3 · Life of Pi

Judging by the end-of-year round-ups in newspapers, you’d think that to be well-read you not only have to read more books than any other person you know, they also have to be the very latest up-to-the-minute volumes of Encyclopedia Zeitgeistica. I manage a few timely reads every year, but between those and catching up on neglected classics and the older stuff that’s caught my eye, the zeitgeist backlog grows ever larger. Fortunately, the zeitgeist is a moving target, so if I neglect its Essential Books for long enough they’ll just become Old Stuff I Haven’t Read Yet, which is much less guilt-inducing. In fact, it can feel like time saved: I kept Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians around for years because it was a zeitgeisty book on politics which Every Australian Should Read, until it became clear that not only was I likely to disagree with it (not a problem as such), I’d be disagreeing with stale zeitgeist. So I’ve traded it in for a fresh new copy of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which should do for a quick sorbet of non-fiction between heavy courses of Stephenson (360 pages in, by the way, but I’m hoping to finish volume one over Christmas).

Fictional zeitgeist keeps a bit better than non-fiction, but there’s still that sense of wanting to keep up with what everyone’s reading, or at least what they’re pretending to read. In recent years I’ve found that the occasional Booker-winning or -short-listed novel does the trick; this year, I’ve actually read two, although I’m still a year or two behind the curve.

DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, last year’s Booker winner, comes with expectation-raising blurbs about “superb comic writing”, “never a page ... without a very good joke”, “ridiculously funny”, “gasping”, “innate”, “itchy”, “the”. To be honest, they raised my expectations too high; but I did enjoy it. I’m not sure how much of that was down to the white trash/high-school massacre/unjustly accused/escape to Mexico plot, though, and how much was down to hearing about the real-life escapades of Peter Finlay/DBC Pierre himself.

It prompted an entertaining exchange with Ed, at least, when he took Pierre to task for writing “fucken” where Americans would write “fuckin”. I was going to turn my half of the conversation into an entry here, but escaped to Spain instead. Now seems as good a time as any to dump a few excerpts into the ether:

What sounds to you like fuckin may sound to us (Aussies) like fucken. Exactly the same sound, but we would hear it and write it differently. ... [Americans] don’t often get a chance to see a literary representation of how Americans sound to Australian ears, that’s all. ¶ The way that at least some Americans pronounce fuckin (as in “there’s no fuckin way I’m doing that”, where it isn’t the main focus of the sentence) is very close to the way Australians say fuck-n, which we can write either fucken or fuckin and be understood by other Australians. (And Brits, it seems; no review in the UK that I’ve seen has picked on this “fucken” thing.) ¶ Actually, it’s more than that: fuckin reads (at least to this Aussie) as if it should have the emphasis on the first syllable, which suggests the word is being used as a verb; while fucken reads as if the whole word should be flattened, with the final syllable just a schwa, used as adverb or adjective: “He was fuckin’ ’er, man, he was fucken FUCKin’ ’er.”

Johnny Rotten, eat your heart out.

As Booker winners go, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi may actually have a shot at outlasting its zeitgeist status. I wondered before starting it whether its “boy trapped in life-raft with tiger” storyline meant it would be some kind of florid magical-realist novel, but surprisingly it isn’t: Martel sets the scene so convincingly, and heightens the tension so effectively, that you believe his premise completely. That alone made the book worth reading; but it became even better in its final act, which raised questions about the nature of fiction and our human need for stories that linger with me still. If you have any interest in fiction, read it; and if you have any interest in avoiding spoilers, read it before the movie version looms into public consciousness. Trust me, you won’t even want to know who’s directing it.

(Since this is the last fiction-related entry in my countdown, I’ll note for the sake of completeness the other two novels I’ve read this year, apart from the ones previously mentioned: Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love; and Will Ferguson’s Happiness™, an excellent satire of the self-help and publishing industries.)