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Self: A Novel

by Yann Martel

Yann Martel is probably best known for “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” which first appeared in the Malahat Review in 1990 and subsequently in the third Journey Prize Anthology and after that as the title story of Martel’s 1993 collection from Knopf. “Helsinki Roccamatios” is a good story, but “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton,” in the September 1992 Malahat and also included in the Knopf collection, is a better story, and one that more clearly says, This is something new. Certainly in Canada. There have been Clark Blaise and Norman Levine, but as I read him, Martel has more in common with Granta contributors such as Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Auster, and Allan Gurganus. These are writers of fiction whose conventions are so muted, or erased, as to be hardly distinguishable from memoir, or travel narrative, or autobiography; fiction where the “I” is present as a fully intelligent, intellectual, even politically conscious entity, a citizen! More like a real, both-paws-on-the-mouse functioning human being than your usual blinkered and blind-sided fictional creation. Martel, in other words, writes in a way that makes a lot of other fiction look like, well, like fiction.

So why did he call his first novel Self? Not advisable to come across self-conscious about your strong point. That was my first thought. My second: What exactly do I expect from a novel called Self? A cool look at that snaky illusory construct through the eye of the reporter, historian, (auto)biographer; the sort of direct gaze that usual fiction, all caught up with irony and striving selves in their social relations, hardly gives us. To put this metonymically and crudely, the title Self had me expecting deconstructive scenes of solitary masturbation along with the rest of the deconstructed sex.

What did I get? A work of fiction that takes the form of an autobiography of a 30-year-old, from birth to tentative initial recovery from devastating trauma. It is a narrative orchestrated by an outspoken “I” that is candid, intelligent, likable, life-embracing, protean, chatty, smug, and mischievous. A self busy being a self: watching itself, blind to itself. An eating disorder receives a couple of lines. Loss of parents is absorbed quietly. When, at university, the narrator suffers what she calls an “existential crisis,” she says, “But it doesn’t make for interesting reading, I’ll be the first to admit it,” and later adds, “We all go through it, we all cope with it, or try, so why talk about it?” So she doesn’t. This is primarily a self counting its satisfactions in that obsessive-complacent way that selves have. A self hugging itself and spinning round. A self dusting itself off after a spill before soldiering on. There are fine, largely celebratory accounts of earliest childhood memories; of masturbation (yes!) and shitting, a good deal of shitting; of life at a boarding school readers will think they recognize; of university days at a university readers will think they recognize; of the narrator’s work on that first unpublished fiction; of trips to Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, South America; of passionate love affairs (of which there are mainly four, one lesbian and three heterosexual – because twice the narrator, for reasons not clear, spontaneously changes sex).

This is an easy book to pick up again after you have to put it down to make yourself something to eat or to get some sleep, because Martel is a bright, amiable, enthusiastic writer with an original, playful mind that he is not afraid to use. If there is a problem, for me it is that the self that dominates the narrative is presented on its own terms, as a self will naturally want to conceive itself. But that is how it is conceived by the author too, because it is viewed by him from the other side of that traumatic experience late in the book that will devastate it. And consequently I found myself waiting, as I read, for the event, the upset, the necessary piece of information, that might account for so apparently untroubled and unvexed and blameless a state of self-driven enthusiasm for almost 300 pages. And when it comes it is both expected and unexpected in the right degrees, and it is truly harrowing, because Martel is a good writer, and yet because the book appears to require it to work, it has the effect more of formal necessity than of the fiction-free authenticity that Yann Martel, when things are working for him, can so beautifully give us.