Of many transfixing scenes Michael Ondaatje has created in his novels over the past three decades, perhaps none is more telling in its effect than this moment early in In the Skin of a Lion (1987):
The man in mid-air under the central arch saw the shape fall towards him, in that second knowing his rope would not hold them both. He reached to catch the figure while his other hand grabbed the metal pipe edge above him to lessen the sudden jerk of the rope. The new weight ripped the arm that held the pipe out of its socket and he screamed, so whoever might have heard him up there would have thought the scream was from the falling figure.
A man dangling from a rope—a Macedonian bridge worker, Nicholas Temelcoff—catches a falling woman, a nun, holds her tight, swings her to safety, and then, to top it off, takes her to a nearby tavern for a restorative brandy. In the hands of a more conventional writer the sheer improbability and endless unspooling metaphors of one such scene would be an entire novel in embryo; consider the schoolbus falling through the ice in Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. But for Ondaatje the force of an extraordinary image travels laterally, indirectly, through unexpected, almost arbitrary juxtapositions. In the Skin of a Lion brushes aside the shock and astonishment of Temelcoff and his passenger, and moves restlessly on to the story of a vanished millionaire and a young provincial who decides to search for him. Not until a hundred pages later, through a series of improbable coincidences a la Six Degrees of Separation, does Temelcoff re-emerge to be reminded of the rescue on the bridge, and again, the passage renders him almost motionless:
He stands exactly where Patrick left him, thinking, as those would who believe that to continue a good dream you must lie down the next night in exactly the same position you awakened in, where the body is parted from its images. Nicholas is aware of himself standing there within the pleasures of recall…He came to this country like a torch of fire and he swallowed air as he walked forward and he gave out light.
There’s a word, of course, for the kind of language which puts such pressure on static sensory awareness, which uses the visual image not primarily as a trope for narrative unfolding but as a well of inward associations and analogies: “lyric,” as in the lyric poem. Ordinarily, it would be absurd to use this term to describe prose fiction, because it implies an intention to do something fiction can’t : not only to stop time but to render time irrelevant, to nullify its power—for example, in a lyric elegy, which, according to Jonathan Culler, “replaces an irreversible temporal disjunction, the move from life to death, with a dialectical alternation between attitudes of mourning and consolation…absence and presence.” In this sense, the passages quoted above doesn’t qualify, because no matter how much Ondaatje slows down, interrupts, or undermines the action, it still is action: it has a before and an after. The very premise of the lyric poem, a poet might say (Ondaatje himself might say—after all, he began his career as a poet and remains one) is that it is an enclosed and self-enclosing text, a world unto itself, not beholden to any larger meaning that rises out of a sequence or series or timeline. Even Carole Maso, a novelist far more self-consciously experimental than Ondaatje, hesitates to use the term “lyric fiction” without making it clear that the term is very nearly an oxymoron, a way of paying homage to poetry as a superior medium. (See “An Essay,” originally published in American Poetry Review).
Yet the idea of the lyric is useful here, I think, because it illuminates aspects of Ondaatje’s work that I find fascinating, and that other readers find precious, exasperating, even exhausting. Most obviously, the term might help to explain why, or how, Ondaatje’s novels can seem so indifferent to the passage of time. Which is not to say that they don’t move forward in time, but that the reader finds it extremely difficult, in situ, to parse the logical relationship between the novel’s discrete sections. Neither the pressures of conventional plot—what will happen next?—nor revelation of the past seem to apply. Characters and their desires move in and out of focus almost arbitrarily. The constant, the thread tying all his fiction together, is the urgency of the narrator’s voice, speaking in what might be called an eternal present tense:
The woman is cutting carrots. Each carrot is split into 6 or 7 pieces. The knife slides through and hits the wood table that they will eat off later. He is watching the coincidence of the fingers and the carrots. It began with the color of the fingers and then the slight veins on the carrot magnified themselves to his eyes. In this area of sight the fingers have separated themselves from her body and move in a unity of their own that stops at the sleeve and bangle…The silver knife curves calm and fast against carrots and fingers. Onto the cuts in the table’s brown flesh.
(from Coming Through Slaughter)
Everything matters: a bunch of radishes lying on a table, a line from Herodotus, the date of Buddy Bolden’s only known photograph. Every time characters meet, we feel they might be meeting for the first time. Not surprisingly, none of the focal characters in his novels are married, or even in long-term partnerships: they are restless, dispossessed, capricious, at times maddeningly opaque in their intentions and desires.
After the international success of The English Patient in 1992, Ondaatje’s technique proved compelling, and widely influential among younger novelists, because in a kind of sideways fashion it returned to fiction a certain level of surface beauty and intensity that had fallen from favor, especially in the United States. John Gardner famously described the novel as a “vivid, continuous dream,” and Ondaatje’s fiction comes closer to that goal than perhaps even Gardner could have imagined, or would have wanted to.
Yet even for those of us who admire the audacity of Ondaatje’s writing, this ceaseless drive toward immediacy should raise important questions—particularly in view of his subject matter. In her book Lyric Time, a meditation on one of literature’s other great genre-benders, Emily Dickinson, the critic and essayist Sharon Cameron argues that as a mode the lyric arises out of “a contradiction between social and personal time…the lyric both rejects the limitation of social and objective time, those strictures that must drive hard lines between past, present and future, and must make use of them.” In a related vein, Mikhail Bakhtin, that great exponent of the dialectic evolution of literary forms, would have strenuously objected to such a description of the novel, not necessarily because the lyric poem makes the passage of time impossible, but because the novel employs a kind of language that the lyric poem cannot. Novels, Bakhtin wrote, embody “dialogic” language, in which different voices and registers of language inhabit the same textual space; the “monologic” language of the lyric poem is dominated by the single register of language imposed by the poet.
Somewhere in these two analyses lies an important critique of Ondaatje’s method: that, speaking in the always-heightened language of the poem, he risks assimilating all experience, all social and historical situations, into a kind of stylistic monotone. His fiction has been praised for inhabiting radically different cultural and historical spaces, but there is a danger that his method reduces his vision to a kind of literary tourism, a kind of textual Cabinet of Wonders.
This problem may be most acute in Anil’s Ghost, which takes place during a recent phase of Sri Lanka’s three-decade-old civil war. Here Ondaatje juxtaposes the forensic investigation of the victims of atrocities with the archaeological excavation and restoration of ancient Buddha statues and temples. The relationship is, to put it mildly, an uneasy one, even without Ondaatje acknowledging the problematic links between Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history and the present-day religious divisions on the island. Somewhere between the intensity of his descriptive writing and the abstruse lore of South Asian antiquity the social reality of the war is almost completely eclipsed, as Sharon Cameron might have warned it would be. Even the gruesome depictions of mass killings feel narrated with a certain detachment: Ondaatje’s hyper-visual, almost ekphrastic style—that is, describing a fixed image, like a painting—at times seems to suggest that the dead have simply appeared that way, presenting themselves for our observation. It may be that this itself is a critique of the Western reader’s absence from the war as it was happening, but if so, that critique, like so many of Ondaatje’s rhetorical intentions, remains somewhat murky.
“Never again will a story be told as if it is the only one,” writes John Berger in a line quoted by Ondaatje as an epigraph to In the Skin of a Lion. The same sentiment applies—perhaps even more so—to Ondaatje’s new novel, Divisadero, his first in nearly nine years, a book rooted in doubleness and lines of division, mostly of an intimate nature. Like In the Skin of a Lion, Divisadero is extremely hard to pin down: it lacks the organizing principle of a public life (Buddy Bolden, Jesse James) or the historical record (World War II in Italy; the civil war in Sri Lanka). What shapes the book, to the extent that it is shaped, are parallels and analogies glimpsed almost in passing, or assumed but not explained at all.
Divisadero is also Ondaatje’s most explicitly literary novel, in the sense that it invests a great deal of time and effort in excavating the inner life of a now mostly forgotten, fictional French author, Lucien Segura. This interest is primarily channeled through the focal character, Anna, a literary scholar and writer who grew up on a farm in northern California, and whose adolescence was marked by a brief and torrid relationship with a farmhand, Cooper, which ended with her father beating Cooper nearly to death. The first and most arresting of the novel’s three sections involve Anna’s memories of her childhood, primarily but not entirely narrated in the first person; there is also a lengthy digression into Cooper’s afterlife as a card shark in the casinos of Lake Tahoe and Reno. The rest of the novel takes place amid Anna’s research into Segura’s life, while living in his former house in the French countryside. Even in passages of relative torpor in the perhaps overlong French section, there are arresting moments in profusion:
Juniper grabbed her feet as she left the path, throwing up its smell. Sunlight fell through the trees and as she paused to look up at the splintered beauty, she heard music.
…She came into the open field, where there was a woman, and also a man, sitting in a straight-backed chair, accompanying her on what looked to be a guitar. They didn’t see her at first, but they must have sensed something—a sudden quietness in the trees above her, perhaps—for the woman turned, and when she saw Anna, stopped singing and strode away, leaving the man alone in the open field.
Very few writers of prose or poetry can make a handful of unspecific nouns sing this way, with an effect that is visually and aurally hypnotic. This is Ondaatje’s particular form of mastery—to unweave the tightly bound-up web of references that tie an ordinary novel together, renewing over and over again a certain sense of mystified wonder that is the province of the lyric poem, and that most writers of fiction hold in reserve for beginnings and endings, if they have access to it at all. (One famous example would be the last paragraph of John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother”:
My wife and my sister were swimming—Diana and Helen—and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.)
Yet in the case of Divisadero it’s hard not to feel that Ondaatje is using his material as a staging area for these scenes, rather than the other way around. The sense of dramatic weight in the early chapters—Anna trying to make sense of the disastrous irruption of violence into the heat of her adolescent love affair—recedes as we get deeper and deeper into the layers of Segura’s biography, and in the end Segura seems designed to replace or somehow illuminate Anna, without quite doing so. He is a device, after all, an object of Anna’s recherches, in the Proustian sense of the word: she has been writing his story in tandem with her own, as this passage at the very end of the novel makes clear, referring both to Rafael, Segura’s “almost-adopted son,” and to Anna’s own family:
He will never know what becomes of his children. He will not know whether he has nurtured them or damaged them…the boy Rafael will meet me, a woman from the New World…And Coop? And Claire? Will these children, in their eventual cities, turn out to be the heroes of their own lives?
In a public interview I attended some years ago, Ondaatje complained wryly about readers who come up to him demanding to know what “happened” to a character who slips out of the pages of one of his novels unnannounced—the enigmatic thief Caravaggio, who appears in both In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, being the most obvious example. “I don’t know anything more about them than what’s on the page,” he said. “For me they begin and end there.” The same sense of wonder, coupled with an oddly light-hearted passivity, marks this passage: the attitude of a writer who seems a little too comfortable with the capricious workings of fate. In one of the few passages in Divisadero where Lucien Segura speaks in the first person, he offers this meditation on the futility of comprehending a work of art:
I love the performance of a craft, whether it is modest or mean-spirited, yet I walk away when discussions of it begin—as if one should ask a gravedigger what brand of shovel he uses or whether he prefers to work at noon or in moonlight. I am interested only in the care taken, and those secret rehearsals behind it. Even if I do not understand fully what is taking place.
This is a familiar trope for novelists and other artists who have a superstitious aversion to talking about craft or technique; as a well-known writer and notorious hermit put it to me once, “If I answer those questions, the little genie stops speaking to me.” But Ondaatje’s particular mode of writing is a demonstration of “care” that calls the established practice of the novel into question over and over again. What keeps him from being an altogether avant-garde writer, at least in the dominant twentieth-century mode, is that he treats his characters as more than shadows, annoyances, or props to hang a theory on; yet he calls them into being through a kind of pressurized language that, properly speaking, ought not to work, and sometimes doesn’t—an “experimental” writer, at least in that sense. In Divisadero, he seems to be growing somewhat self-conscious and perhaps even a little fatigued at having to perform this highwire act once more. That said, a new Michael Ondaatje novel is always thrilling, because it exposes a mature artist still searching for the ideal meeting-place between subject and conceit, between language and the world. The great thing about experiments is that you can always try again.