Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On inventiveness, for better and worse

Imagine a story, written in collaboration between two Canadian mates. The story is set in a (to them) distant and exotic place; Helsinki, Finland. The story follows an absurdly named family – Roccamatio – in their dramatic, soap opera like life as immigrants in Finland. Their lives are influenced by historical events of the 20th century, and the story is structured according to these. The events are famous and horrible ones, like the 1914 declaration of war between a number of European countries; or the lesser known ones like the invention of the ballpoint pen by a Hungarian-born Argentinean in 1938.

It sounds like an intriguing story, doesn’t it?

I’m sure it would have been.

Only the story does not exist. The story that does exist, is the novella written by Yann Martell, about the tragic last months of the life of one of the storytellers, the 19 year old Paul. The narrator is Paul’s friend, and the novella describes the difficulty of dealing with terminal illness, in this case, AIDS. For these young boys, telling each other a story so different from themselves and their own sorrow, but with plenty of alternative sorrow, is therapy and torture all at once.

It’s something of a skill to create a work within a work so realistic that I want to access it, even though I know that it only exists in the author’s imagination. On previous occasions, Siri Hustvedt has been able to evoke this feeling in me. Particularly in her What I Loved she describes pieces of art in such detail that I am amazed that they are not real. To my knowledge, they are not.

Similarly, Hustvedt’s husband, Paul Auster, has the same skill. In The Book of Illusions he describes several movies by a fictional silent movie actor. You are left with the vague feeling that you should have seen the movies, and an even vaguer disappointment that you cannot. One of the movies mentioned in the book, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, actually is a real movie. But it was made years after Auster’s book was published.

But back to Martell. Martell is the author of Life of Pi, which, in my opinion, is a great book. It’s been quite a few years since I read it, but the feeling of an intensely gripping story with a captivating main character still makes this a book I frequently recommend customers when at work in the bookshop.

“The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” is a great novella, but it isn’t a great book. The version I own – a copy I am 85% certain I picked up when I last went to Paris – has the somewhat unpromising subtitle “and other stories”. This is not a good sign, at least not for the other stories. It does appear that Martell and/or his publishers are aware that the first story, the one about the dying boy, is a good one, but that the remaining ones are merely page fillers.

This is not true.

The second story in this book, “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton” may not be entirely as moving as the title work, but it also evokes some of the same sentiments in me as a reader. I recognize great inventiveness and originality in this story, as I do in the Roccamatio-piece and in the previously mentioned Life of Pi.

And yet there are stories in this book that definitely qualify as “other stories”. “Manners of Dying” is supposed to be thought-provoking, but here I feel Martell does not play on his best strings (he is, ironically, a discordant violin in his own story collection). The story is inventive in its composition, but the performance is not up to par. In a way, it is so original it seems unoriginal.

The final story in the collection, “The Vita Æterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come” also falls for its own inventive form. While I feel the message in this story is clearer than that of the previous one, if makes a relatively unmemorable ending to the book (which also is ironic, seeing as eternal – thus endless – memories plays a considerable part in the story).

In sum, the book is not great because the only truly great story is the first one, and the compilation is not well put together. It appears that the stories were collected because they were in need of each other for making a book of appropriate length, but apart from this they have very little reason to be bound in the same book.

In sum, I feel that Martell falls into a category of authors that I greatly admire, but never quite can depend upon: the ones where I am looking forward to their next book, because they are showing great promise.


Anonymous said...

Ack! I must be the only one who hasn't read the Life of Pi. I keep hearing mixed reactions to the book. Now I'm a wee bit too curious.

Watery Tart said...

I'm not a huge fan of Life of Pi--maybe because I read it for a book club and it ended up being torn apart, but I remember having mixed feelings even before that.

You do such a fabulous job though, describing the feelings about these fictional works DISCUSSED in the book, that this particular novella sounds great--it's more my thing anyway than the man-eating plant island, which was sort of the spoiler for Pi for me. (I liked the boy and tiger in a boat story up to that point)

So I will reserve judgment on Yann...

Cruella Collett said...

Quirky - yes, mixed reactions seems to stick to this book. I'll stand by what I said, I think it's a good book, but I also recognize Tami's frustration over the ending. But I do think it's worth reading (and it's definitely worth watching Martell - I do think his potential is great)

Tami - fictional works within fictional books keep amazing me. It's a very specific kind of description that I humbly hope I might one day be able to master myself. Time will show!

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