Misreadings: Jonathan Ball on Yann Martel


Life of Pi, Yann Martel. Vintage Canada, 2002. 
by Jonathan Ball

Misreadings imagines alternative (or détourned) versions of literary and film works, and subjects these nonexistent imaginings to analysis.

Let’s imagine that Yann Martel’s much-admired and much-maligned novel Life of Pi is, in secret fact, a horror novel.

The most obvious horror-story aspect of Martel’s novel is the carnivorous island. Yet, ultimately, this is not where its horror lies. At the novel’s end, after Pi’s voyage is over, investigators from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport listen to Pi’s story but do not believe it.

The main investigator, Tomohiro Okamoto, exhorts Pi to tell them “what really happened.” Pi Patel berates the investigators for their lack of imagination, their unwillingness to accept his story. In Pi’s (and, Life of Pi‘s) worldview, this amounts to pedantry.

Pi first defends his story (the novel’s story) as the truth, but soon sees that the investigators are not interested in this truth. They want, as they put it, “a story without animals that will explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum.” Pi thinks for a minute. Then says, “Here’s another story.”

Martel then caps his fantastical, wondrous tale with another, alternate version — notably, a bleak, nightmarish, yet entirely “believable” account. Life of Pi is already structured as a story-within-a-story, so that this telling amounts to a story-within-a-story-within-a-story (an ironic undercutting of its realism’s apparent claim to “truth”).

After the Tsimtsum sinks, Pi is rescued by the ship’s cook, hauled into a lifeboat along with two additional survivors, a sailor and Pi’s mother. The cook immediately establishes himself as a horror-story monster. Like some Renfield, he begins to eat flies, and a rat, even though “we had food and water to last us for weeks [… and] no reason to believe that we wouldn’t be rescued soon.” The sailor has a broken leg, and soon the cook convinces the others that it must be amputated. After this happens, and Pi is about to throw the leg overboard, the cook protests and so reveals that the amputation was simply a pretence to obtain the leg (he plans to use it as fishing bait). The sailor soon dies and the cook butchers him. The leg wasn’t good bait, and predictably the cook begins to cannibalize the sailor.

Things spiral further into horror as the cook and Pi’s mother eventually battle, the cook murdering Pi’s mother and tossing her severed head into Pi’s hands. After this, the cook realizes he has gone too far. He more or less offers his life to Pi, butchering a turtle for Pi to eat and then losing a fight with Pi on purpose, leaving a knife out where Pi can seize it, which he does. Pi slaughters the cook with more violence than the cook has yet displayed. He seems curiously detached when recounting this part of the story:

A knife has a horrible dynamic power; once in motion, it’s hard to stop. I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chapped hands. His heart was a struggle — all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than the turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh.

Okamoto immediately remarks to his partner that this story more or less “matches” the previous story (although, cannily, Martel takes pains to have the characters point out that the story does not match in certain respects, i.e., elements surrounding the carnivorous island). Pi’s first story (the story of the tiger) thus appears as an allegory disguising this second story. The interesting allegorical transformation, as Okamoto points out, is that the Pi of the second story is represented, in the first story, not by the character of Pi but by the tiger. Pi casts himself as the hero of his story in order to refute the reality that he is its monster.

But Martel goes further. Pi points out that neither story explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum — the only thing the investigators really care about. He asks them “since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?” Which is the better story? The first, Okamoto admits. “The story with animals is the better story.”

Thus Martel transforms Life of Pi into a different sort of allegory, an allegory of faith. Given the choice between two stories, the story of a world with God (however monstrous a tiger this God might be) and a world without God (in which we are the monsters), which story would you choose? The complaints about the novel often settle on this point, that Martel appears to have reduced or oversimplified the complex of philosophical questions concerning God’s existence to a species of pedantry. Why not believe the better story, the one that gives meaning to your life — since you will, fundamentally, never know the truth (at least while you live)? Why not believe?

Indeed, Okamoto chooses to believe, and the novel ends with an excerpt from his eventual report: “As an aside, story of sole survivor, Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel, Indian citizen, is an astounding story of courage and endurance in the face of extraordinarily difficult and tragic circumstances. […] Very few castaways can claim to have survived for so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none other in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.

So here is where our misreading comes in. Maybe Martel has not oversimplified the novel’s philosophical inquest, but further complicated it. What if, unlike Okamoto, and despite all willingness, we simply cannot believe this story? The true brilliance of Martel’s novel is that he has written it in such a way that at all moments its story seems either implausible or on the verge of implausibility without committing wholly to fantasy — and thus, essentially, is always asking you to believe an unbelievable story. Then, in the end, Martel taunts us with a more believable story, and asks us not to believe this second story.

Martel’s novel thus tips into horror at any point when we do not believe what is, at its core, an unbelievable story. Let us remind ourselves of a passage from the Quran (chapter 6, verse 111), which (in another misreading) sums up the most elemental yet horrifying paradox of religious faith:

Even if we sent down the angels to them; even if the dead spoke to them; even if we summoned every miracle before them; they cannot believe unless GOD wills it. Indeed, most of them are ignorant.

They cannot believe unless God wills it. What the Quran suggests in this passage, as an acknowledgement of God’s power, is that God’s permission to believe is a precondition to belief. Which opens up the possibility (unintentionally suggested by Martel in the way he has structured Life of Pi) that God exists, but has structured the world and its horrors to prevent us from believing his story.

In other words, the dark question lurking beneath the bright surface of Martel’s novel, which we can only ask after first attending to its horror-story alternative, is this: What if God exists, but tells us a story we cannot believe?

Once our misreading is in motion, its knife is hard to stop. Our blood soothing God’s chapped hands. Our hearts are a struggle — all those tubes. But he manages to get them out.

Jonathan Ball is a regular contributor to Lemon Hound.

Misreadings: Jonathan Ball on Shirley Jackson

2a7781b0c8a01cacb323d110.LMisreadings: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
by Jonathan Ball

Misreadings imagines alternative (or détourned) versions of literary and film works, and subjects these nonexistent imaginings to analysis.

Let’s imagine that Shirley Jackson’s horror classic The Haunting of Hill House is a metafiction, that it tips its hand in its first paragraph, and that the haunting of Hill House is effectively a metaphor for how this monstrous book ensnares its readers.

What accounts for so much of the disquieting effect of Jackson’s novel is the narrative voice established in the opening paragraph. Jackson begins her novel with a strange metaphysical claim:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Let’s clarify the narrative situation while noting the sheer density of the information relayed here. A third-person, authorial narrator (one outside of the story’s diegesis or story-world, and retrospective to its action, looking back on the events of the novel with hindsight and thus foreknowledge denied to the characters within the diegesis) tells us that Hill House is not sane (thus, somehow alive) because it does not dream.

Hill House does not dream because it is a site of absolute reality. When Eleanor enters Hill House and her rapid decline, losing her sense of self, becoming more and more the puppet of this house and whatever walks therein, it is because her mental instability, already apparent in her complex fantasizing prior to arriving at the house, puts her “closer to” contact with whatever horror constitutes reality. Due to her lack of a firm social and even personal identity, Eleanor draws into the house’s insanity faster than the other characters (who do not seem aware that, by virtue of dying and putting an end to their little experiment, Eleanor has frightened them away from the house and saved their minds and lives as a result).

What disturbs in this narration are the words “might” and “whatever.” Hill House “might” stand for eighty more years, and “whatever” walks there walks alone…. Well, will it stand for eighty more years or not? What walks there? The narrator has been established as omniscient outside of these uncertainties. The narrator knows that Hill House does not dream, that it has a mind that is not sane, that it is a site of absolute reality. The narrator, because authorial and narrating retrospective to the action, knows what characters in the story are thinking and what will occur. The narrator does not, however, know the future or the nature of Hill House.

In other words, we have the classic setup of a detached, authorial, omniscient narrator — except that the narrator is deficient in one area: precise knowledge of Hill House. All that the narrator knows about Hill House is the information reported in this first paragraph. The book even ends with an almost-identical repetition of the same paragraph, as if to emphasize that, despite having recounted the events of this “haunting,” the otherwise all-knowing narrator knows nothing more about Hill House (this also accounts for the ambiguity of the novel’s events, despite the fact that it is narrated in omniscient third-person).

At the novel’s end, when Eleanor commits suicide by crashing her car in a desperate attempt to stay in/near the house (when finally evicted/rejected by the social microcosm of the ghost hunters), the narrator announces that

With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator; they can’t run fast enough to catch me this time, she thought, but by now they must be beginning to realize; I wonder who notices first? I can hear them calling now, she thought, and the little footsteps running through Hill House and the soft sound of the hills pressing closer. I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.

In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?

Not only does the narrator know Eleanor’s thoughts, the narrator knows how she perceives her own thoughts (as possessing “quick cleverness”) and how she perceives herself from the outside, through the perception of others, which one of them she thinks “sees” her the best in this moment (Luke), and how she feels at one with Hill House (as if sharing a nervous system — she feels “the little footsteps running through Hill House” as if they tapped over her skin).

What the narrator doesn’t know is the source of these footsteps: are they the footsteps of Eleanor’s observers, running to stop her, or the footsteps of “whatever” walks alone? The narrator does not know the same thing Eleanor doesn’t know: Why she is doing this, whether she really is doing this “all by herself” or remains the puppet of Hill House.

The fact that the narrator is all-knowing, in the classical manner of narrators, except when it comes to Hill House, suggests that, in addition to being a site of “absolute reality” (perhaps as a result of its “reality”), Hill House exceeds the narrative situation and thus narrative limits. This destabilizes the narrator’s position: is this really an “authorial” narrator, in any still-meaningful sense, or has Hill House somehow also exceeded authorship?

The resulting creepiness, the disquieting effect of the story’s ambiguity, thus bleeds easily into a misreading that imagines the novel as a metafiction in which another narrative level, a second diegesis, surrounds the first, and the narrator of The Haunting of Hill House has her own life as a character, and like some ancient mariner is telling the story to us (we are in the novel now also) in an attempt to understand, to come to terms with, this unknown “whatever” that both walks in and is Hill House. An author haunted by the story she’s written, which has its own life now — one that exceeds her own, that may even mean her death.

Since Hill House exceeds this telling, its “haunting” is also the haunting of the reader. For if Hill House exceeds the narrative, as suggested by the limitations of its telling, then in fact it is the most real thing in all of these narrative worlds (truly a site of absolute reality, the only thing, including the narrator, that exceeds the story’s situation, its limits).

As such, Hill House is more real than our world, despite (or perhaps due to) its status as a fictional creation.

And we wander through its halls in endless torment, dreamless ghosts.


Dr. Jonathan Ball is the author of Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009), Clockfire (Coach House Books, 2010), and The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books, 2012). Visit him online at www.jonathanball.com or @jonathanballcom. Misreadings will be a regular feature on Lemon Hound.

How Fiction Works: On Joyce Carol Oates

“How ingenious, Anton! Did you carve it yourself?”

This was the sort of inane question you asked Anton Kruppev. For you had to say something to alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh. Hadley recalled the first time Anton had come by to see her, which had been the previous week—the strained and protracted conversation between them when, after Hadley had served him coffee and little sandwiches on multigrain bread, Anton hadn’t seemed to know how to depart; his lurching over her, his spasm of a handshake, and his clumsy wet kiss on her cheek which had seemed to sting her, and to thrill her, like the brush of a bat’s wings.

“Yes, Ma’am. You think—you will buy?”

“That depends, Anton. How much . . . ”

“For you, Ma’am, no charge!”

This forced joke, how long would it be kept up? Hadley wondered in exasperation. In middle school, boys like Anton Kruppev were snubbed—Ha ha, very funny!—but once you were an adult how could you discourage such humor without being rude? Hadley was thirty-nine. Anton couldn’t have been more than twenty-nine. He’d been born in what was now called Bosnia and Herzegovina, had lost his parents, and was brought to the United States by a surviving grandparent. He’d gone to American schools, including M.I.T., and yet in all those years had not become convincingly American.

Trying too hard, Hadley thought. The sign of the foreign-born.

Ah yes, the foreign-born. In the latest issue of the New Yorker Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps the most prolific writer of our time, maybe ever, sets a story in the town she lives in, the town of Princeton, which of course is that which surrounds Princeton University where Oates teaches. It’s a very pleasing oasis with canals and wide streets, much brick, several very good restaurants, a great record shop, coffee shop and one of my favorite book stores (before it too closed down a year or two ago, sigh). It’s a town filled with many well meaning liberalish people one might argue are largely unaware of the privilege they enjoy. Wealthy parental units descend from afar to take their children out to dinner at one of the several excellent restaurants. It’s one version of the best of New Jersey, or one of the best versions, in any case. Many tales are set here, including at least part of Richard Ford’s trilogy of novels, which also prods a little–just a little–at this elite world.

I say these folks are completely unaware of their privilege but that isn’t quite true. Like most of people living in relative middle-class, or upper middle-class comfort, they know something of it, but that something is a mysterious, mercurial knowing that makes itself evident in strange ways. These strange ways, these faint roars or shimmers, are what Oates is on about in her recent story, “Pumpkin Head.”

Oates’ story details one such tiny clash. One Anton Kruppev, causes some stress in the lives of those he interacts with, some effort on their part to “alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh.” The levels of anxiety, as is often the case with Oates, are quite palpable and escalate. This is the writer who brought us such classics as Where are you going, where have you been?, one of the creepiest short stories of all time. There is something gothic about Oates, someting strangely regal, angular and quietly disturbing that translates into all of her writing. Frail as a hummingbird bone she somehow manages, in her part Stephen King, part Flannery O’Connor mode, to get under even the most taught, thick, skin.

“Pumpkin Head” is no exception, though it’s probably not a classic Oates story. The danger is over quickly and there are no bodies, nor much psychological terror to sweep up. On the scale of creepiness it’s downright friendly. We follow our narrator, Hadley, as she navigates the difficulties that arise when the small ritual of exchange she has with one Anton Kruppev is altered. Very quickly he moves from being a manageable nuisance to a downright nuisance, to a threat. This as he struggles to emerge from the restrained conversations that he too is confined by. He literally tries to carve out a place, to impress upon his host some degree of his person, to make himself seen.

What I remember of this story after putting it down is really what I remember of all Oates’ stories–the feeling. So often one gets a sense of being trapped in her work, as you do here. Hadley is trapped by her angry (sort of) guest, trapped by her own ideas of her life, trapped by her life. In other stories I remember, not the narrative but similar feelings: trapped down by a river, trapped in a car, trapped on a cruise. You have to read her quickly so that you don’t sink into it, or let her sink too deeply into you, because once she gets in there the images, and the characters and the feelings linger and there is–when she gets it right–no escaping them.

The story also put me in mind of Alice Munro’s recent story, “Free Radicals,” which I wrote about here. In fact, now that I think of it, yes, it’s strikingly similar. A widow alone in her house, wondering how to get along, the visit, someone forcing themselves into the widow’s life, and then at the widow more violently. Munro’s felt like a revision of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” a surprising turn for Munro. I’m not sure I could say the same of Oates,’ though now that I’ve noticed the similarity lets have a look at the two.

Here is the opening of Oates’

In late March, there’d been a sleet storm throughout north-central New Jersey. Her husband had died several days before. There was no connection, she knew. But since that time she’d begun to notice at twilight a curious glistening to the air. Often, she found herself in the doorway of her house, or outside, not remembering how she’d got there. For long minutes, she would stare as the colors faded and a glassy light emerged from the sky and from the Scotch pines surrounding the house. It did not seem to her a natural light, and in weak moments she thought, This is the crossing-over time. She watched, not knowing what she might be seeing. She felt aroused, vigilant. She felt apprehension. She wondered if the strange glistening to the air had always been there but in her previous, protected life she hadn’t noticed it.

And here is the opening of Munro’s:

At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.

So both women are in a state of “crossing over” time. One, Munro’s character, a tad more stoic than the other. And here are the endings, first Munro:

She was wakened by a knock on her still unlocked door. It was a policeman, not the one from the village but one of the provincial traffic police. He asked if she knew where her car was.
She looked at the patch of gravel where it had been parked.
“It’s gone,” she said. “It was over there.”
“You didn’t know it was stolen? When did you last look out and see it?”
“It must have been last night.”
“The keys were left in it?”
“I suppose they must have been.”
“I have to tell you it’s been in a bad accident. A one-car accident just this side of Wallenstein. The driver rolled it down into the culvert and totalled it. And that’s not all. He’s wanted for a triple murder. That’s the latest we heard, anyway. Murder in Mitchellston. You were lucky you didn’t run into him.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Killed. Instantly. Serves him right.”
There followed a kindly stern lecture. Leaving keys in the car. Woman living alone. These days you never know.
Never know.

And then Oates:

She managed to stand. She was dazed, sobbing. She leaned against a chair in the hall, touching the walls, then stumbled to the open doorway and stood, staring outside. The front walk was dimly illuminated by the moon overhead. There was a meagre light, a near-to-fading light. She saw that the pumpkin head had fallen from the step, or had been kicked. It lay shattered on its side. She could see that the innards had been scooped out, but negligently, so that seeds remained, bits of pumpkin gristle. She stepped outside. She wiped at her mouth, which was still bleeding. She would run back into the house and dial 911. She would report an assault. She would summon help. For she required help, badly; she knew that Anton Kruppev would return. Certainly he would return. On the front walk, she stood gazing toward the road—what she could see of the road in the darkness. There were headlights there. An unmoving vehicle. It was very dark, a winter dark had come upon them. She called out, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” Headlights on the roadway, where his vehicle was parked.

Not the same story, nor the same writers, but a similar journey. Both women having to talk their way out of a bad situation. It doesn’t work for the old woman in O’Connor’s story, who is shot and finds or does not find redemption in that moment–the jury is still out on that. But it does for both Oates’ and Munro’s characters. Widows who will go on, a little dazed, but righted finally, slightly scarred by the brush with the “other” in varying degrees of danger.

-Sina Queyras

The Quick Review: Alice Munro

Alice Munro, “Free Radicals
New Yorker, February 11

A new story by Alice Munro in the current New Yorker had the Hound up part of the night, and just when she had begun to think that Munro couldn’t zing her anymore. The twist in plot took her completely by surprise. Cheeky, it is. A smart rewrite of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a story that has troubled more than one fiction writing class, and not only for its absolute darkness of vision (a fact O’Connor argues). It’s also a reminder that what Canadians think is a kind of unique brand of Canadian fiction isn’t at all.

But the story, yes, the story. We start off in typical Munro land: “At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much…” Quickly we learn that Nita is living in a ramshackle (artfully so) house on the outskirts of town and is recently widowed by her professor husband. Up until this point it’s difficult not to think of “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” of course, a kind of flip-side to it, but there is something different about the voice, as the narrator herself says later on: “a crack in it, a rising pitch that made her think of a television comedian doing a rural whine.” And that idea of the flip-side becomes important because once we get comfortable with Nita and her loneliness, her grief (we find out she has recently lost the husband/professor that she won, or stole from his first wife, and has just beaten cancer: for now), she discovers a young man at her door, “come to check the fusebox.”

Now without giving too much away what follows to my mind in any case, is a brilliant updating of the infamous scene between “the old lady” and the Misfit, the “unconversion” tale if you will, at the heart of “A Good Man.” Much is changed, much is updated, and the south we are in is Southern Ontario, but the basic gothic strategy of “telling a story” to save one’s life is there. And Munro handles it brilliantly. What a coup. Is it because we weren’t expecting another from her that this turn comes as such a surprise? Again, our narrator:

She took a big chance. She said, “I just think you haven’t ever done anything like this before.”

There were a few moments when the veneer of the young man wore thin, but on a second read those shortcomings faded into the cabin walls and what emerged was a woman who had become quite comfortable with her narrative and who had suddenly, and with great grace and obvious delight, turned it on its head one last time easily convincing the stranger in her house, and in the process, completely delighting herself, and settling into her status as master.

O Connor’s story ends with the chilling:

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”


There followed a kindly stern lecture. Leaving keys in the car. Woman living alone. These days you never know.

Never know.

Sina Queyras