64
Publisher: Mariner Books (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 326 pages

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Comments

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books November 21, 2012 - 1:05pm

Speaking as a girl with green hair, girls with green hair are not only found in magical realism ;)

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN November 21, 2012 - 1:05pm

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing November 21, 2012 - 1:10pm

I read this book in college. To say it was terrible is an insult to terrible books. Life of Pi might be the worst book I've ever read.

Brett Boatright's picture
Brett Boatright November 21, 2012 - 1:15pm

It may have been too simlistic in it's mathematcial ambitions (and interpretations) but it's slightly depressing how cynical the perspective is here.

It's flawed. I didn't cry. But I thought it was inspired, if not for anything other than for offering an escape into a long forgotten and much maligned genre these days; the fable. It's diffciult to offer up one of those theses days, since everything is shredded down to logic and meaning and purpose and formula. If it doesn't make sense...it must suck. 

That said, I get why folks may not like it. It IS simple. It's message is bludgeoningly obvious. It's equation is laid out for you.

But sometimes, despite the ambition, simple is good.

 

* (Do I get bonus points for not using any exclamation points?)

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 21, 2012 - 1:20pm

It was one of those books that people raved about in and around the time they were reading it, and then stopped. Can't say that says much for it as a classic, or something that will make you believe in god. or talking tigers.

While I love this article Cath (well, I like it alot, or like like it), I disagree with two points: 1) magical realism is for kids, 2) good fiction should provide mental challenges.

1) magical realism is fun for the whole family. Especially if their name is Buendia

2) good fiction (as a whole) should be varied. Some of it should provide us with mental challenges, some with emotional ones, some with trite ones. If every work of good fiction I picked up was a mental challenge, I'd be exhausted, curled up in a ball, and sucking my thumb (more than usual, I mean).

 

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN November 21, 2012 - 1:22pm

here here, postpomo. on the whole comment.

Arun Chirayil's picture
Arun Chirayil November 21, 2012 - 1:44pm

Salman Rushdie and I both disagree with your misguided belief that magical realism is reserved for kids.

leahzero's picture
leahzero from Chicago is reading everything Fitzgerald wrote. November 21, 2012 - 2:47pm

I like dark, adult, You Must Be This Tall To Board This Ride magical realism. Like the stuff listed above, and those old dead guys like Borges and Kafka, and filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro.

I think magical realism is a very broad and varied category. It's clearly not all for kids. Or those would be some pretty fucking warped kids. Which could be kind of interesting to see. For science.

shawnduffy's picture
shawnduffy from Washington, DC is reading Finnegans Wake November 21, 2012 - 3:41pm

I'm an atheist.  And I've never been a fan of magical realism.  

Having said that, I actually loved "Life of Pi".  I didn't think it was about religion at all, and it certainly didn't make me believe in God.  I, too, thought it was a little cheesy and naive to have a boy so innocently want to be a member of all three religions simply because he wanted to love God.  That was irritating.  

But, after reading the whole book, what I read was a story about the shocking levels humans will descend to when their life is endangered and how faith, if it is to be maintained, requires self-deception.

Perhaps that wasn't the intended message.  But that's the beauty of literature and it is why we continue to read.

Heidi Ash's picture
Heidi Ash from Dallas/Fort Worth area is reading 1Q84, Bloodfire Quest, Anathem November 21, 2012 - 4:41pm

@shawnduffy - I agree totally with your post. I actually questioned whether the author of this article had read the entire book. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 21, 2012 - 6:55pm

Good fiction does more than that. It inspires, challenges and confounds. It sets the reader mental tasks, questions to be puzzled over for days and months after the book is done. It also engages the reader on an emotional level, by offering them characters they can identify with and care about.

From the lady whose podcast was about pirating Tucker Max books to read? Odd.

But I got the artichoke answer. People started eating them because they were hungry. Probably really hungry.

Jean Michelle's picture
Jean Michelle from The wilds of Indiana.. is reading The Likeness November 21, 2012 - 8:11pm

LIfe of Pi. Had to read it for a book group. Read it under duress. I like magical realism, really, I do. I love Italo Calvino. I actually live in an invisible city.

But Life of Pi had nothing in it that drew me in. Tigers and shipwreck sound so intriguing. But the ingredients never added up to something yummy.

I would never try to stop another person from reading it, of course. Enjoy. Variety is the spice and all that.

I will not be partaking of the movie...

 

JonnyGibbings's picture
JonnyGibbings November 22, 2012 - 6:39am

I am an Athiest - thank God!

I too thought it was, well... ordinary. Not good, just dull. Just, well a bit crappy and I couldn't see what all the WOW everyone was saying about it. I'm similar about Cloud Atals, just a bunch of okay stories stiched together tenuously. None of each great. What is the big deal? But hay - others like it.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast November 22, 2012 - 9:02am

OK - I forgot about Italo Calvino. And Borges.

Apart from those two honorable exceptions, magical realism is for kids.

I said good fiction Dwayne. Tucker Max is my mental equivalent of eating a whole bag of Cheesepops at one sitting. A necessary indulgence.

 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 22, 2012 - 9:13am

Everybody's got a story.

Gabrielle's picture
Gabrielle from Shepherdstown WV is reading Game of Thrones November 22, 2012 - 3:22pm

I like the link to buy the book at the bottom. After reading your review, I think I might actually read the "Life of Pi" and "Cloud Atlas" as well. I also plan to see both movies. Personally, I'm not big into books that try too hard to please or impress the reader. I like it when stories have something I can feel. You have to be in a certain mindset to embrace magical realism. One book I remember liking was "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver. But I do agree that stitching stories together sometimes can be annoying; those should be made into movies with flashbacks. It's hard to pull off in writing without adding enough detail. The Paulo guy is not a bad writer either. Although I don't dig a lot of his books, I find they leave lasting images and impressions.

Masque's picture
Masque from UK is reading The Dark Tower November 23, 2012 - 10:56am

@:shawnduffy Totally agree with your post. When I started out reading Life of Pi I was half expecting not to like it, but by the time I got to the end I loved it. 

It might not be the smartest of novels but I'm not always looking for a book to fry my brain, sometimes I just want something I can enjoy and not have to think about too much.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 23, 2012 - 5:55pm

Pino, don't be that guy.

Sarah Ferguson_2's picture
Sarah Ferguson_2 from Alberta, Canada is reading The Martian by Andy Weir November 23, 2012 - 6:05pm

That’s why Life of Pi sucks and if you like it, or Paulo Coelho, or books about talking animals, or pictures of sunsets on Facebook, I’m sorry if I made your day less inspired and spiritual.

Yeah, you're right. Animal Farm totally sucked. That George Orwell character was a terrible writer. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 23, 2012 - 9:08pm

Sarah, you don't be that guy either.

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading A Song of Ice and Fire January 14, 2013 - 7:11pm

I like books about talking animals. As long as it's believable in context. Like, the animal should talk like I'd expect an animal to talk. A dog should be happy and curious and a cat should be a bit pompous... C.S. Lewis did it beautifully in his Narnia books. I'm not sure why we adults feel the need to be so terribly adult. Yeah, sex and crime and taxes and other grim subjects such as artichokes are very adult, but I live in an adult world. One of the beauties of fiction is that we get to live in a different world from the one we experience every day. And if that world is fun and different and maybe a little bit silly... well, that's ok with me.

againstfashion's picture
againstfashion January 22, 2013 - 12:18pm

Generally speaking I am very suspicious about books read by everybody, because it menas that there is a mediatic process going on by which people are convinced that an avarage book is a super book. Also it means that the cultural lowest common denominator has been reached.

I haven't seen the film, nor read the book, but from what the readers have told me I can only understand that the story is so fictional and subjective that I struggle to understand how so many people can relate to it...it must be a mediatic thing, like with Potter, Da Vinci Code and so on...

Also I cannot understand what to do with the message provided at the end of the book: "....and so it goes with god".....a classical situation in which the writer does not know how to finish the book.

 

 

againstfashion's picture
againstfashion January 22, 2013 - 1:13pm

Following the discussions above...well, even Bulgakov's The Master and Margherita had a black cat as large as a human being talking in the story, and many other impossible facts and characters....but I wouldn't call The Life of Pi a masterpiece as well as The Master and Margherita. Yet I'm sure many readers today read The Life of Pi (couldn't have been just The Life of P ?) because is new, without knowing how many old good books are out there. Not only that, I would say The Life of Pi is also "riding the horse" of the Indian-Story fashion, which is undoubtly well regarded at the moment, at least in the cinema...

 

mfjb's picture
mfjb January 29, 2013 - 9:22am

Having seen the movie I totally agree with you. The author has been smoking some kind of substance and now feels the should flush his wisdom on us.

Totally offsetting is the part at the end whereby he basically says, actually I made it all up it is just like this and this. What a total disappointment to look at something for two hours and then the guy says: "I Made it all up hahahaha" What is this ? Is this beautiful, should this leave us guessing something? Is this hard to think of? is this deeper wisdom we are supposedly searching for? or is it because the boy knows so much about Pi that he must hold a higher wisdom we cannot even hope to grasp with our mediocre intelligence? Is the author just a big showoff?

Particularly weak is the part whereby insurance agents come all the way from Japan to Mexico to investigate and all they do is talk to a guy in hospital, write the report and fly back. They dont check the lifeboat or anything to see if they can see proof of what the boy has been telling them (e.g. tigers leave scratches and tigerpoo). You will probably say that these minor details are not the point and reality would spoil the so-called  great fantasy but in real life it would have meant that the boy just would have stayed in hospital a bit longer (in a locked ward that is) and get an extra dose of strong medication!

If I listen to my kids play I hear these kind of silly stories all day, they are far more fantastic and impressive that this. Hey just open a book from a few thousand years ago and read some great stories as well! They are usually much better than this and easier to believe, billions do!

Wanna read a great fiction book, which makes sense, with some hypotheses and reasoning that bring tears to your eyes becuase of its sheer and utterly impressive brilliance? Read the Discovery of Heaven or The Procedure from Harry Mulisch.

Alextended's picture
Alextended January 31, 2013 - 8:00pm

"Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”


― C.S. Lewis

 

Also, newsflash, vampires are as realistic as talking tigers.

That said, the movie was passable (yet it excluded the talking tiger part) and the book doesn't sound much better even though I tend to prefer the written form so I'll probably pass on it. Thank you for at least providing some useful information amidst your childish rant and goodbye, forever.

Sarah Wawa's picture
Sarah Wawa April 29, 2013 - 5:15pm

First of all, there are no talking tigers in the book. Did you even read it? It was the blind sailor talking the whole time, Pi just thought it was the tiger talking at first. And I don't recall reading about a girl with green hair.... are you referring to something else?

Next, there is a difference between one's inner child and immaturity. It is your immaturity that laughs at pratfalls on YouTube and plays with twitter, not your inner child. Your inner child is the part of you that is innocent and young and fresh, that has the deep trust and belief in truths that cannot logically be proved. Your inner child is the part of you that sees without something "silly" obstructing the eyes' view. You are talking about immaturity.

The very same immaturity, in fact, that enjoys vampires, which I am sure are real, adult concerns (insert sarcasm here). 

Pi stands for more than just a circle and infinity though. It also is parallel to religion: pi is an irrational number used to find rational solutions to mathematical problems, and religion (which seems irrational) is used to come up with a rational explanation to the world. Something that doesn't make sense used to make sense of something. 

And there is always more to a book than just what it says. A good book requires a little something from the reader. You didn't get much from it because you didn't put much in it.

Altogether I find it sad that you couldn't enjoy Life of Pi. For me, personally, it left me hungry. I'm not sure why or for what, but it did. Probably for a good discussion on it. You seem too stuck on the "magical" part of it to really appreciate the rest, to really appreciate the fact that those crazy animal stories were just the way Pi had chosen to protect himself from the real story. It was Pi's way of censoring the memories that haunted him. Or at least it could seem so. And yet, in the end, the author chose the story with the animals to write because which was the better story? Animals acting like animals or humans acting worse than animals? The animals made the better story. "And so it is with God." This story makes you believe in God because in the end it asks you which story you prefer, and we know that we all prefer the animal story. And so it is with God. Do you prefer to perceive the world with God and hope and something more in it, in order and some higher power, or do you prefer the straight factual story, the world plain and simple, "no animals"? 

Please wait until you actually understand the story before judging it so harshly, because frankly you sound immature and ignorant.

 

remtron's picture
remtron October 1, 2013 - 8:03pm

While it is certainley true that Life of Pi is unrealistic, it is this fact that makes it such a captivating narrative. The story is one that provokes thought and imagnation. While the events of Pi's trip are "magical", Martel continues to illustrate the "human" and his nature throughout the novel, an aspect lesser novels stive for. You argue that talking animals cannot convey any real truth, but aren't all the fables that we all feel so deeply about, such as the Fox and the Hare, simply the adventures of animals?This book is about the endurance of the human spirit and his struggle with God, and Martel writes in a rather beautiful way. Then there is the twist ending, that Pi made up the animals as coping mechanism. Martel is commenting on the nature of truth, of tragedy, on the psychology and philosiphy of the human mind. He has the RIGHT to be deep, because he does it well. 

Lucien Rodriguez's picture
Lucien Rodriguez December 11, 2013 - 7:37pm

I heard someone call it better than 1984 once. I figured she had just smoked a lot of crack right before she said that. 

benscaro's picture
benscaro March 6, 2014 - 7:03am

'Life of Pi' fails for the same reason Australian author Christopher Koch said any magical realism does:

'When I'm reading a book, and halfway through it a man turns into a fish, I lose interest.'

I guess what he means is that having recourse to this kind of transformation denies the issues of life and therefore cannot assist in the living of same.  It's a reason to detest a lot of fiction, some of it by people who can write; Neil Gaiman is a case in point.

That's not to say one cannot use magical appearances, systems and events in writing. Koch's own 'The Doubleman' is suffused with tarot and gnosticism, and how else would one describe the appearances of The Devil and Christ in 'Brothers Karamazov'?

The thin veneer of theosophical symbolism cum cod-philosophy in 'Life of Pi' is another reason to dislike it.

Should anyone be surprised to find an early 21st century, pretentious non-answer looting content from another pretentious, early 20th century non-answer, though?

The garden path is still there, and folks has got to be led up it somehow.

Anthony Pirtle's picture
Anthony Pirtle November 21, 2014 - 8:53pm

A man who can turn into a fish is only a reason to detest a book if you detest books about men turning into fish. I'll wager you could learn quite a lot about living from a bloke who has that kind of life experience.