Slaughterhouse Pi

Over the weekend Gary and I watched Life of Pi, the Oscar-nominated film adaptation of the captivating — and deservedly award-winning — book by Yann Martel.

We would have liked to have seen it sooner, during the month of Oscar. When Gary is able to see the movies nominated, he invariably attains prediction accuracy in the high nineties. But movie tickets are out of our price range right now, so we had to wait for the 3-day loan item to appear at our local branch at the exact same time that I appeared at that same local branch to check it out.

It would have been nice to have seen it sooner, but we didn’t.

Over that same weekend, I finished reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

I had read Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions years ago, in middle school. I enjoyed reading it back then, and likewise enjoyed reading Slaughterhouse this past week; the kind of enjoyment that made me wonder why I hadn’t previously read it or any of his other works besides Breakfast before now. I also wondered why I hadn’t joined my late friend Mark Spoo in his spontaneous urge — and success — at reading through all of Vonnegut’s novels.

It would have been nice to have read the book at the same time as him and have discussed it with him, but I didn’t and we didn’t.

Both Life of Pi and Slaughterhouse Five are about suffering; specifically about what it means to be a human who suffers. What is our response to suffering and maybe even more importantly what are we supposed to do with that suffering? What is our takeaway from the wretched things that befall us?

In Life of Pi, the young protagonist survives a ship explosion that kills almost everyone and leaves him adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Over the course of the novel, he is tested to the point of breaking, yet somehow manages to survive. In the process of such odds-defying survival, shot beautifully and believably by Ang Lee, he finds renewed faith in God.

In Slaughterhouse Five, lots of people also die. Much of the book occurs during World War II, and that’s involved in some of the dying. But there are other deaths as well, as dying is not bound to wartime. Some folks survive and find… well, find that they have survived.

So it goes is how Vonnegut famously and thought-provokingly juxtaposes such ultimately happenstance instances of life and death.

At first the two works seem to be looking at life in different ways, but the ambiguous ending in Life of Pi grays the difference.

Investigators are trying to get to the bottom of the explosion to find out why the ship sank. They are not satisfied with Pi’s hard-to-believe and somewhat fantastical account of his time at sea. So he offers them another story, one devoid of faith. Instead, it is of a scared little boy who witnesses horror beyond what one should have to witness and does what he has to do in order to survive, which includes the guilty necessity of murder.

And he survives, coping in part by maybe, just maybe, making up a personal mythology involving a scared little boy, a Bengal tiger, and God.

So it goes could be applied to this second, unadorned story, which is smartly not filmed by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee but instead is simply recounted in a conversation between the protagonist, now grown, and a reporter who is visiting him.

Pi remarks to the reporter that in both stories, the explosion never is explained and he still suffers. He asks the reporter which story he prefers.

The reporter prefers the one with the tiger, presumably because it makes sense of what is otherwise senseless; gives meaning where there is meaninglessness. In effect, the heroic, quasi-mythological tale is a concrete expression of religious faith and the value that it brings as an answer to the question of suffering.

The thing is, its answer — and its subsequent value as an answer — only works if there really is a real question to be answered. So the true question underlying both pieces of art — and a lot of my thoughts — is whether there is a real question there at all.

I’d like to think there is; that if I think about it long enough, pray about it long enough, cast stones about it, talk about it, and dream about it long enough, that maybe even if I never have the ability to answer it, I will at least gain the ability to know it is there. But I have doubts and doubts about those doubts…

I wish I didn’t have such doubts but I do. So goes it.

And so go I.