The Aesthete: the novel and Michael Ondaatje.


Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, “Divisadero” (Knopf; $25), is named for a street in San Francisco where one of the book’s characters, Anna, once lived. None of the action takes place there, and the street is mentioned only twice, in passing. Ondaatje was asked recently why he chose the title. “It suggests division, and the concept of looking at something from afar, the way the writer Anna does,” he explained. “It is a book of separations and divisions, of two stories that link up.” This is not entirely helpful, but it does give a hint about how Ondaatje writes his novels and how he wants them to be read. He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.


Ondaatje is an enemy of the linear. He has called his novels “Cubist,” and we are almost commanded not to try to iron out the kinks. It’s not easy to extract a continuous narrative from his books, anyway, because events bounce around chronologically, styles and points of view shift, and there are gaps and stray threads. … [For example, in his latest novel the second half of the story is told by a character, Anna, from the first half and is] colored by her obsession with her own family history in Northern California at the end of the twentieth century. Towards the end of the novel Anna says “For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue.” Anna continues, “We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.” This is pretty plainly Ondaatje speaking; it also seems to be a warning that finding the patterns is going to be up to us.


There is a method of story writing that involves stripping the tale of every extraneous detail plus one, so that the nonextraneous bit becomes, in the reader’s imagination, the piece that might explain everything. It’s a formula for ambiguity. Kipling was expert at this; so was Hemingway. But ambiguity is virtually integral to literary expression - ambiguity, uncertainty, indeterminacy are ways that fictional texts mean what they mean. Ondaatje is doing something else. He is trying to change the medium.


Ondaatje was born in 1943, into a prominent Sri Lankan family. (He has written a memoir of his relatives, “Running in the Family,” published in 1982.) His parents divorced (his father, at least in the account offered in the memoir, was a hopeless binge drinker), and when he was eleven he joined his mother in England. He was educated there and, after moving to Canada, in 1962, at the University of Toronto. In 1970, he published “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,” a kind of album of prose, poetry, and pictures that captured, starkly and effectively, the offhand violence, desolation, and dementia of the American West. “Wild started to yell to tell Garrett though and Tom killed him at once. Garrett fired at O’Folliard’s flash and took his shoulder off. Tom O’Folliard screaming out onto the quiet Fort Sumner street, Christmas night, walking over to Garrett, no shoulder left, his jaws tilting up and down like mad bladders going. Too mad to even aim at Garrett. Son of a bitch son of a bitch, as Garrett took clear aim and blew him out.” This was followed, in 1976, by the similarly eclectic and spooky “Coming Through Slaughter,” based on the life of a turn-of-the-century New Orleans cornet player named Buddy Bolden. Both books involved fairly extensive research: they were fantasies spun from facts, efforts to get on the inside of craziness. (Bolden spent the last twenty-four years of his life in an asylum.)


Those books were almost ostentatiously experimental, and the early nineteen-seventies was a time for fictional experiment. One model was Donald Barthelme, who mixed styles and media in the collections “Come Back, Dr. Caligari” (1964), “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts” (1968), and “City Life” (1970) and in the novel “Snow White” (1967). Another was William Gass. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968) is a collection of oblique, quasi-poetic takes on life in the rural Midwest; “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife” (1968) is an adventure (with photographs of a naked woman) in form and typography. Barthelme’s and Gass’s work may have looked avant-garde to the same degree, and they were similarly self-referential. But they stood at opposite poles. Barthelme was a collagist, a satirist, and a pasticheur; he played with texts and images in the spirit of the painting and sculpture of the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The intention was subversive détournement. Gass’s intention was the opposite: he was trying to unlock the aesthetic potential of language. For Barthelme, “the aesthetic potential of language” was just one more concept to have fun with; for Gass, it was a solace for the emptiness of existence. There may have been many influences on Ondaatje’s early writing, but he is, self-consciously or not, of the school of Gass. His Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden make art (if we can call gunslinging an art) to defend themselves against depression and paranoia. A line from Nietzsche appears twice in “Divisadero”: “We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.” The sentiment is pure Gass.


When Ondaatje undertook his first full-dress novel, “In the Skin of a Lion,” published in 1987, he therefore proceeded by spinning a series of image-driven vignettes out of his imagination and then arranging them in formal patterns that maintained only a loose sense of obligation to the requirements of continuity and closure. “I write very freely, but then do a lot of rewriting to alter it, change it, dip it into other colors,” he has said. And, “I don’t really begin a novel, or any kind of book, with any sure sense of what’s happening or even what’s going to happen.” “In the Skin of a Lion” turned out to be the prequel to “The English Patient,” the novel that made Ondaatje famous. “The English Patient,” which reprises some of the characters of the earlier book, was published in 1992. It was a co-winner of the Booker Prize and was adapted for the screen by Anthony Minghella. The movie came out in 1996 and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning nine, including best picture. The movie is a good deal more conventionally theatrical than the novel, which is more interested in the somewhat overpopulated ménage in the Italian villa that includes the nurse Hana, the Indian sapper Kip, the thief Caravaggio, and the dying patient than it is in the part of the story that everyone remembers from the movie—the doomed love affair between the melancholy, dashing Hungarian Count Almásy and the nubile Katharine. The book is filled with arcana about desert mapmaking and bomb defusing that the movie can, with some relief, dispense with. Minghella turned the book into something Ondaatje programmatically resisted: a story driven by a plot and equipped with an ending. (Ondaatje has expressed admiration for the adaptation.)


 “The English Patient” is a book that resists becoming a romance. “Anil’s Ghost” (2000) is a book that resists becoming a thriller. It’s the story of a woman who, trained as a forensic anthropologist, returns to Sri Lanka, where she was born, in order to investigate deaths in a period of civil violence. She finds herself on the trail of a killing in which the government may have had a hand, and is possibly in danger herself, but the book, characteristically, wanders off in many directions, ending with a long description of a man performing a complicated ritual involving painting the eyes on a statue of the Buddha. We learn (also characteristically) a lot about forensics—a difficult and recondite occupation that stands in, as such work always does for Ondaatje, for the art of writing. The aestheticization of work is an almost obsessive feature of his stories, and danger is part of the aesthetic; his fictional world is populated by steeplejacks, extreme explorers, professional gamblers, sappers, and thieves. From “In the Skin of a Lion,” about the construction of a bridge: “Nicholas Temelcoff is famous on the bridge, a daredevil. He is given all the difficult jobs and he takes them. He descends into the air with no fear. He is a solitary. He assembles ropes, brushes the tackle and pulley at his waist, and falls off the bridge like a diver over the edge of a boat.” Like the writer spinning words around an image in his head? It is as though Ondaatje wished to identify his own labor with his characters’ - not literally, as a risk to life, but existentially, as an absorption in difficulty for its own sake, a distraction from the void.


How fruitful is this approach to fiction? Ondaatje has described the composition of “Divisadero” in familiar terms: “Beginning with almost nothing but a couple of stray images and then seeing where they led. A wild horse in a barn. A ‘family’ that after it is shattered by an incident splits up and disappears from each other. I do not have a plan in mind before I begin but I follow those small clues - so the shaping and editing that comes much later, after the story has been found and fulfilled, cuts it down, shapes it, tightens it, makes sense of it.” Imaginations work in different ways, and pulling an image out of the air and seeing what it leads to must be, inherently, no less promising than some other mode of attack - storyboarding or writing ideas down on index cards. But Ondaatje’s novels read exactly as they were written - as a sequence of highly imaginative, somewhat preciously poetic set pieces. He makes a point of leaving some discontinuities and detours in place. The mode of composition becomes the meaning of the book.


The sacrifice of plot is tolerable, and, despite the willful digressions, traces of plot and even suspense are usually there in Ondaatje’s fiction. What is damaging is the sacrifice of character. His characters are ciphers. We have no affective connection with them. Their stories are too spare, and most of them are impossibly wan figures who seem to be floating outside of time - even in “The English Patient,” which treats the Second World War simply as the occasion for bringing exotic people together in threatening circumstances. The threat is there only to charge the atmosphere. But the strongest, the most entertaining part of “The English Patient” is, in fact, the conventional love story of Katharine and Almásy, just as the strongest part of “Anil’s Ghost” is the conventional mystery story of Anil and the twice-buried corpse.


The best parts of “Divisadero” are those which involve Coop and the gamblers. The language is colloquial and hardboiled - not Elmore Leonard, exactly, but refreshingly unperfumed. “The Deadhead, or hippie, would be the one true ally Cooper found when he arrived at Tahoe. And the thing about ‘the hippie’ was that he seemed the healthiest person in the casino.” Raymond Chandler could have written that. Chandler could not have written, “We have been following the river, so that now we must look on the road as a stranger. The depth of water is about twelve inches, more when the spring storms come racing at low level over the fields and leap into the trees so nests capsize and there is the crack of old branches and then silence before each plummets in their fall. The forest, Rafael says, always so full of revival and farewell.” Maybe French peasants talk that way, but it sounds a lot like literature.


Many readers respond to Ondaatje’s anti-novelistic aesthetic. But it is frustrating to read continually against the grain of expectations, and it is even a little annoying to be expected to pick out the patterns in the metaphors, to be obliged to trust that there are patterns, while the author looks on silently. “The novel has been quite slow in picking up what the other arts are doing,” Ondaatje has said. “For years they have been doing things that are much more suggestive, much freer of chronological sequence.” The impulse to experiment is worthy; one wants it to yield more than suggestion.



How fruitful is Ondaatje


Louis Menand, June 4, 2007