In a few weeks I’ll be interviewing Yann Martel, who burst onto the literary scene in 2002 with The Life of Pi. In preparation, I’m currently reading his latest, Beatrice and Virgil, and quite enjoying it.
However, it is an odd book, and it took me a day to figure out why. Most stories follow a basic pattern: the central conflict is established in the first third—if not the first page—and the rest of the story is spent resolving that conflict one way or another. So as early as possible a writer will reveal that John loves Jane but Jane is engaged to pigheaded Paul, that a killer is loose in a kindergarten, that Emily cannot let go of the guilt she feels for her broken marriage.
Not so in Beatrice and Virgil. I am halfway in and I really couldn’t tell you what the central conflict is. But I like it, and I like it quite a bit. Why? Because something is going on, and it feels like something important. I’ll have to wait until the end to see if Mr. Martel delivers, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the ride.
All of which is a long way of reminding me that formulas are swell and exist for a reason, but we must not be afraid of veering from them. I suppose it is easier to veer from the conventional narrative arc when you’re last book sat on the NYT bestseller list for 57 weeks, but then again, perhaps not. Beatrice and Virgil begins with a portrait of a writer whose last book was a smash success, involved animals (Life of Pi saw its protagonist stranded on a raft with a tiger, among other animals), and whose latest effort is unconventional and is rejected by his publisher. I will not put thoughts into Mr. Martel’s head, but clearly he understood that nothing is guaranteed.
In the end, every story has its own idea of what it must be. A writer’s job is to follow that idea along its most natural route. The worst thing you can do is to decide ahead of time what that route must be—to think, I must write something post modern and clever, or I must have at least three women between the ages of 35 and 50 appear by page 100. Most readers, most editors, most agents, despite what they might claim they require in a story, actually just want a story that feels authentic. This is great news. We don’t have to figure out what an authentic story is, we need only listen faithfully to the story delivered to us and we will be guided toward an authentic journey.