light falling on ocean

This post was originally published in August 2006 and contains spoilers for “The Life of Pi.”

I’m a great believer in synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, so I don’t believe it was mere chance that I laid hands on a volume of essays by C.S. Lewis just a day after completing Yann Martel’s astounding novel, “The Life of Pi.” I was just wandering around the library, looking for some papermaking books while the kids busied themselves in the children’s section, and there it was, perched on the end of a stack like it was just waiting for me to find it: “C.S. Lewis On Stories and Other Essays on Literature.” I slipped it under my arm with the other books I brought home that day because, well, I was hoping to find a topic I might write about here.

I never expected that the title essay “On Stories” would explain in theory what had been demonstrated in practice in the novel I had just finished.

It will be hard to explain in full without providing spoilers from “The Life of Pi,” and since I don’t want to ruin anyone’s first read of the book, I’ll start with Lewis’ theory and then talk about the novel behind the split.

The basic premise of the essay is that there are two ways of reading “romances,” or stories read purely for pleasure. With plenty of personal anecdotes as evidence, he proposes that some readers are driven by pure excitement — it doesn’t matter what sort of danger is faced, so long as there is a constant, increasing level of fear. For other readers, atmosphere or the sense of otherness, is a more important factor in their enjoyment of a story. You don’t have to guess which type of reader Lewis is, and I have to admit that, like him, I am of the latter sort. He tries not to denigrate the excitement-loving reader, but there is a subtle disdain for the type, which he associates with cinema and American “scientifiction” (this essay was first published in 1947 ).

The bulk of the essay goes on to elaborate on his preference for stories that rely on mood, atmosphere and language to provide pleasure instead of merely providing a series of exciting events. I’ll let his words speak more to the point:

Jack the Giant-Killer is not, in essence, simply the story of a clever hero surmounting danger. It is in essence the story of such a hero surmounting danger from giants. It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. (page 8 )

He makes the same point about pirates in the next paragraph, and then later:

I have sometimes wondered whether the ‘excitement’ may not be an element actually hostile to the deeper imagination. In inferior romances…we often come across an really suggestive idea. But the author has no expedient for keeping the story on the move except that of putting his hero into violent danger. In the hurry and scurry of his escapes the poetry of the basic idea is lost. (page 10 )

And later yet again:

Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood at this. Thus, for example, Dr Johnson, if I remember rightly, thought that children liked stories of the marvelous because they were too ignorant to know that they were impossible…Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage. (page 12 )

While he does not explicitly state the point (it’s couched in examples too numerous to quote), the purpose of the marvelous in a story is united with the purpose of Art itself: “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude.” (page 10 ) Which is why, I expect, that I have always favored fiction with some element of the fantastic. Real life is narrow and desperate enough as it is, right?

How often a person re-reads favorite stories is an indication of whether or not they read for pure excitement or if their imagination is being stimulated by a sort of poetry

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness…In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ’surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff. So in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the ’surprise’ of discovering that what seemed Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. If is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia. (page 17 )

(The above passage doesn’t relate directly to Martel — I haven’t re-read it yet — but I wanted to keep it for my own reference. But I do re-read my favorite books, and rewatch my favorite movies for that matter, and the pleasure only deepens over time.)

Thus, Lewis’ “On Stories.” How does that apply to Martel? 

[spoilers follow]

“The Life of Pi,” if you are not familiar with it, tells the story of a teenaged boy, Pi (short for Piscine, the French world for swimming pool), who is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The first third of the book tells of Pi’s life before the shipwreck, as the son of a zookeeper in India who discovers not just one religion but three, which he practices simultaneously. In alternate chapters we also hear about Pi’s life following the shipwreck, from the point-of-view of the person who I’ll call “the narrator” even though Pi’s story is all told in first person. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see Pi settled in Canada, content in the life he has created for himself. In fact, the narrator tells us bluntly at the end of this section of the book, “This story has a happy ending.”

By removing the ultimate threat, eliminating the question of whether or not Pi will survive his ordeal, the book immediately leaves the realm of stories read purely for excitement. Because we know where the story is going to end, we are more able take notice of the journey itself, and to appreciate the scenery along the way (in both the literal and metaphoric sense). I don’t think it’s necessary to elaborate on this, the middle section of the book, other than to say that Martel manages effectively to surround you in his reality. Could someone really accomplish what Pi does during his nearly-300-day exile on the ocean — with or without a tiger? I don’t know. But Martel’s storytelling ability lets you believe it is possible.

It is the third part of the book that truly demonstrates Lewis’ theory, though. What happens to Pi after he is washed ashore in Mexico is told primarily through the “transcription” of an interview by two representatives of a Japanese shipping company, trying to ascertain the cause of the shipwreck. When they disbelieve Pi’s story of his long journey with the tiger, he offers them an alternative version, one where humans take the places of the animals that had filled his story before. While the original story was filled with marvels, the second is filled with horrors. Sadly, it is the second that is more realistic. But is it true? That’s left to the reader to decide.

Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this now. The alternative version of Pi’s story could have been just as exciting as the original, a gripping human drama of fear, greed and murder. But Martel was not trying to create an exciting story. We know that from the start because the threat of danger is removed by the fact of Pi’s survival, by the knowledge of the happy ending. Neither is he trying to convince us that this remarkable journey is a true story. The final chapters as much as say, “Here’s what really happened.”

Like Lewis’ giants and pirates, a tiger is a danger beyond the ordinary, a danger that takes us out of “narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life” where it is easier to contemplate human nature without judgement. When Pi’s antagonist is a tiger, we admire is strength in the face of adversity. When his antagonist is human, we can only feel pity and shame for humanity in general.

At the same time, Martel has made a commentary on every story, every history. What is true? What is True?

“Which story is the better story?” Pi asks his interrogators, and they have to conclude that Pi’s story, with the tiger, is better. And in their minds, that makes it true.

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