The flap copy of Rajiv Surendra’s book The Elephants in My Backyard lists a number of flowery adjectives to describe the story I held in my hands, but the phrase that struck me was “colossal defeats.”
The memoir chronicles the years-long journey of Surendra, known to the world as Kevin G the rapping mathlete from Mean Girls, in his quest to land the lead role in the film adaptation of Life of Pi. If you didn’t already know, a quick IMDB search reveals that this role eventually went to Suraj Sharma.
A Canadian memoir about failure? I was hooked from the start.
A producer on the set of Mean Girls is responsible for Surendra’s obsession. One innocuous day on set, he said to Surendra, “You should read this book. It’s about you.” On first read, the author wasn’t sure what he thought of Life of Pi. By the end of his memoir, the pages of Yann Martel’s story of survival and the power of stories was worn and dog-eared, having travelled to India and back in Surendra’s pocket.
The book’s conversational tone makes it easy to laugh out loud at the—and there are many—jokes. Surendra takes care to describe the people he meets with the love and affection of a good friend. When visiting new places, he defers to their histories with reverence. There is almost nothing Surendra can’t put a positive spin on. Except for germs. I positively squirmed when he went into detail about what he imagined was floating in the waters of public pools.
Living in a zoo, observing animals?
Religion? Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam?
Being lost at sea?
—Rajiv Surendra, The Elephants in My Backyard
But there was something a little superficial when reading the book. I felt that Surendra’s refusal to engage with negative emotions, even in the face of a his great failure and the premise of the memoir, he does not go into much detail about how it felt. Instead, he focused on what he did. The intent of the chapter was supposed to feel hollow, underscoring that life goes on and doesn’t slow down just for you and your little feelings. This would have been effective if there was any point in the book at which life didn’t go on and did slow down for the author’s little feelings.
Even when discussing memories that were clearly painful to the author, the overall impression is “but life is generally good and I’m generally happy.” With such a positive outlook framing the bad memories, it’s hard to feel like anything is at stake for our protagonist. I find myself agreeing with Kamal Al-Solaylee’s review for Quill and Quire when he laments that Surendra’s happy ending feels unearned. Without risk, there is no reward. The Elephants in My Backyard definitely feels safe.
Strongly-written, funny, colourful, and hopeful, The Elephants in My Backyard suffers from rose-coloured hindsight. It’s an idealistic look back at Surendra’s personal successes in light of a professional failure. Ultimately, his path led him to find a meaningful and fulfilling life off-screen, but the path as relayed to the reader is smooth instead of bumpy, straight instead of winding, almost like following in the footsteps of elephants in one’s backyard.