Friday, November 25, 2011

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

There are few novels I like as much as I like Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, and so it seems unfair to hold other novels to its standard, even when those novels are written by Ondaatje himself. But I feel an obligation to acknowledge that while I liked this novel, I didn't love it the way I love The English Patient. Still any Ondaatje novel, and this is no exception, is like a nice warm bath in a clean hotel room in a foreign locale.

I read something recently about ornament in art--the decorative embellishments that appear on buildings or serve as repeating patterns in some art forms (like an Islamic arabesque) and I've been thinking about what might be ornament in writing. I'm also a little obsessed with this "growth chart" I once read, about the stages of reading we go through--starting with identifying with characters, moving on to seeking stories outside ourselves and ending up at "aesthetics." In my opinion most readers don't reach the aesthetics stage... but me, I'm buried in it up to my neck. Nowadays my favorite parts of novels are aesthetic--what others might call mere ornament. So The Cat's Table, a lush episodic recreation of a sea voyage taken from Sri Lanka to England by a young boy (named Michael), has at its core two plot lines, one about three boys who become friends, and one about a prisoner on board the ship. But those plot lines are slight, and not meant so much to anchor the novel as provide a rope line that you can cling to as you walk across the decks (see what I'm doing there?)... This isn't a novel centered on plot, and it's not really a novel centered on character, I'd say it's a novel centered on ornament. The snippets of dialogue overheard by the narrator and recorded ("This man said he could cross a desert eating just a date and one onion a day" and "I have a specific dislike, I am sorry to say, of the Sealyham terrier"), the image of an Olympic swimmer furiously rushing through her laps, the sound of men playing bridge late at night as the narrator lies in his bunk... the whole world of this novel is established by ornament...let us not underestimate its value...