I’ve taught Life of Pi in my book club two or three times. For most of the book, I focus on literary terms: metaphors, similes, personification, metonymy, didactic (my lord, the amount of time Pi spends instructing the reader!), understatement and hyperbole. I also draw attention to Pi’s exceptionally unusual character. Adolescent readers have a distressing tendency to take everything they read at face value without thinking about what the events reveal. When Pi joins three religions, they don’t think, “What idiot is this?” They’re like, “Well, Pi was born a Hindu, but he really liked the Muslim religion, so he joined that, too. Then he became a Christian. His parents got really mad; they think he should just be Hindu.”
So I prod them a bit, ask them if they belong to three religions, and if they don’t think Pi’s a little odd for this and other reasons. Who is more reasonable, really, Pi or his perplexed parents? (who, ultimately, let him have his spiritual advisers). The early lessons focus on reading and appreciating the imagery, but also on gaining an understanding of the character in the first third or so of the book. Why, given what we know is going to happen, does the author spend so much time on zoos and religion?
This preparation helps them make the most of the middle third, which is the book’s claim to fame, the reason Ang Lee made the movie in 3-D. We again focus on imagery and literary terms, practice writing analysis of said literary techniques and how they emphasize ideas,themes,and so on.
I start by having the kids draw a sketch of the entire section (chapters 97-99). I encourage the kids who hate drawing by telling them that whatever they do, my sketch will be the worst. (They know my boardwork, so they believe me even before they see it.)
Why a sketch? Because after two-thirds of a plot-rich story, loaded with action, thoughts, and imagery, the sketch helps student see that the entire third section is three people talking in a room. All the insights, all the discoveries come through conversation. That is, the final third is much like reading a play, a profoundly important switch in a book thus far rich with imagery and thought with relatively little dialogue.
Right around here, we discuss the fact that Pi introduces a second story, that we now must question his original story. Enter the notion of “unreliable narrator” (I usually bring up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
So leaving aside event specifics, what patterns of interaction did the class notice about Pi and the investigators? We build a list:
- The Japanese insurance investigators are hungry and cranky.
- They speak their minds in Japanese, and their interactions are often very funny.
- Pi is hoarding food, something that the readers know he is still doing as an adult. (We discuss the hoarding impulse and why a prolonged bout of near-starvation would bring it on.)
- The Japanese men give Pi food, first grudgingly, then with more understanding of his need.
- Pi constantly challenges the investigators, making facially compelling arguments (that are nonethless ridiculous). These arguments nonetheless stop the investigators with frustrating frequency, because Pi won’t simply accept that a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat is ridiculous, that man-eating plants are absurd, and so on, but rather argues with seeming logic about other absurd realities.
- The frustrated investigators constantly remind Pi that they are investigating a tragedy, and Pi stops them again in their tracks by agreeing, and reminding them of what, exactly, he had lost. Over time, these reminders have their impact, and the investigators start their later questions by acknowledging his pain.
- Mr. Chiba, the assistant, is a good-humored and open man; Mr. Okamoto, the senior, is more analytical, and the more easily frustrated by Pi’s antics.
I make sure they see the humor for example, Mr. Okamoto’s irritation as shown by “[long silence]” when, dammit, the bananas do float, or the fake laughs, or Mr. Chiba’s offering of his uncle the bonsai master, and their pauses as he asks for more and more and, ultimately, all of their food. The kids see that humor is not really anything howlingly funny about any individual event, but the overall story of these increasingly frustrated investigators faced with a recalcitrant Pi. We talk about how it’s easier to see the impact of Pi’s behavior because of the POV change, from first person to third person limited omniscient (we know what the Japanese are thinking because of the translated dialogue). So it’s easier to realize how frustrating it is to deal with Pi.
Then we go through the specific events.
- The investigators ask Pi for an accounting of the events.
- Pi tells them the events as he recounted it later to the book’s author, and as we the readers read.
- The investigators are skeptical, and attack his logic. But Pi tries to build a logical chain by inference: if illogical events have happened elsewhere, they could have happened in the lifeboat.
- The investigators try to win his favor by giving him cookies, their lunch, chocolate bars, all while arguing with him and asking for a more realistic story that they can believe.
- After many cookies, chocolate, all the investigators’ lunch, Pi tells a second story, one that makes the reader wish devoutly for brain bleach, a story of horror, the degradation of humanity, and Pi’s own unwitting betrayal of his mother.
- The investigators don’t like that story either, and after further pushing, they give up. They realize that the sole survivor of the tragedy will not be able to enlighten them as to the cause of the sinking.
- Pi asks them a question: Given that neither story helps them resolve their investigation, which is the better story?
- Mr. Okamoto starts to analyze the question, but Mr. Chiba answers without hesitation that the first story, “the one with the animals”, is the better story. Mr. Okamoto approves of his underling’s answer privately, and chimes in with agreement.
- Pi thanks them, saying “and so it goes with god”. He starts to cry.
- The investigators sit in silence and wonder. After a while, they get up to leave, assuring Pi that they will look out for Richard Parker, the tiger at the center of the story they said was the better story.
- Pi offers them three cookies each. Up to this point, he has hoarded food and given it up (like the bananas) only to ask for it back.
- In a letter written years later, Mr. Okamoto restates his belief in Richard Parker.
It often takes some additional prodding, but after a while, my students notice that Pi did not ask which was the more believable story or the true story, but the better story. And yet, both Pi and the investigators behave subsequently as if the investigators have accepted the true story. Pi cries in clear relief. The investigators refer to Richard Parker.
Up to now, we do it as a class discussion, but I promise I’m not forcing them to “discover” what I want them to. In fact, many of the details I list above were original offered by my students, that I hadn’t originally seen (e.g., I hadn’t noticed the pattern break of Pi offering the investigators a cookie until a student pointed it out).
But now they break up into small groups (2-3) and I ask them this question: Why do the investigators accept Pi’s story? What answer does the text support?
I’ve taught this book three times, and in all cases, all my small groups come back unanimously with the same answer, the only answer I believe is possible after a close read of section three: Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto declare “the story with the animals” the better story out of kindness, of sympathy for a young boy in tremendous pain, who they’ve come to admire, however grudgingly, for his ferocious determination and creative arguments. The students always point out the same key evidence—Mr. Chiba, the more empathetic and less purely analytical investigator, interrupts his superior to give the “right answer”, that his superior, Mr. Okamoto, says “Yes” in Japanese, signifiying approval of and consent to Mr. Chiba’s answer, abandoning his usual commitment to analysis and logic to reason his way to the correct answer.
So then we take the story as a whole. I point out that “dry, yeastless factuality” is a phrase that has appeared before, in a rather startling slam on agnosticism back in Chapter 22. Agnostics, it seems, are in danger of missing “the better story”….hey. That’s a term we’ve seen before. So Pi, and probably the author, is drawing a link between an insistence on facts and the refusal to choose, and choice is essential. We must choose. And we must choose the better story, to Pi. Hence his various comparisons of creation myths in Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. So why does Pi return to this “yeastless factuality”, to a clearly religious context, when talking about his own stories and the choice he offers to the investigators?
Back to the groups, but despite lots of passionate discussion, the students aren’t sure if they have an answer. I tell them that there doesn’t have to be AN answer, but that they might find the notion of creation myth, understood broadly, to be helpful. I also tell them that I am leading them to my own preferred interpretation when I do so.
What continually hangs up the discussions, for good reason, is the book’s conflation of “better” with “true”. Which story is better? The one with the animals, of course. But which story is true? Is Pi relieved when the investigators choose the story with the animals simply because it speaks well of his story-telling? All my students reject that; Pi is clearly moved to tears because the investigators accept his story, in the absence of all relevance, as true, that they begin to discuss Richard Parker as a real being.
Each time I teach this book, we come to this impasse, and I always tell them that they can decide that the author meant true, not better, if they clearly qualify their interpretation with this decision.
At that point, coupled with my hint on “creation myth”, most of the kids come up with some form of this, which we then define as a group: Pi is struggling to survive his trauma, and comes up with a fantastic, beautiful story to mask the brutal reality. It’s more manageable to remember a hyena eating a still-living zebra than a Frenchman slicing up a Chinese sailor, the hyena breaking an orangutan’s neck preferable to the decapitation of his mother. The new story isn’t just a story of his survival, it’s his own “creation myth”, the creation of his own religion, the Life of Pi. He must have a basis, a religion, a credo in order to move forward with his life. He can’t live with the reality, that he was the brutal, savage, yet beautiful Richard Parker.
But all religions must have adherents, people who accept the creation myth. Hence the importance of the Japanese investigators. In refusing his original story, they show the rigid adherence to fact that Pi finds in all agnostics. Their insistence that he tell a “true” story forces him to tell the horrors he experienced. But the endlessly creative Pi, in the midst of his pain, finds one more logical way to ask the investigators for the validation he needs. Since the story of his survival has no relationship to the sinking of the ship, can they tell him which is the better story?
At this point, I usually tell the students that the best part of the book, for me, lies in the extraordinary sympathy Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto show Pi. Mr. Okamoto, the logical one, begins analytically but is saved by the more humane Mr. Chiba, who interrupts his boss to give the answer Pi so clearly craves. And then, as Pi cries quietly, Mr. Okamoto finds a way to reinforce the fact that better does indeed mean true, by reassuring Pi that they’ll be careful not to run into the tiger. These are the acts of kind men, men who were distracted by the demands of the job, frustrated by the fruitful inventions of this confusing survivor, but ultimately moved to help him take the first step past his pain. I always snuffle when Mr. Okamoto agrees with Mr. Chiba.
They are outraged! Martel ignores the agency of the investigators and says they chose the “better” story because they responded to the more “transcendental” story, the one with the unreal elements. Martel wants readers to choose the unreal story because of their revulsion with the “true” story, but he wants the “better” story to have an unreal element to make it a more difficult choice.
“Wait. He’s basically making the whole story really about people and religion, rather than about Pi. He’s got this whole agenda!” said one of my strongest students one year.
“THANK you,” I growled.
And of course, the students are then bummed because they have spent all this time deciphering a story and coming up with a meaning that’s wrong.
“Who says so?” sez I.
” We can always focus on author’s intent, but when his intent conflicts with your own reading, and you’ve got the evidence to back it up, then the author’s just this guy, y’know? He doesn’t get the last word. This is why J.K. Rowling should be drummed out of civilized society, for acting like she’s the only interpreter of Harry Potter novels. As if there’s much to interpret in a damn Harry Potter novel in the first place. She should be skewered on Voldemort’s wand for her arrogance. Instead, when Salman Rushdie comes up with an interpretation clearly supported by the text, this lowlife fool explains patiently why he’s wrong—to friggin’ Rushdie, whose worst novel is of a quality that Rowling could only dream of. But I digress. Look. If Yann Martel wanted us to swallow his bilge, then he should have done a less excellent job with the Japanese investigators. There’s no way around it.”
“Are there other cases of authors being wrong about their work?”
“More specifically, are there other authors who I believe I can prove are wrong about their work? Sure. My favorite and earliest example (that is, the first case I realized I thought the author wrong) is William Faulkner and A Rose for Emily. Many people think Flannery O’Conner is wrong about her interpretation of A Good Man is Hard to Find; I’m not sure I’d go that far, but she definitely makes the grandma’s redemption case stronger than it is. And it’s very common in movies to see a different vision than the director and creative talents intended.”
So to finish the unit, I have them write a freeform essay on one of two topics. They can write up their own interpretation of the ending, or they can explain why they think Martel is wrong. OR right. Anyone who wants to argue that Martel is right because he’s the author can do it, but I tell them they still need to support from the text—or explain why I should ignore the text.
This came up, of course, because of the movie. Reviews suggest that the adult Pi asks the question, “Which is the better story” of the author, not the adolescent Pi of the investigators. Rod Dreher says that the Japanese investigators reject the story with the animals and accept the horrible story—in other words, do exactly the opposite of what they did in the book.
It’s worth realizing these are not trivial changes. In the novel, no one other than the Japanese investigators got a choice. When the author is sent to Pi with the words, “This is a story that will make you believe in god”, the speaker refers to the “better story”, the story with the tiger. The author learns of the alternate version from additional research. The adult Pi has completely adopted his creation myth. His listeners are to believe in God because he has survived nearly a year on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, not because they are given a choice between a brutal, lifeless fact-based horror and a beautiful fantasy.
I suppose it’s inevitable that the interpretation of this book has been stuffed into the “Reader Response” funnel. Our just a tad short of narcissistic president wrote a letter telling the world that he and his daughter made the right choice of the “better story”, which makes him pretty much the equal of every book review , which also ended with the reviewer’s declaration of what he or she, personally, thought was the “better story”. Reader, do you believe in God, with no proof but the better story? Or are you one of those yeastless agnostics, dependent on fact and reason? Make your choice! Talk about how your response to the book is nothing more than a reflection of your finer qualities! Let us all bond together in congratulating ourselves on making the “better choice”, rather than critically analyzing and discussing the many fascinating ideas the book raises, often accidentally.
I don’t think Pi is a particularly excellent book, but the ending is its best part. It’s a shame that it’s been ruined by the Let’s Make Every Book All About Me school of faux critical analysis. (Ruined the book, that is. I can hardly blame Lee for playing to the bigger crowd.)
I believe the book offers considerably more profound insights if we accept that Pi’s survival is beautiful, regardless of how it happened, and that the kindness of two busy men faced with a young man trying to cope with horrors beyond their imagining is as much evidence of God as is the carnivorous island.