Activity Being Avoided: proselytising
Music In My Head: Up from Below–Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes
Tea Being Drunk: none (or else I’d be up all night)
Book Being Read: Ru–Kim Thuy
It’s 11:00 at night. I don’t have to teach tomorrow morning (it’s a holiday week in China) but it’s still rather late for me to be tackling anything as elephantine as this. I’m much more of a morning lark. But this can’t wait.
Two nice things have happened recently: Yann Martel’s new book came out last Tuesday, and the March issue of Walrus magazine arrived in my mailbox today. (Really, the only thing that can salvage February is the printed word.) Naturally, I picked up a copy of Martel’s book the day it came out and, coincidentally, finished it this morning. This evening, I smiled to myself as I tossed all the junk mail in the recycling bin and toted my Walrus magazine up the stairs.
A word or two about Martel’s writing: it’s just getting better and better with each book. Now, as this is a writer whose first book is among my I’m-never-even-loaning-out-my-copy stash of books, you’ll understand how high his pedestal is. I do, however, allow my deities their clay feet. Timothy Findley once related a story about bringing a new manuscript to his editor, only to be greeted with something to the effect of “Dear god, Findley! Not more fucking rabbits!”; I expect Martel’s editor is thinking similarly about the simian motif. This doesn’t bother me. I like the eccentricities my literary gods develop.
The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios is my favourite Martel book, if only because short stories are (and possibly will always be) my favourite thing in the world; Self is brilliant; Life of Pi is quite good, especially the ending; Beatrice and Virgil is his best novel; The High Mountains of Portugal has given Beatrice and Virgil a run for its money, but I’m still ruminating.
Anyway, back to the March 2016 Walrus: Michael Lapointe has panned the book because, he says, Martel is “ill-equipped to talk about suffering” and this is “the inherent defect in his art”. Hmm. What would make a human being ill-equipped to talk about suffering? A speech defect? A tumour in the Broca’s area? Surely, Mr. Lapointe isn’t suggesting that a human being hasn’t experienced sufficient suffering to write about it, is he?
I’ve never met Mr. Martel. I suppose it’s possible that he’s managed to go (how old is he?) 50+ years without suffering….
I think Mr. Lapointe forgot to read the books. I think he skipped the protracted death in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and the many, many murders in Manners of Dying. I think he missed the rape scene in Self: in such situations, “painfearpainfearpainfear” is pretty much all the language one would come up with. I think he forgot to read the part in Life of Pi that reminded the reader that Pi is a child in the scary part of the story, and that Pi had a family (note the past tense verb). I think he forgot to read Games for Gustav in Beatrice and Virgil.
But I think the main thing that Mr. Lapointe forgot is that suffering only has two outcomes: it will either kill you, or it will end and you will survive. The first outcome–well, there’s lots of that in Martel’s books, though it’s often standing just outside the story, where suffering waits when it’s not actually sitting on your shoulder. (They teach you how to read this kind of stuff in grade school: it’s called inference.) The second outcome is the one that gives us stories to read. The only good thing about surviving suffering is when it’s over, and you can finally breathe. You take small sips of air, fearful that it’s not really finished, and then you cautiously take larger and larger quantities, eventually gulping the relief, even trying to hoard a little for the next onslaught of suffering that you know will always come.
As it’s just out, I don’t want to spoil the book so I’ll speak in general terms. For me, what Martel’s story offers is suggestions: here are so many characters who suffer, and they all deal with it in their own way. Sometimes, the suffering will win and there’s nothing to be done about that; other times, there are ways to look at the suffering that might make it ease up a little, for just a while, or maybe it will even end that particular bout.
While my own suffering might only be as traumatic as a sink full of dirty dishes that I don’t want to wash, Martel offers me a place of escape where characters teach me something I can salt away for later, for when the real suffering starts again.