Columns > Published on November 21st, 2012

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.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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