Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Limits of the Story: Reading the Castaway Narrative in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and Life of Pi

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Limits of the Story: Reading the Castaway Narrative in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and Life of Pi

Article excerpt

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1817 edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with an epigraph from Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophiae (The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things, published in 1692) that makes a case for belief in things that cannot be seen or proven. Faith itself, here framed explicitly in terms of belief in "invisible" beings, is valorized for the way it expands the human experience of being in the world, allowing "the soul to contemplate as in a picture the image of a larger and better world, lest the mind, habituated to the small concerns of daily life, limit itself too much and sink entirely into trivial thinking" (qtd. in Coleridge, Rime 567). Coleridge's supernatural poem then opens with a framing narrative rooted firmly within the constraints of daily life, as the Wedding Guest approaches the scene of the celebration only to be arrested in his path by the "skinny hand" (9) of the Mariner. This rootedness in the real world contrasts the spectral and supernatural possibilities in the Mariner's tale, a narrative in which "invisible" beings are rendered terrifyingly visible. In Coleridge's text, the realism of the frame narrative and the fantastical status of the embedded narrative the Mariner relates to the Wedding Guest together create an internal tension that foregrounds the ambivalence of interpretation itself. The epigraph, importantly, makes a case for the value of belief, even as the embedded narrative challenges the Wedding Guest's credulity.

Similar tensions between the frame narrative and the embedded narrative, between the world of the real and the world of the fantastic, are established in two Canadian castaway narratives published more than a century apart: James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and Yann Martel's Life of Pi. (1) Sharing affinities with other maritime journey stories, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Odyssey, and with other narratives of shipwrecks and castaways, like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the two Canadian texts find their place in a larger literary tradition of adventures at sea. However, like Coleridge's poem, A Strange Manuscript and Life of Pi function on a second level as well. In addition to the primary narrative, which focuses on the castaway's subjective and shifting perceptions of his perilous journey, there exists a second narrative level in which the story is read or listened to sometime after the main action has concluded. Through this double-narrative strategy, De Mille's text provides a proto-postmodern foray into questions of narration and of reading, as Janice Kulyk Keefer (130) and Linda Lamont-Stewart (34) have both observed, while Martel's text offers a postmodern meditation on the very nature of story. The novels focus, then, both thematically and formally, on storytelling and reception, as each makes use of a frame narrative in which multiple readers or interlocutors engage with the first-hand narrative of the castaway-narrator and must weigh the story, demonstrating either a capacity for the "willing suspension of disbelief" (Coleridge, Biographia 6) or a rejection of the story. Both novels explore and test the limits of the story by presenting fantastic narratives that trespass upon credulity, and that require--but do not always receive--a leap of narrative faith. If Life of Pi stages the power of the story as something that could "make you believe in God" (viii) (locating power within the storyteller to act upon the reader), A Strange Manuscript allows for the possibility of renunciation: of the reader simply closing the book, and walking away (locating power within the reader).

The central formal device that links De Mille's and Martel's novels is their deployment of framing narratives in which the main story is listened to or read by one or several embedded interlocutors. The effect is of a mise en abyme, of texts embedded within texts, of readings inside the narratives anticipating or challenging the readings that occur outside of the text. …

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