Monday, July 26, 2010

Donkey Poo + Monkey Poo = Beatrice and Virgil

What I've come to understand since I started reading Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel, is that few books in recent years have been as polarizing as this one. The reviews I've read range from love to hate.

First off, this one is complicated. It's about a writer named Henry who flees into theater and music lessons after the failure of his second book. His editors pan it, it never sees the light of day, and he hides his head in the sand. He receives a letter from a local taxidermist claiming to need help on a project, and he gets embroiled in the life of the stuffer o'animals, also named Henry. The taxidermist's play is a Beckett-like story of a howler monkey named Virgil and a Donkey named Beatrice. They live in a violence-torn country which serves as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the Holocaust. Henry finds himself deeply involved with the taxidermist the more of the play he hears, and there are plenty of shadows in the taxidermist's life.

I really enjoyed the first half of this novel. The writing really is--dare I say it--lyrical at times. There's a lot to munch on if you're a fan of Postmodern literature. If you're not, you'll hate this book by default. Martel is obviously self-referential. The book parallels his own experience with a scrapped and revamped novel according to news reports during the years between Life of Pi and this book. There's also a good deal of intertextuality--references to works of literature from Flaubert to Beckett himself.

Where the novel falls apart is in Martel's obvious attempts to be clever and hiply Postmodern. There's a line between subtle and deft use of Postmodern conventions and a circus of showing off. The bottom line: the final half of this book was tiresome and left me wishing to hurry on up and pick up another book.

I'll take Paul Auster's self-referential, Postmodern writing over Martel's clunky execution any day of the week.

What the heck do I read now? Still trying to avoid a slump!


  1. "Where the novel falls apart is in Martel's obvious attempts to be clever and hiply Postmodern. There's a line between subtle and deft use of Postmodern conventions and a circus of showing off."

    Oh gosh I couldn't agree with you more. I haven't read this. I barely made it 30 pages into Life of Pi before I dropped it. The pretention was ridiculous. I can't stand Martel personally and he's probably the most arrogant author I know outside of perhaps Orson Scott Card, who might be more insane than arrogant, but still worse. Anyway, I just wanted to say your statements very much sum up what I think about Martel and why I won't read any more of his books.

  2. After reading your review, I doubt this one is for me.

  3. Because I am seven years old, I was giggling about the title of this post all through reading it.

  4. Amanda, from what I can remember, I really liked Life of Pi. I even kept it to re-read one day, and I'd be interested to know what I think of it now and how it's held up to time. I read it in my early 20s I believe, and I wonder now (in light of Beatrice and Virgil) if I really liked it, or if I was just impressed by something new-to-me. For that reason, I would re-read it.

    It's not for many of us from what I can tell, Kathy. He has a lot of promise, so it was a shame this one fell flat.

  5. I hit Enter instead of Tab just now and made it look like some random (possibly seven-year-old) internet person posted that anonymous comment. I WILL OWN IT. My name is Jenny, and I think poop jokes are funny.

    I also meant to ask: Is Yann Martel indeed very arrogant as a person? I don't know anything about him.

  6. LOL, Jenny! And I was sooo hoping that was a 7 year old who stumbled onto my blog! Damnit!

    He must be pretty darn smug and overblown because he sends the Canadian Prime Minister a book "to encourage silence" every two weeks.

    Given, the Canadian prime minister could well be a non-reading dolt, but who is Yann Martel to choose the good stuff. Really?

    Check it out:

  7. I love this line: "Where the novel falls apart is in Martel's obvious attempts to be clever and hiply Postmodern. There's a line between subtle and deft use of Postmodern conventions and a circus of showing off." :-) This novel sounds insufferably pretentious.

  8. Hi! I was one (of the few?) in the "love it" camp. Your review was great, though, and I can certainly understand the other side of the argument made by so many.

    What did you think about the "games" at the end?

  9. I hate it when a book starts out fantastic and then falls flat, especially when it becomes pretentious and just flat out full of it. What a shame! To have spent your time in the pages of a book only for it to have been a waste...!

  10. I am with mrsodell Reads. I liked it, and was amazed by the last 40 pages. I also thought the games at the end was so original.

  11. That thing with the Prime Minister is what really makes me think he's arrogant, especially since the very first book he sent was his own. Lame!

    My issue with Life of Pi was the way the narrator bashed people who are agnostic, saying they're just too lazy to make a choice to be religious or atheist. As someone who's gone on a long journey of religious exploration and ended up agnostic because neither religious or atheist is right for her, I found the statements quite offensive. So it was a very personal reason I gave it up. I just thought he was a little obnoxious in it. Most people seem to love the book.

  12. Overly postmodern books can certainly be annoying; especially if they are a bit more pretentious. I did really enjoy Life of Pi, but I haven't decided on this one yet.

  13. i had this one (audio book format) on hold at the library and wasn't able to pick it up before the hold expired. should i be happy i missed it? but i love the life of i think i'll still give it a shot despite your well-written but tepid review. :)

  14. I agree with your thoughts on this book - it tried too hard and the symbolism was too obvious and overused.

    I disagree with Amanda's thoughts on the author though. I went to hear him talk a few months ago and didn't think he came across as arrogant. Misguided maybe, but he seemed like a lovely man. I admired his ideas about getting people to talk about the Holocaust and actually thik he has succeeded in his mission as this book has generated a lot of discussion.

  15. Every review I read of this book makes me want to read it more. I need to know what people are getting so worked up about!

  16. I'll give it a try, but I'm in no rush now, thanks for the review.

  17. LOL at your review! I don't have much interest in reading this one, but I do enjoy his What is Stephen Harper Reading site. Perhaps he's better at writing about books than writing them?

  18. I received a copy of this one unexpectedly and I was thinking about giving it a try, but now I'm not so sure. I know I never would have accepted a copy knowingly. It just sounds like one of those books that tries to be great and profound.

  19. I loved Life of Pi; after reading your review, perhaps I should avoid this one.

  20. Ok, I just don't think this is a novel I'd be up for... at least at this time. Sorry it wasn't the one to get you out of your slump.

    By the way, I meant to email you earlier because while I was at the bookstore I read that Mary Roach has a new book coming out - did you know? Title is Packing for Mars. I can't remember what it is about all I wrote was a note to tell you about it :)

  21. Stephanie, I agree, which is why I want your feedback on my next post!

    Mrs. ODell, thanks for stopping in and commenting amidst all the haters! LOL, I appreciate your point of view. The games were really hard to read. That doesn't make them bad, but as with most of the novel, I felt it was overplayed a bit. I already felt the horror of what he was going for, so that was just an extra slap of sorts. Such a shame since I really liked Life of Pi.

    Coffee and a Book Chick, I take the bad with the good. I can only hope the next one is better!

    BookQuoter, thanks for stopping in! The last 40 pages or so certainly were moving. Hard to read and at times beautiful. The ending thorougly surprised me, too, but I still felt like he was trying just a tad too hard.

    Amanda, I don't even remember the Agnostic-bashing, but it's been long enough that I don't remember a whole lot. Life of Pi is one of those books that I've saved in my permanent collection for a re-read. I'm even more motivated to re-read it now that I've disliked Beatrice and Virgil so. I need to compare and contrast!

    Trisha, I really liked Life of Pi too, which made this one doubly disappointing.

    Thanks, Nat! I definitely want to hear (read) all the opinions I can on this book. I want to know what I'm missing! lol

    Jackie, it's good to hear that he's a good speaker and seems lovely in person. I was beginning to think he might be as full of himself as his writing implies at times.

    LOL, Iris! And I want to know what you think!

    Christopher, would appreciate your opinion when you get 'round to it.

    Eva, I was perusing that site the other day, too. He had some good things to say about many of the books he's chosen.

    Anna, it definitely tries to be great and profound. Would love your thoughts when you get around to it.

    DS, do give it a go. I want to know where you fall in the love/hate continuum!

    Iliana, I've heard little whisperings about the new Roach book! I need to investigate!

  22. I wonder if people would be getting so worked up about this book if it were on a different subject matter. Does the very invocation of the Holocaust make the stakes higher for liking or disliking the novel?

  23. I still haven't read Life of Pi so I am hopelessly behind the times at this point. But everything I've read about this one makes me NOT want to read it. I'm sure I will at some point just to see what I think about it.

  24. Postmodernism generally isn't my thing, especially when the author is trying too hard. I think I will pass on this one.


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