Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

I have a terrible crush on Michael Ondaatje. Not a literary, of-the-head, crush, but a real of-the-body crush. He seems to me the perfect combination of cuddly and sexy. When I first heard him read (Flagstaff Book Festival, 1998), I wished aloud that he would read to me before bed each night. My gradschool roommates were impressed when soon after I achieved that goal with an audio recording of Running in the Family (I still like to break it out on occasion). The English Patient was a revolution for me as a reader and Anil's Ghost was the heartbreaking disappointment that followed (though his poems--Handwriting--remained great) so I approached Divisadero with some trepidation. I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back together with someone who'd broken my heart. But the love is back on... oh, it's back on.

For many years my father has mailed me what he calls "fat envelopes" of clippings, articles and tidbits that he thinks should interest me. And this Ondaatje novel feels like a literary version of those fat envelopes: images and ideas that Ondaatje has collected just for me. Ondaatje's characters go through life as I imagine him to, noticing hawks, learning card tricks, dancing with cats, humming bits of old songs, traveling with gypsies, naming horses, cutting wood, identifying healing plants and poisonous ones too. It's a romantic world they live in and a nice reminder that we could all live there if we only opened our eyes to what's around us.

Fiction writers are always being told show don't tell and this novel is one fat envelope full of examples of how telling can be as good as showing. That telling can show. For example, Ondaatje uses indirect (summarized) dialogue as much as, if not more than, direct (quoted) dialogue. And the effect is to allow Ondaatje, the storyteller, to use his lyric, lovely sentences most of the time, even when creating the feeling of scene (the feeling of showing). And it also creates a great aura of silence (another romantic thing) around these characters and their actions.

The novel's structure--not straightforward narrative but a meandering open ended one--has been praised and criticized--but it felt quite carefully constructed to me. What feels like random wandering from one character to another is all an outgrowth of the first event of the novel--a love affair turned violent when the father of the girl involved bloodies the scene. And even the final section, in which we've gone back in time to follow a character not present at that opening moment, is a commentary on how such moments affect a whole life. It is a conclusion to the plot set up earlier (which seems to hang open-ended); it's just a conclusion that uses different characters to end a similar situation. Clever, indeed! Just writing about the novel makes me want to go back and read it again.

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