After reading and being blown away by Life of Pi, I was compelled to give this book a go. However, my reaction was towards this was filled with ambivalence.
The protagonist of the story is a slightly pretentious Henry. He is a published author overcoming writer’s block by replying to fan mail. This is all his got going on for him really. He lacks depth and interest, making the first 60 pages or so drag. Then the other character is introduced through the form of fan mail asking for Henry’s help in writing a play. This character is a taxidermist – a creepy, distant man preserving the lives of animals. He isn’t particularly great either but his ghoulish nature piques some interest. His play is involving two animals, a stuffed donkey (Beatrice) and an equally deceased howler monkey (Virgil).
Essentially bit by bit, in no chronological order, the play is unravelled. It is a nonsensical, artistic attempt at portraying the holocaust in a contemporary and controversial fashion. The animals have seemingly pointless conversations which make no sense and only hinder the progression of the story (if you can even call it that.) This book is only 173 pages long and only begins to make sense after the first 150 pages. By this point, I have kept reading because I’m hoping for the weirdness to take shape and I’m so far along it would seem pointless to give up. The last 23 pages conclude the story in a fast and violent sweep with tone altering from eerie to downright graphic as it proclaims itself to be an allegory of the holocaust.
After spending the time reading the book, I felt betrayed and deprived of what I was expecting to be a much better conclusion that what it was. The action happened all at once, so much so by the time my mind was figuring out what was going on the book had ended, leaving me with a sense of dissatisfaction. I was hoping the weirdness would add to the meaning and become clear yet I was left scratching my head. The reasons for me actually liking it were appreciating what Martel was attempting to do, even if I don’t feel he did achieve it. Also, it was so different and odd it does stick in your mind as months after, I’m still questioning if I truly understood it and it makes me question my own intelligence. You know when you don’t quite get something and you’re not sure if this feeling is unequivocal or if you’re just skipped over some important parts – this is how I feel about Beatrice and Virgil.
“Books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: Let’s not forget this.” – Dave Eggers
I have been compelled to read this by many over the years and I can finally say I have. I’ve tried before but have ended up setting it down after the first few chapters but I don’t mean this to be any reflection on the book itself, merely my own interest at the time.
It’s a memoir. After losing both of his parents to cancer in the space of a month, Eggers is forced to deal with this alongside the new and daunting aspect of being the guardian for his 7 year old brother, Toph.
One concept I really enjoy about this book is that it is essentially about some twenty year olds who don’t seem to have much going on. Apart from his parent’s death and raising his brother, nothing really stands out for me, which at times can make it drag a little. However, I don’t know if this is my own ignorance to genius or just one of those things. For example, Eggers starts his own magazine and interviews for a MTV show – I find myself inadvertently skipping past these chapters not finding them particularly interesting. I digress; back to my original point I enjoy the fact that Eggers has made a novel out of this. Imagine thinking this idea up yourself. His parents’ die of cancer, he looks after brother…then what? That is essentially what it is but I like this – It gives me reassurance that you can write the ordinary.
The most engaging aspect of the novel is his relationship with his little brother, Toph. As guardian, he is weighted with all these expectations and pressures, some of which he completely ignores (like getting his brother to school on time). We see points of him attempting to be a better guardian and his newfound authority is not taken seriously by Toph. There are also snippets of extreme paranoia by Eggers when he leaves Toph with a babysitter involving murder and paedophilia which you can sympathise with but also laugh about.
The final thing I enjoy about this book is the ending where he finally addresses the feelings towards his dead mother, using internal debates to grab our attention. I love the anger, the inappropriate comments and throwing of the ashes (which fall on his jacket). These elements are again easy to sympathise with while being realistically and refreshingly awkward. You throw ash in the wind, it will blow back on you but the world is often too scared to address the awkwardness of life, which is what he does with the cancer.
I personally feel this book is overrated but it does have its merits. It is this mix of realistic awkwardness and the relationship with Top which make this an unforgettable read.