Responding to the recent barrage of media attention and hype around Yann Martel’s new novel, beatrice & virgil, people who read and enjoyed his last novel, Life of Pi, are likely to be perplexed and, in the end, disappointed with this newest work. More on this in a moment.
Following up after a successful novel has always been a difficult task for any writer, but Life of Pi wasn’t merely successful. It achieved the bestseller equivalent of going viral, with sales reaching levels far out of proportion to what it realistically accomplished as a work of fiction, or by any measure what the reasonable size of its intended audience might be. As someone who worked in publishing for nearly thirty years, I can safely say this kind of viral growth, coupled with the exaggerated impression it leaves of the work’s worth and value, can be for authors and their publishers both a blessing and a curse. Pi’s initial critical reception was generally supportive, but it emerged quite slowly. Only after months had elapsed did commercial success suddenly ensue after the Booker nomination and win.
Over the past two decades, external factors from Oprah to the internet to a range of increasingly visible literary prizes are the early engines sparking such exponential growth in sales and author visibility. A virtual word-of-mouth takes information and awareness wider and deeper into an increasingly better connected world. Of course, publishers are thrilled with this turn of events. However, they also know something else quickly takes over and drives that spike in customer demand, namely the need of many readers and nonreaders alike to posses, to know, to be connected to and associated with the market’s latest “next new thing”. A lot of books are purchased as this next stage of momentum takes over, but a surprising number of those purchased also remain unread.
This doesn’t make Pi less of a book. In fact, it leaves behind the expectations of two books: the exaggerated, superficial promise and viral footprint left behind in the wake of Pi’s enormous success, and the actual performance, substance and complex experience of the book itself. And therein resides one of the problems for both the reader and the author of the book that comes after.
Reading beatrice & virgil is a bit like coming upon the result of writing by committee, one that has conveniently forgotten the first rule of fiction: make the narrative allegorical, metaphoric, symbolic or even non-linear, but tell a story. We know from Pi of Martel’s interest and experiments in crossing over the borders between fiction and nonfiction, what is real or imagined, so it’s not surprising that beatrice & virgil serves up similar challenges in varying bits of stories within stories that are both the author’s as well as those of Henry, Martel’s own mirror protagonist in the novel. Character and story layers and parallels abound, but there is a haphazard, disjointed feel to much of this, as if the author couldn’t quite figure out how best to weave them together, and so has left them to his reader’s imagination to make of them what connections are best. There’s something earnest and ambitious in all of this that, in its execution, is altogether too limiting and unfinished for an author of Martel’s talent. We know he produced an earlier version of the book and was sent packing by his editors to rewrite and rewrite again. Somewhere in that to and fro I sense that Martel lost his way, struggling to retain something of his original vision as he fought to create another. The result is a curious amalgam of genres, stories, characters and tales where the sum of its parts remains stubbornly and annoyingly disconnected from the intentions of the whole.