I first encountered Michael Ondaatje’s work twenty years ago when I picked up a slim volume titled The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. It was a chance encounter, but I was immediately struck by the book’s wildly original way of providing a detailed portrait of a man whose mythological stature overshadows the few known facts of his life. When I sought out this quirky experimental novel again recently in the Iowa City public library (thinking to use it in my writing workshop as an example of effective character sketches), it was classified as nonfiction, perhaps because the librarians simply didn’t know what to make of it. The book uses various devices to portray the notorious outlaw: a series of sketches of the characters who surrounded him, newspaper interviews (that may be real or made up), the occasional picture and the thoughts ascribed to him by a dime novelist who is the putative narrator of the novel. I was looking for a passage that had stuck with me for more than two decades, a portrait of Pat Garrett that I wanted to share with my students. It goes, in part:
Pat Garrett, ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope, on his wrist there was a purple stain there all his life. Ideal assassin for his mind was unwarped. Had the ability to kill someone on the street walk back and finish a joke….
At the age of 15 he taught himself French and never told anyone about it and never spoke to anyone in French for the next 40 years. He didn’t even read French books.
Although I still love this passage (this novel and Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family are my particular favorites), reading it again I can’t help but notice the distinctive flaws in the writing as much as the pleasures it offers. Here is a character portrait that actually reveals almost nothing about the character’s underlying personality. Here are enigmatic utterances (how can someone who kills without affect have an “unwarped” mind?) and the occasional lapse in grammar–that unnecessary second “there” after “purple stain.” Most striking is the idiosyncratic description of Garrett’s act of teaching himself a language he will neither use nor take credit for knowing. It’s a memorable gesture, but what the hell does it mean, and are we really to believe it?
Ondaatje’s work is filled with such memorable gestures, like the scene in In the Skin of a Lion when, suspended in midair from the central arch, Nicholas Temelcoff, an immigrant worker, reaches out and elegantly catches a nun who has fallen off the unfinished bridge that he is helping to build. In that instant she decides to stop being a nun, and neither of them tells the larger world that she has survived the fall. Temelcoff’s arm is pulled out of its socket by the force of the falling body, and as the nun jerks it back into place he almost passes out. A similar scene occurs in Ondaatje’s new novel, Divisadero, when a young woman’s father “torques” her dislocated shoulder back into place.
Ondaatje likes to repeat certain picturesque scenarios, usually involving dangerous acts of gymnastic skill. Roman, a minor character in Divisadero, is a craftsman who, like Temelcoff, hangs from rafters and balances precariously on beams suspended in midair as he works alone high up in the belfry of a church that is being restored. David Caravaggio, who appears in both In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, is another solitary, “a thief who refused to work with men because he did not trust them.” He moves around in the dark in silence while the inhabitants of the places he is robbing sleep unsuspectingly–Caravaggio had practiced his art of silent intrusion at home by rearranging the furniture at night as his wife slept–and he runs across roofs at night and swings from one veranda to another.
A surprising proportion of Ondaatje’s writing consists of meticulous and well-researched descriptions of arcane craftsmen at work–always with that element of peril. The most famous of these is of Kip, the bomb defuser in The English Patient, who painstakingly puzzles out the fuse wires on unexploded German ordnance, a wrong move being certain death, while the reader holds his breath with each snip of wire. Occasionally, a woman lends a hand–literally. “He picked the wire like a thin adder from her left hand. Then the other. She didn’t move away,” Ondaatje writes.
Stepping up to her, he cut the wire below her left fist before the theorem faded, the sound like something bitten through with a tooth. He saw the dark print of her dress along her shoulder, against her neck. The bomb was dead. He dropped the cutters and put his hand on her shoulder, needing to touch something human.
These moments of heightened detail, when there is either real danger present or some drama of the elements–rain (usually a thunderstorm) or fire–serve as foreplay (or sometimes as the sublimated equivalent of sex) in Ondaatje’s work. In Divisadero, when Anna and Coop, who grew up as virtual siblings, make love for the first time, it is almost the natural culmination of the meticulous physical labor Coop has put into building a cabin on a hillside. Anna walks up to Coop’s cabin and gets caught at the last moment in “a sudden and heavy rain…so whatever she wore was transformed. Everything felt heavy, was darker.” Coop, sitting on that deck suspended in the air, hasn’t even noticed the rain, and just before the two disrobe each other, Ondaatje interrupts with Anna’s thoughts on how far she is from her house:
It would take a bird five minutes to swim through the air all the way back to the farmhouse, she thought. It would not, of course, move so formally, it would use sweeps and curves, preferring diversions, and be influenced by the surface of the earth…. A car could make it in four. An unhurried horse in ten.
Sexual tension is diverted into detail and scenery, and when Anna and Coop are caught in the act of lovemaking by her father, they are lying high up in the air; thunder explodes over the deck “as if it had come down a funnel onto their nakedness.”
In interviews, Ondaatje has expressed his disinterest in plot and has described his novel-writing method as being like putting together a mosaic or a collage. If Divisadero is a collage, it is one that sometimes seems to have been assembled with bits and pieces from the author’s other novels. The structure is identical to that of Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient–two different sets of protagonists with their own lives and adventures who tangentially connect with each other. The early part of the book is about three unrelated young people raised in Northern California by the same father: Anna is his biological child, whose mother died in childbirth; another girl, Claire, the offspring of a stranger who died the same night in the maternity ward, was given to him by the hospital as some sort of compensation; the boy, Coop (who is treated almost as a servant), is a neighbor who was the only survivor of a family massacre by a disgruntled hired hand.
The tandem narrative features Lucien Segura, a French writer, solitary and “difficult as a bear,” who settles in his old age in a house in the remote Gers region of France. The thin cord connecting the two tales is Anna’s discovery in the archives at the University of California, Berkeley, of a sound recording of Segura reading his poems, at which point she decides to write a biography of him. She winds up staying in Segura’s house in the countryside, where she has an affair with a Gypsy–the son of a thief who helped Segura find his rural retreat–and contemplates the poet’s life. (It’s left ambiguous whether the life of Segura that we read is imagined by Anna, his biographer, or the unnamed narrator.)
In his earlier works, a parallel narrative structure allowed Ondaatje to underscore larger political themes: the fate of immigrant workers and the destruction of working men by the indifferent forces of progress in In the Skin of a Lion; the many moral differences between the Eastern worldview and the Western one in The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost. It’s hard to tell what purpose the parallel narratives serve in Divisadero other than to offer a backdrop for Ondaatje’s bravura descriptions of rafter-climbing, card sleights of hand, a doctor’s struggle with diphtheria in World War I and a young boy’s wild ride on the back of a mare.
Other devices that seem to have a hold on Ondaatje’s imagination crop up in Divisadero. One example is the presence of a man whose identity has been erased by violence and whom women now feel compelled to resurrect. In The English Patient, the eponymous hero has had his identity fragmented by his violent fall from the sky, his physical distinctiveness virtually annihilated by fire. He is taken care of by Hana, who sees something sacred and restorative in his suffering. The erased man in Anil’s Ghost is an anonymous skeleton, nicknamed Sailor, that Anil, a forensic scientist, has unearthed. For these dry bones she is willing to sacrifice the life of her guide, an archaeologist named Sarath. Divisadero‘s Coop, too, loses his memory through violence. He is ferociously beaten by gangsters who had tried to rope him into using his card skills for their benefit–in an elaborate and improbable scheme involving a beautiful drug-addicted woman who is used as bait to entrap him. Coop returns to a state of near-saintly innocence, with “nothing older than a few days in what he remembered.” Claire, his virtual sibling, who has loved him but not made love to him (unlike Anna), takes responsibility for him and tries to heal him by bringing him back to their childhood home. At this point their narrative ends, as if each has fulfilled his or her fictional role by falling into this familiar pattern, the same dull coin pulled from behind an unwilling ear.
There is an odd, amateurish clumsiness to Divisadero, given Ondaatje’s prolific accomplishments as a writer. It manifests itself in such things as the frequently self-conscious references to other writers and works of literature: quotes from Nabokov and Annie Dillard, mention of Jean Valjean from Les Misérables, anecdotes from the lives of Tolstoy, William Styron and Colette. The prose can be just plain clunky: “As close as she was to Lucien, the idea of physical passion between them had not existed in her mind.” Or it can strain one’s credulity entirely: “At night, when he returned to the farmhouse, the two lamps Marie-Neige had lit and hung above their door frame allowed him to leave the roadway…and as he came over the rise, up out of the valley, and saw them, he gave a long howl like that of a wolf, and she would know he was near…. No, there are no wolves, Marie-Neige would say if asked, never revealing the source, and they never believed her certainty. It was in a way the tenderest communication between her and her husband.”
Ondaatje has long prided himself on his avoidance of conventional narrative structures. His preferred approach is stated through the thoughts of Patrick Lewis in In the Skin of a Lion: “His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices…a wondrous night web.” In Ondaatje’s most successful works, those circus acts (flying nuns, skilled men planting or defusing explosives) provide a vivid and memorable texture that works toward his larger philosophical purposes–such as exploring the impossibility of the brown-skinned colonial subject’s really fitting in to the closed world of the English, even though he might daily risk his life on their behalf (Kip in The English Patient), or creating many portraits of the irremediable solitariness of exiles and the displaced. In Divisadero, the flamboyant gestures don’t seem to add up to much of anything. There is an attempt to establish a parallel between the Gulf War and World War I, but it serves more to create a space for a well-described set piece about the sufferings of the ill and wounded. There is a nod toward the nobility of those who do skilled, hard work with their hands–offset by a romance-novel vision of wild peasant revelry and strong, inarticulate men howling like wolves at their spouses. But, as with any big-top performance, once you see the guy wire holding up the trapeze artist, the moth-eaten state of the lions’ skin, the coin disappearing up the sleeve of the ringmaster, the magic quickly starts to fade.