The only essay I wrote during my lit undergrad that I didn't think was pure bunk was a post-war Canadian fiction piece on Life of Pi. Like myself at the time, the paper was bloated and rambling and never quite figured out what it meant to say. Whatever point there was had something to do with the significance of pi as a mathematical concept within Yann Martel's story about a story. Here's the gist: pi is a number that prattles into infinity, seemingly without pattern, on account of it attempts to describe a perfect circle which, because of molecular stubble, does not exist in nature. Pi, then, describes a desire for perfection and order in a rough and unwieldy reality. And in the same twelve-or-so pages I tried to argue the relevance of animal fable and polytheistic religions as they relate to that mathematical concept, and how the lot of these concepts explain the text of Life of Pi.
I take a bit of heart in seeing these ideas reflected in Ang Lee's film. It's almost as though my education wasn't analogous to turning a pile of money into a pyre.
If you're among the few who didn't read Martel's book back in the early oughts, here's a survey of the story: we have young Pi Patel, short for Piscine. He's a kid "keen on God." In each religion he finds some relevance, though his interest in all religions confuses the adults in his life, who believe he should find one God and settle. "All religions are true," he quotes. "I just want to love God." His family owns a zoo in Pondicherry, but is selling it to move to Canada. En route, the cargo ship carrying them and their menagerie goes down. Pi, along with a few of his aforementioned animals--a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger--are seemingly the sole survivors. Pi's story purports to be one that will make a person believe in God.
"Telling stories is highly recommended," recommends the survival manual Pi finds on the lifeboat he uneasily shares with his tiger, Richard Parker. And that's what we have in Life of Pi: stories. Regardless of the merits of Martel's book, I think it's its unabashed love and belief in stories that so hooked people. It's a tad presumptuous to presume that 9/11 had anything to do with the book's reception and juggernaut success, but I think there is something to that. The violence of that event was so egregious, and our own North American reality was so shaken, that the running sentiment was that fiction or entertainment or art of any kind were somehow irresponsible in its wake. But I think the recommendation of Pi's manual is absolute. Times have always been tough--one might say that "toughness" is a perennial quality of life--and stories have always been a means of swallowing and digesting that sometimes unfathomable toughness. In times of troubling randomness, we seek stories of order; in times riddled with flaw, we root out perfect stories.
In Lee's film, the imperfect scenario of tragedy resides within the perfect world of its Oscar-winning cinematography. There was some controversy over whether or not such digitally-crafted visuals deserve a cinematography recognition--and I somewhat side with these concerns--but what are, effectively, the paintings of Pi adrift are stunning, and rich, and lonely. There's no assurance that Pi's story will make you believe in God, but it goes a long way to explain the want or need to believe, to glean order and intention in the world, to smooth out that stubbly circle.