Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pip Squeak

Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip

There is a scene in Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip where Matilda, the novel's (then) 13-year old protagonist, is caught writing the name of Pip (from Dickens' Great Expectations) next to the names of her ancestors, which she's been asked to memorize. Scolded by her mother for sticking the name of a make-believe person next to those of her kin, Matilda replies that though Pip isn't a relative, she still feels closer to him than to all the strangers whose names she's been made to write in the sand.

I know exactly how she feels. Pip, or rather the specter of Pip that hangs over Jones' novel, is about the only warm or believable character in the whole book - the only one I can bring myself to feel anything for, and that mostly for Dickens' sake. Everyone else in this book is so two-dimensional, so much a stock character, that it's a wonder that they manage to stay upright when a wind blows across the island.

Jones' Mister Pip is a feather-weight of a book whose chief merit is that it's really, really short. In fact, even calling it a novel feels like an exaggeration - it's more like a collection of crumbs and odd tit-bits left behind from the great feast of the Dickensian novel.

The story is set in a place called Bouganville and centers around the figure of Mr. Watts, the last Englishman left in this tiny Papua New Guinean village. When war breaks out on the island, a blockade is put in place that cuts Bouganville of from the rest of the world, leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of the army and the rebels (called - get this - the 'Redskins' and the 'Rambos'). It's a difficult time for the people of the village, and in it our Hero (for that, with a capital H, is what Mr. Watts infallibly is) steps forward and offers to serve as the schoolmaster for the village children - a task which, as he interprets it, consists of alternating between reading Great Expectations to them and getting their mothers and aunts to come in to fill their heads with local superstitions and (literally) old wives' tales.

What follows is about a 100 pages of the most sickening twee-ness involving the children's discovery that yes, they can relate to Pip, even though they live on an island while he's a character in a book set in far-off Victorian England, their childlike wonder at discovering the power of their own imaginations, and other such trite epiphanies. Oh, it's all very charming and clever, and there's a great deal of Post-Colonial sub-text, but the whole thing reads like it's been laid on like strawberry jam. Forget Dickens, if there's a guiding spirit here, it's Enid Blyton.

This phase of the book ends, mercifully, with the arrival of soldiers in the village, at which point events take a darker turn. Through a series of ridiculous coincidences and accidents, the fictional 'Pip' becomes a wanted rebel, and the search for him sets off a chain of violence and brutality that can only end in tragedy. This is easily the best part of the book, if only because Jones manages a couple of truly affecting scenes and his singing, clever prose manages to sustain, for a while, the illusion of something profound, almost mythical, taking place. There is magic here, but it's only the magic of fool's gold. The plot is thin and contrived and more or less inchoate, with one thing haphazardly following the other; the setting is poorly evoked - we are told that the villages live in fear and deprivation, but this never really comes across; and by the end even the power of Mr. Watts yarn spinning grows pale, until it becomes hard to believe that someone this pathetic could be a figure of fascination to anyone else.

Most damning of all, Jones never really manages to get you emotionally invested in his characters (mostly because they seem too artificial, too much like archetypes) so that when the denouement comes, horrible as it is, it leaves you largely unmoved. What makes this worse is that you get the constant feeling that Jones wants very desperately to move you - that he is constantly manipulating you, constantly tugging at every heart-string he can find in the hope of making you feel for his characters. So obvious and so labored are his attempts to do this, that you find yourself suppressing what little sympathy you do feel for the characters in order to resist being emotionally panhandled.

I said denouement, but the book isn't over yet. It feels strange to accuse a book that is a mere 250 odd pages of being too long, but too long Mister Pip undoubtedly is. The story reaches its climax somewhere around page 210, then proceeds to ramble disconsolately on for another 50 odd pages, throwing in a random assortment of musings on Dickens, revelations about Mr. Watts, forced parallels to Great Expectations and general plot developments, as though hoping that something among these odds and ends will connect and make the book come alive for you. It's as though Jones simply cannot let go of his characters, or is so worried that we will not realize that Mr. Watts is meant to be an enigmatic, unreliable figure that he feels the need to keep telling us this, thereby making him not only less enigmatic but also less interesting. Or perhaps he simply recognizes the slightness of the book and decides that it could use a little more padding. At any rate, I think it's safe to say that you could abandon this book on page 210 and not be the least bit the worse for it.

It's not all bad, of course. Jones is a master at turning a phrase, and the prose throughout sparkles with clever descriptions and images. In fact, Jones does manage to infuse the book with a great deal of charm, so that if it hadn't been quite so empty it may actually have made for a pleasant read. Jones also, to his credit, is extremely clear-eyed about the atrocities of war, and doesn't flinch from portraying the casual brutality of the soldiers. And the links to Great Expectations are interesting, or would have been if Jones hadn't gone on and on about them.

Overall, then, Mister Pip is a clever, well-crafted and charming book that reads like it is targeted at twelve-year olds. If the plot had been remotely credible, if the characters had been even slightly believable and if the entire tone of the novel hadn't been so relentlessly sentimental as to be almost cheesy, this might actually have been an interesting read. As it is, it's a trivial little book that's barely worth the two hours it takes to get through. You're better off reading Dickens.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-Posted on Momus]


Veena said...

13. 13-year old protagonist.

Falstaff said...

Veena: Depends on which end of the story you're considering. She's 13 when the book opens, but 15 by the time the main events happen - "I noticed a calendar on the wall. I asked if I might look at it. I discovered it was September....The year was 1993. I worked out that I'd missed my fifteenth birthday." This is, by my reckoning, three days after the denouement. Admittedly, I'm not sure how we got from December 1991 (where the book starts) to September 1993 - I frankly don't think it all adds up. But then, the rest of the narrative makes so little sense, that small inconsistencies in time hardly matter. In fact, maybe that's what the book is really about - time travel. I wish it was.

Veena said...

Ya ya, not that it matters. I remember that jump in years - it was strange because the book takes only 2-3 months to read and we are left with another 2 years.

Anonymous said...

Good review -- and I sort of just skipped over the time issues (because they didn't make sense to me either). Overall it was an okay read...

By the way - today is Roald Dahl's birthday!

Your opening line about Matilda reminded me... :)

Okay me go now. Thanks.

Anita =)

Falstaff said...

Veena: Hmmm...I must admit I didn't really notice it - I just remembered that she was 15 when she came out of it and assumed she'd been 14 / 15 when she started. I only realised the time jump bit after you mentioned it. Randomness.

Anita: Ah, it is, is it? I must confess to having a somewhat skewed take on Dahl. The trouble is that while most people apparently read Dahl's children's books first and then graduated (if at all) to his more adult work, I went the other way - the first Dahl book I ever read was Switch Bitch. You can see why I still find the idea of him as a children's author vaguely disturbing.

Anonymous said...

What? He's WONDERFUL! What are you talking about?!

Send me your address and I'll mail you my childhood copy of "The BFG." Really.

Anita =)

Falstaff said...

Anita: You misunderstand me - I'm not saying he's not wonderful. Only that wonderful as his books for children are, to me he will always be a writer for grown-ups: if I free associate off Dahl the things I come up with are couple swapping and frozen meat as a murder weapon.

rs said...

i'm afraid i agree with you. roald dahl for me is always the author of genesis of catastrophe, the chilling story of hilter's birth.