BY MIKE BEEMAN
Author: Yann Martel
2010, Spiegel & Grau
Filed Under Literary
I feel conflicted about about panning this book. I really didn’t want to. I wanted to love Beatrice and Virgil (although when I heard Martel describe his next project as “a conversation taking place between two animals on a shirt,” I cringed). I did not let the many acerbic reviews it received everywhere stop me from buying the book because I felt that, as a fan of his other work, I owed it to the author and myself to find out first-hand. I loved Life of Pi. I loved Martel’s short story collection,The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which I bought immediately after reading his Booker Prize winning novel. If you haven’t read either, do yourself a favor and grab them. And if you enjoy them, too, do yourself another favor and stop right there.
Martel’s newest novel–barely two hundred pages, many of them bloated with odd formatting, unnecessary pictures, and internal texts–follows a Martel stand-in named Henry who takes a break from writing after underwhelming his editor with a bizarre novel idea. Shortly after, a man sends the Martel character a play that captures his attention. The play, featuring the title characters, is an allegory for the Holocaust using two animals for people. The playwright, a recalcitrant taxidermist, intrigues the author. The rest of the novel involves Henry pulling manuscript pages from the taxidermist and reflecting on how good they are (a way for Martel to compliment himself, which he does effusively). That’s really it.
One of the most appealing aspects about Martel’s previous work is the way he plays with form. In The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios he experiments with structure, anti-narrations, and even radical typography in every story. Life of Pi‘s reveal at the end, and its immediate undercutting, completely alters the reading of the novel while also raising questions about the nature and purpose of storytelling. In both books, the risks he takes enrich his stories, and are successful because the actual story is already strong. They are the icing on the cake.
In Beatrice and Virgil there is no cake, and all the overly-sweet icing soon gives the reader a stomach ache.
Instead of using his derivations to add to his story, Martel’s special effect seem to be attempts to distract from what the reader quickly learns: there is no story here. Instead, he has given us the worst kind of navel-gazing. The unusual formatting is a series of stunts to cover this, but their cuteness wears thin. An internal play that winks slyly at the book being read is fine. Although I think it overdone, using a writer who may be writing the novel you are reading as a narrator is pretty standard and allowable, too. Including drawings diagramming a character’s gesture is just not needed. Nor is adding pictures of signs that are all words, or dedicating pages to a Flaubert story (A tip: don’t cite a story that is more entertaining than your own). These inner-narratives allow the writer to comment on his own work, literally, and the main character constantly admires the “writing” in the story as Martel shamelessly congratulates himself. But the page-filling descriptions of games played in the presence of a corpse, an over-the-top and too-late lurch for gravitas added as an epilogue for those who make it to the end, was worst of all. I found it simply insulting.
When appearing in the work of an author like Kurt Vonnegut, who included drawings and narrators that could be himself in many of his books, these kinds experiments add to a novel. But Vonnegut had strong stories with interesting characters to rely on. In Beatrice and Virgil the fundamentals are lacking, and so the “irreparable abomination” the author refers to–obviously the Holocaust–takes place not through his narration, as he intended, but may be the novel’s impact on his career instead.
But I did not have an entirely negative experience with the book, despite its faults. This novel takes many chances with form, and I found its form to be the most enjoyable part (although not in the way the author intended). Sadly, I found this book useful only in its utility as an object.
I think most readers will agree that the book’s physical form is it’s most pleasing attribute. I first noticed this while balancing half a sandwich on the cover mid-meal when watching TV. I was pleased with the results: the novel served admirably as a plate. It would probably make a good cutting board, too. The jacket is two pleasing shades of burnt orange, visually appealing, and may look “intellectually weighty and yummy” if that is important to you. At roughly two hundred pages it is by no means a doorstopper, but I used its edges to open a beer bottle and was very pleased with the results. Don’t wait until the novel comes out in paperback. Buy the hardcover: you will find it a study instrument.
The paper-stock in Beatrice and Virgil is exemplary, and should not be wasted by Martel’s use of it. I recommend writing inside -he leaves plenty of room with all those blank spaces. You can do what Martel’s editors should have done. Take a red pen, and begin editing.
Similar Reads: Life of Pi (Martel), Animal Farm (Orwell)