Monday, July 23, 2007


I was tempted to let Pico Iyer, with his sprawling and sparkling review in The New York Review of Books (June 28, 2007) have first and last say regarding the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje's latest novel, Divisadero, if one can in fact call this book a novel, a question I find less and less interesting as time goes by. But that would be letting the professionals, the paid men, go unbaited. And while I have no real complaints with Iyer’s review, it seems to fall short on several accounts.

Iyer calls Ondaatje a poetic writer, and gives a number of examples. And indeed Ondaatje is a stunning writer, a writer that can quite literally take your breath away, a writer who has copious tools at his disposal. And while this reference to poetic might have at one time been useful, the realm of poetry has so expanded, that I might offer a grocery list up as an example of poetic (say Ted Berrigan’s) language, especially if it contained Pepsi, and be correct.

Ondaatje is a writer who is, much of the time, unabashedly Mandarin in style. (A comparable, though quite different writer is James Salter.) The reader will not find a Joe, a Bob, or a Susie anywhere near this book. These people live in other towns and books. Rather we find Dorn, Roman, Anna, Marie-Neige, Claire, Coop, Mancini, Lucien, The Dauphin and others. The deliberate attempt at the obscure, and at sophistication in Ondaatje at times reminds me of what I began to dislike about Barry Lopez – a prose so overly baroque it became rococo, and its life artificial. Yet Ondaatje is too good for that, too alive, too flexible, too angry and too labile. The sections of the novel read differently, as if language was rendering landscape to the degree landscape renders the language. Coop's adventures gambling have a spare, isolate flavor, compared to the passionate and introspective opening, the sensualism and humor in France.

MicahelOndaatje is also an aphorist, and scattered throughout his novels are bits of found or discovered wisdom: Everything is collage, even genetics; There is a great history of people being given the wrong book at some key moment of their lives; We think in our youth, we are the centre of the universe, but we simply respond; There is a hidden presence of others in us. Who is this narrator who collects these scraps, these landsapes, these people? Who although not omniscient per se, seems to possess an authority beyond any one character, excel at discovery, natural history, exact researched detail, and have such great tolerance for randomness.

The story is an elaborate and erratic one, and as is Ondaatje's typical fashion, inhabited by persons displaced for a variety of reasons. It begins by following three characters – two sisters (Anna and Claire) and their step-brother (Coop) through childhood in rural California. A cataclysm of violence breaks this family apart and the novel as well. From here the threads run largely separate, and some, such as Coop’s, die out entirely. Other’s enter in mid-stream, and in what is perhaps a risky move, Ondaatje shifts the novel into the life of a dead writer (Lucien) that Anna is researching, and shifts locale from the American west to France.

The novel is a collage of sorts, although it moves in a very different trajectory than Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow books. Those vignettes tie together in linear time, and arc toward a more classic character development. In Divisadero, the whole of the book is shattered, and when you think the pieces will be woven into resolution, they begin to shift relentlessly. So much so, that it becomes obvious within a hundred pages that you have entered another book altogether, and other books (such as The Three Musketeers) play parallel roles as well. The world of space and time becomes not just malleable, but particularized as well – is it energy or matter? What is this creature Michael Ondaatje has created? Is it really a novel? Will it sell? When one has created a strange and miraculous creature do those things even matter? It is for readers and time to answer these questions, and pose others.

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