Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More beatrice & virgil, reviewing the reviews

I was particularly interested to see how the new Yann Martel would be reviewed by others. Pasha Malla gushes in the influential Globe & Mail calling the novel "ingenious." He is intrigued by the way Martel puts himself, or rather a fictional representation of himself, at the centre of the novel.

"What if Yann Martel were never writing a book called A 20th-Century Shirt? What if his 2007 spoilers were, in fact, an extra-textual prologue to the book he was actually working on all along, the book we now have in our hands? Either way, the potential for such speculations speaks to Beatrice & Virgil's capacity to expand beyond its pages, and to the terrain – the reader's imagination – where its multiple layers unfold."

Surely such questions and convolutions, the layers of 'extra-textual prologue' as Malla calls them, are only interesting for a fellow writer or an academic. Where Malla is captivated by Martel's blurring of the boundary between the 'factual' and the 'imagined' others would likely see the exercise as rather pompous and excessively self-regarding.

Most 'ordinary' readers just want a good story. But here, Houston - even Malla rather sheepishly admits - we have a problem: "If there is a weakness to Beatrice & Virgil, it might be the actual story." Well to my mind a novel that has a weak story is akin to saying that the only problem with a certain model of airplane is that it has a spot of trouble flying.

But Malla's qualifying if indicates that he's not terribly bothered by the lack of story. To ask, "what is the book about," he asserts, misses the point. The novel is too "complex" and "nuanced" for questions like that.

Michiku Kakutani of the New York Times calls the Holocaust-fable on which the novel pivots "
botched" and "cringe-making". Referring to Life of Pi Kakutani writes "Mr. Martel’s new book...unfortunately, is every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching.

Miami Herald reviewer was even more blunt. A cardinal rule of reviewing is that you have to finish the book, so it's not often that you read a book review where the reviewer openly admits that they couldn't get past page 50. "I realized: I don't care what happens to this guy or his book or why this story was sent to him. Once you reach the 'I don't care' point, it's time to move on. And so I did." The public admission that she threw in the towel a quarter the way in struck me as refreshingly honest. Book reviewers hate feeling or looking stupid. Few will admit that they just didn't get it. Martel's obviously a smart guy and it took him nine years to write this follow-up to his international sensation Pi. The pressure on the reviewer to give him the benefit of the doubt is tremendous. But what if the emperor has no clothes?

Philip Marchand sums it up best writing in the
National Post "Reviewers will be puzzled and some will damn with faint praise. Unfortunately, they will have good grounds for this response."

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