Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Humorous, Playful, Philosophical, Unflinching
Sometimes a teacher will say a work of literature "is actually quite funny if you think about it." You know right away it's a ploy. For example: "Hamlet is really funny if you take the time to think about it." Well, parts are funny. Like dialogue between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Of course, then they get murdered... So we want to be up front about this one: parts of Life of Pi are funny. Martel writes with a whimsical, tolerant tone consistent with Pi's outlook on life. There are even comedic set pieces, like the scene where Pi accidentally runs into his priest, rabbi, and imam all at the same time. Even at the worst of times, like when he decides to train a man-killing tiger, Pi has a joke or two to spare:
"Here it is, for your enjoyment and instruction, for your gratification and edification, the show you've been waiting for all your life, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! [...]. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, without further ado, it is my pleasure and honour to present to you: THE PI PATEL, INDO-CANADIAN, TRANS-PACIFIC, FLOATING CIRCUUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSS! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!" (2.57.11)
The book is also gory and gross at times. Martel doesn't pull back. He describes some pretty brutal and nasty stuff with no fuss. During Pi's time at sea, he kills tons of animals, eats Richard Parker's feces, and even goes blind from malnutrition. All of this is told without the slightest fancy-pants nonsense. (Martel isn't delicate with us.) Also, don't forget about the abysmally gruesome alternate version of events told at the end.
Of course, Martel sprinkles in some fairly reflective moments amidst all this goriness. Here's one about Richard Parker, certainly a great cause of anxiety to Pi:
"It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness" (2.57.1).
Like many superb novels, Life of Pi's wide tonal range can make the reader feel like the whole world is in the novel. Really, that's not the case. Each novel tells a coherent and unique story. (The actual world may be unique, but it's not always coherent.) Life of Pi, like any other novel, tells a particular story. This one happens to be about a boy and a tiger. Since Martel makes you laugh, think, cry, and cringe you might be inclined to say it's all there.