How to Read

We finished the second week of school, and students took their test on summer reading.  One of the senior summer reading books is Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a book that I would love to teach in-depth but have to settle for spending only a couple of days of review on with the students who chose it of five books to read.

It’s a fun book to talk about because of the ideas it presents and questions it raises and leaves elegantly unanswered or, at least, un-simply answered.

The “author’s note” at the beginning, not Martel’s note but a frame narrator’s note, promises that this is a book that will make its readers believe in God.  Martel has said in various interviews that he believes the heart of the novel to be two very short chapters that ruminates on the difference between atheists and agnostics.  Atheists, Martel’s narrator claims, are believers, and so they, upon dying, might see the white light coming for them and be able to make the jump in their belief—a belief in no God—to a jump in belief in God.  Agnostics, on the other hand, need to have explanations, without which they can’t believe or disbelieve so, upon seeing that white light, will try to explain it as, for instance, “a failure of oxygen to the brain,” and thereby says the narrator, “miss the better story.”

I’m not a believer, at least not in the traditional sense, so I suppose I fit Martel’s vision of an agnostic more than his vision of an atheist, but I do understand the desire for the “better story.”  The “better story” is the story that has the possibility to touch on and explore all the wondrous complexities of life.

And Martel’s novel revels in these complexities.  The protagonist, a young Indian boy who believes deeply in three different religions, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, is immigrating to Canada with his family and their zoo animals—the father is a zoologist—when the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself stranded at sea in a life raft with several zoo animals including a full-grown Bengal tiger.  Through the knowledge he’s learned about animal behavior and his own plucky resourcefulness, Pi survives and lands in Mexico where he is questioned by investigators about the ship’s sinking.  They don’t believe his story, that he could have possibly survived on a life raft for 227 days with a Bengal tiger, and so he makes up a different story to appease them: The animals aboard his boat were in fact humans, and the humans ended up slaughtering each other in order to eat and survive.  The investigators approve of this story—it’s more realistic they say; though of course the animal story is the better story.  Here the novel ends.  Martel doesn’t explain which story is the true story; he leaves us with our, now unreliable, narrator to question human nature and how it differs from animal nature and to wonder whether or not either of these stories makes us believe in God.

At the end of the day, after all the students had taken their summer reading test, one of my students, Mike, came to talk to me.  He was dying to know which story of the two Pi tells is the “true” story.  He’d asked two of his previous years’ English teachers in his quest to know.  One of them said that Pi created the story of the animals as a sort of dissasociative technique to save himself from the horror of what his fellow humans and, indeed he himself, had done to other humans in order to survive.  The other teacher insisted that Pi had simply gone crazy alone on his boat and had imagined all the animals.  Mike wanted to know what I thought.

I knew that the only answer I could give him would be unsatisfying to him, but I gave it anyway because I think it says something about the way we read and why we read.  I said something to the effect of: I don’t know, but I’m less interested in knowing for sure what is “true” in the world of the book and more interested in trying to understand why we don’t know, what that question does for us as readers, and what the larger questions the novel is asking mean to me.  I don’t think this is a cop out.  If the novel is a story that will make us believe in God, and our own lack of belief keeps us from missing the better story, doesn’t our insistence on knowing the “truth” somehow render that mystery and questioning—the whole point—useless?  What is served by knowing definitively an answer to a bigger question when there is no actual evidence to back up that knowing?

For me this gets at larger issues of how to read.  At the points when Pi tells us his stories there is no textual evidence that Pi is crazy—that he’s delusional or that he has some kind of disassociative disorder.  I believe in the text as primary source material, and, while author commentary or other criticism can be instructive, I really believe that, ultimately all we have is the text.

For instance, I was deeply annoyed with J.K. Rowling when, in interviews, she started saying that Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books is gay.  Nothing in the text, save an important friendship with another male wizard, suggests this.  I have nothing against an author having a backstory in their head that they work from as they construct the story, but if it’s not in the text, it’s not real in the world of the book, no matter how loudly you insist that it is in interviews—the interview is not the text.  (And in Rowling’s case, I’m dismayed that, given that she feels strongly enough in the “truth” about this character to proclaim it in interviews, she didn’t write it into her novel—was she afraid of some kind of anti-gay rights backlash?  What a boon it would have been for gay rights in our world today if someone as influential as Rowling had come out with this!)

I’m confused as to how my colleagues even came to the conclusions they did about Pi’s true story and his mental state.  This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in unreliable narrators; I do.  In fact, I have a strange fondness for unreliable narrators.  Their very unreliability speaks to a much larger truth: All of us are unreliable narrators; our memories are fuzzy and inexact; our perceptions are ours alone, and we filter everything through our own singular, personal lens.  If I tell you about a fight I had with a friend, my “truth” of the incident is going to be very different from my friend’s “truth” of the incident, which may be very different from a third party’s perspective.  I like stories that can capture this, ironically, very real truth about human nature.  However, in order for an unreliable narrator to work in a novel, we have to be aware that we’re reading someone who is untrustworthy; we have to be brought into their world through questioning what is true and what is not.  Their unreliability becomes the “truth” of the text.  Pi’s unreliability in the novel comes through his telling of two different stories, but we don’t read him as crazy or delusional; this reading of the text is simply a fabrication.

This is also not to say that I don’t appreciate what literary critics call a reader response approach to literature.  We all bring our own experiences and perceptions to bear on any text, and we can’t help but read through that lens.  I relate to the characters I meet or feel maddened at the choices they make.  I try to put myself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes.  I question them or fall in love with them or feel annoyed by them.  We all do; this is why books are worth anything.  But I don’t mistake this kind of personal connection for the fact of the book.  I may feel that, in Pi’s situation, I would want to dissociate and forget everything about my experience at sea, but I don’t confuse this with Pi dissociating and forgetting everything about his experience at sea.

And, ultimately, I think it’s okay for a reader to come away with questions.  This usually doesn’t mean the book has failed in some way but the opposite.  If a book hasn’t made us think about what we’ve read, what’s the point?