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Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Self by Yann Martel

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

November 15, 2006

I'll start by saying I'm one of the few people who hasn't read "Life of Pi", so I didn't have any expectations going into this. I'll also say reading "Self" doesn't make me want to read anything else by Martel. If it's as dull and dreary, count me out.

I heard the premise of this book from someone else and was intrigued. In researching my purchase I found out it's a loose modernization of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" and so I thought I'd give both a read. It's probably unfair to compare a first-time author to Virginia Woolf and clearly Martel doesn't fare well in the comparison. The reason isn't so much the story but the style.

While Woolf's writing is alive with wit and whimsy, Martel's is a dull grind punctuated by outbursts of graphic descriptions of potty training, masturbation, menstruation, just about every sexual position, and rape. In between those we have dull, cliche, or trite insights from our unnamed narrator. Self manages the amazing feat of being uninteresting as both male and female.

For the moment to focus strictly on "Self" the book is about Self who is born a man and then after his parents die in a plane crash while he's in prep school he starts to become female, the final change occurring during a trip to Portugal. From there she goes to college, having an affair with a professor, has a lesbian affair in Greece/Turkey, works on a couple bad novels, and finds true love in Montreal. That's not the end, which I shall not spoil for you.

The end is the only thing that saved "Self" in my mind from rating one-star. There's a very tragic twist--I've provided a clue above somewhere--that was painful to read and the ensuing aftermath was enough to put me in a funk the rest of the night. That's some effective writing. The rest, not so much.

A problem I have actually with "Self" and "Orlando" is one of logic. In both situations the character wakes up a woman and this does not seem to bother her at all. In "Orlando" it's done through a whimsical scene involving fairies so I was prepared not to take it all that seriously. Whereas "Self" tries to be a more realistic book; how can I logically be expected to think someone would wake up with a sex change and not care? Self discovers this change, rolls over, and goes back to sleep! Then the next day she goes out to get new clothes and a passport as if it's no big deal. I can suspend disbelief to some extent, but this was pushing it. Come on, admit it, if you work up with different genitalia you'd be pretty freaked out. You wouldn't roll over and go back to sleep. That issue really stuck in my craw the rest of the way.

There's another question of logic too. In "Orlando" he becomes a she at the age of 30 after years of womanizing and so forth in Queen Elizabeth's court. In "Self" he becomes a she at 18, still a virgin and pretty much uninitiated in manhood. The difference then is that it's hard to make a case about societal roles and sexual identities when the character hasn't had sex (or hardly any relationships) or really lived in a defined role. So I definitely think Woolf got it right on that one.

As mentioned above, Self doesn't really do a heck of a lot before or after the change. After an opening on potty training there's a flood of dull childhood memories about fish in the eyes and boiling carrots and so forth. There's one brief fling with a girl in seventh grade that doesn't get far. Then there's going off to the private school, where Self is pretty much invisible. Then comes the plane crash, which isn't all that exciting as written, the trip to Portugal, and the nonchalant sex change. From there we have the tired cliche of the student-professor affair. The lesbian affair with the older woman is less cliche and slightly more interesting. There's not much else going on until the end. Whereas in "Orlando" you have queens, kings, princesses, Gypsies, and famous authors among 350 years of history. Which sounds more interesting to you?

In the end "Self" is a dull slog and "Orlando" is a witty romp. Is there even a real choice here? Maybe if you really like "Life of Pi" I suppose.

Of course in my opinion "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides trumps both of these books. It deals with the same issues in a different, more realistic way that's just as much fun as Woolf. That's my pick of the litter.

That is all.

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