Why is it so many modern novels - especially those that seem to get categorised in the literary genre - don't grab you sufficiently from the beginning to make you want to keep on reading? These books are often very well written, as far as the style is concerned, but when it comes to an actual story (and I don't just mean a 'plot' - although many of them could do with something that could be called a plot) they fall down. I began to read a book last night called How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić - the excellent translation is by Anthea Bell. It's full of interesting detail, and considerable warmth, and the characters have life. And yet...something's missing. There's nothing grabbing you (at least in the first thirty pages or so that I read), nothing that says: keep on reading me; I'm going to take you somewhere. I suspect that if I persevered, I'd find that it did go somewhere (if the blurb is anything to go by) but why do I have to wait thirty pages or more to find out?
I began to read Felix Holt by George Eliot the other night (I've had it on my shelves for as long as I can remember). Now, in her time, it was okay to start slowly and gradually draw the reader in. But Eliot spends several pages of small print giving us nothing but background, and absolutely no characters, and I just couldn't be bothered taking the journey any further. Sometimes it seems like modern writers (again, I emphasize it's the 'literary' school that's most inclined to do this) don't really care whether their reader keeps reading. They've written their beautiful book and that's all that matters.
I read The Life of Pi while on holiday. Yann Martel manages to keep you reading from early on, though it would be possible to toss this book into the unfinished pile too. I think the difference is that there's a sense that the book is going somewhere (Stanišić's book somehow misses this, in spite of all the detail), even though again there's no particular 'story' and certainly no plot. The first third of the book has the narrator telling us mostly about the zoo his father runs, on one hand, and his spiritual journey on the other. The zoo is there for a good reason, but the spiritual journey? I'm not sure how that relates to the rest of the book. It almost seems like a sidetrack that Martel enjoyed writing about but which perhaps should never have got into the finished book. It's interesting, and intriguing and amusing, but is it part of the story?
The first third is all pretty much a prelude to the incredible journey that Pi ultimately finds himself involved in: the ship on which he and his family are travelling to Canada on sinks mid-ocean; the ship also contains some of the animals from the now closed zoo. Pi is the only human to escape - he winds up on a lifeboat with a tiger, an orang-utan, a hyena and a zebra. There's some very nasty sorting out of the pecking order amongst these creatures, and finally only Pi and the tiger remain. They survive an extraordinary trip across the ocean, wind up for a short period on a floating island full of meerkats, escape from its initially unrealised perils and finally drift to the coast of Mexico, where both survive in their own way. Recovering in hospital he's visited by two Japanese agents from the ship's owners who try to understand what caused the ship to sink. Pi tells them his story, which they don't believe, so he tells them a totally different (and even more unpleasant) version - and then they don't know which to believe. And the book ends. There's also a kind of framing of the whole story supposedly written by Martel, who meets up with Pi at a later stage. This section also seemed a bit irrelevant, like a kind of framing device that should have been ditched at some point in the various draftings of the story.
Anyway, for better or worse, Martel kept all these diverse elements in. The story is full of humour, and is enjoyable for that reason (the last section with the translated Japanese comments is often delightful). It's full of detail about surviving at sea, and that's extremely interesting, if difficult to come to terms with at times. It's also extremely grim: if the sinking of the ship seems like an unpleasant experience, it's nothing like the unpleasantness that's described when the four animals gradually dispose of each other, or the horrors of trying to survive for months and months in a lifeboat. The fantastic section set on the meerkat island begins as a tranquil interlude and then becomes a nightmare.
Martel keeps us guessing throughout as to what is really going on: who is the real narrator? Is it Pi or Martel (or Martel's novelist 'character')? Do we hear Pi's story as he told it, or as the novelist has rewritten it? How much of it is 'true' and how much a fantasy? Where does the religious element that's so prominent in the first part come into the rest? According to some reviewers the book's underpinning is religious, and there are hints scattered throughout that this may be so. Yet the religious element seems to me to be the weakest. I don't know what Pi is thinking about spiritually in his long journey, and at the end that aspect of his life seems to be put in the background. Perhaps I need to re-read it discover what Martel is getting at here, as I seem to have missed what other reviewers have 'discovered' in this regard. Early in the book a character tells the 'author' that this story will make you believe in God. I'm not sure how that is supposed to happen. Pi doesn't necessarily credit his ultimate salvation with being saved by God (and which God, anyway, since he believes in three very different versions simultaneously) and there's no sense of an epiphany - at least not that I recall.
Anyway, the main point about the book is that somehow Martel keeps you reading. I'm not sure how he does it - whether it's the sheer inventiveness of the book and its wealth of detail or the perseverance of the main character - but he does it in such a way that it would annoy you to put the book down. Certainly better than being annoyed because you can't be bothered to read any further!