Some Assembly Required
By Michael Ondaatje
In this fast-food, shrink-wrapped world, have we lost our desire to assemble? Judging by the crush of box-laden cars streaming from Ikea, there are still some of us who like to assemble our furniture. What about our novels? If you enjoy your novels handed to you with attractive characters, polite sex, and plots that arc comfortably through to a climax and a sunset, then the works of Michael Ondaatje will not appeal. When reading Ondaatje, we must gather up the strands of character and plot, follow a veiled set of instructions, paying special attention to subtle transitions in the text, and weave an intricate web of story. That story will lead us into a world filled with much sorrow, perseverance, sex, and bouts of joy. Divisadero’s rewards are well worth the effort of assembly.
A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.
Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.
(from “The Time Around Scars” in Ondaatje’s poetry collection, The Cinnamon Peeler)
Michael Ondaatje is a poet as much as he is a novelist. Paragraphs in his works rise and fall in rhythms that often read more like stanzas of a poem than what we’ve been taught to think of as prose. And when the rhythm of the words shifts, as with the insertion of a brief line of dialogue, so will the world of the character. An example from an opening scene of Divisadero comes after we are given the skeleton of Claire, Anna and Coop’s story – they are all orphans raised by the same father, with Anna being the only child related by blood to their father. When they were teenagers, Coop would drive the girls home from parties.
In the darkness, at the foot of the hill, we had to halt the car. My turn, I said, getting out in my new cotton dress and tight shoes to push the too-friendly and wide-awake mules off the path at the foot of the hill, so we could drive on.
A few pages later, Anna’s dialogue is echoed in a scene when she and Coop’s relationship shifts from platonic to sexual.
The cotton shirt like seaweed as he peeled it off, and he startled to see it come away in one piece. She looked down, her face burning, at her whiteness, in the grey light. The freckles of rain on her small frame. My turn, she said.
The remainder of Divisadero’s action swirls in a pool at the bottom of this precipitous moment that is punctuated by the diminutive echo of the phrase my turn.
Ondaatje’s skill in choosing precise, evocative words to shape his characters is a poet’s skill, and it’s everywhere in Divisadero. Claire describes her father as a man who “married lackadaisically when he was forty, had one son, and left him this farm along the Petaluma road.” And when Coop has fled the ranch after being caught with Anna by her father, he takes to playing poker and ultimately ends up playing in the hills northwest of Los Angeles. His life at that point, just before he meets the woman Bridget who will be his undoing, can be summed up perfectly with a twist on the use of the word digested – “Then he played cards until three in the morning, as the twelve-ounce steak digested slowly within him.”
The creation of indelible images is another of Ondaatje’s gifts that has its roots in poetry; his best images don’t simply stand alone like striking still shots from a movie, but capture a moment and imbue it with sorrow, violence, fear, or joy – like this from In the Skin of the Lion:
During Cato’s funeral, while Alice held the infant Hana, there was an eclipse. The mourners stood still while the Finnish Brass Band played Chopin’s “Funeral March” into the oncoming darkness and throughout the seventeen minutes of total eclipse. The music a lifeline from one moment of light to another.
Or this, from Coming Through Slaughter:
In the heat heart of the Brewitt’s bathtub his body exploded. The armour of dirt fell apart and the nerves and muscles loosened. He sank his head under the water for almost a minute bursting up showering water all over the room.
In Divisadero, just before Coop and Claire are brought together for the first time in almost two decades, it is early morning and Claire is walking back from a club. Unexpectedly, she is scooped onto a moving skateboard by a stranger:
He barely held her and she was holding nothing, just standing encircled within his arms, with her eyes wide open. They raced over the cracks of the sidewalk against the rush of rain, hardly seeing faces as they slid past, everything was colour and rain. She began to relax, and at that moment he lifted her and placed her on the pavement, then sped away ahead of her.
Not only are all these images brilliantly wrought, they describe moments that make the commonplace feel new – where music at a funeral is not just background noise, where a bath is not just about removing dirt, where a skateboard ride is not just a means to make your way down a street. Imagery is one of Ondaatje’s most frequently used and best-wrought tools.
Please note – Divisadero lacks humor. Ondaatje is by no means the lone humorless voice in the chorus of contemporary writers. And humor can be found in his other works. For example, in his poem “Elimination Dance” anyone who has testified as a character witness for a dog in a court of law is asked to step out of the dance. Or there is the unforgettable scene in Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family when he describes how, after a mastectomy, his grandmother called her false breast the Wandering Jew and would send her grandchildren to fetch her tit in the middle of formal dinners. I’m sure if the landscape of Divisadero had happened upon a humorous fork in the road, Ondaatje would have successfully navigated it. However, the world of Divisadero is reserved for sorrow and perseverance. Even seeing its characters smile is so rare, so intimate, that the few times it happens feel like sex scenes.
What Divisadero lacks in humor, it makes up for with sex. In amongst all those evocative images, there is an awful lot of sex for such a slim novel. By the thirtieth page, Anna and Coop have not only grown up, but they’ve fallen in love, had sex multiple times and been torn from each other’s arms by Anna’s father. It took Emily Bronte nearly all of Wuthering Heights to accomplish what Ondaatje does in thirty pages.
Years later, after Anna has run away and grown up, she is staying in the house of the French poet Lucian Segura while writing his biography. It is here she meets Rafael who becomes the lover who helps Anna to finally put Coop’s ghost in its rightful grave. Sex between Anna and Rafael feels quite traditional, but leaves us with one too many images of Rafael – the potbellied middle-aged musician – standing naked and proud before open windows.
Sex between Coop and Bridget feels dangerous, trapped between the smoky rooms of film noir and the back-alley world of the drug addicted. Coop discovers too late that Bridget is part of a scheme to get him to return to his poker-cheating ways. When Coop refuses to help her and her partners, he is injected with a drug overdose. Claire discovers Coop, but too late to help him. He is irreversibly brain damaged. One can say that sex had been his undoing.
Sex between Roman and Marie-Neige, neighbors of Lucien Segura, reads like the rutting of two animals and often takes place on the same blue table that Segura takes from Marie-Neige’s house after she dies, and the same blue table at which Anna writes Segura’s biography.
Sex between Lucien’s pregnant daughter and her brother-in-law Pierre sounds like it comes from the pages of a modern-day romance novel, complete with outdoor garden shower and slim white buttocks. It’s as though the sex scenes – always briefly and artfully rendered – are offered to the reader as a reward for suffering the often overwhelming travails of Divisadero’s characters.
Divisadero’s timeline is jagged in ways reminiscent of that of The English Patient. We find ourselves repeatedly thrown to the winds of the novel’s time and having to assemble clues such as chapter headings, gaps between paragraphs, and shifts in storytelling voice to tell us where in the story we’ve been deposited and what character we’re accompanying. Ultimately, Ondaatje’s clues are slightly more opaque than those of other writers who juggle multiple timelines, but not all that worrisome.
Anna warns us early on that Claire is but a reflection of herself. Beware the narrator. Unlike Anna, who runs away, hides behind a new identity and waits for love to find her, Claire rides out to meet the world and all its challenges. She steps in to save Coop’s life twice. She goes out into the seedy parts of San Francisco to investigate cases of insurance scams and molestations. She habitually brings her drunken boss home to his wife. And every weekend she returns to the ranch to care for her father and explore the surrounding hills on horseback. While Anna gives the novel her voice, Claire is the one who faces the world and its imperfections head on. Her final act in the novel is to bring the brain-damaged Coop home to her ailing father so they can make peace with one another before the father’s death.
Given Coop’s missing memory, this seems a noble but futile act, but one that is completely consistent with Claire’s character. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to the author, we are taken right up to their arrival home, then slipped back to Anna’s story, never to return and see the moment when Coop and the father are reunited. We’re given clues as to what probably happened, it’s disappointing to not see this scene.
Coop is a character out of the Wild West we might have thought had disappeared from modern fiction. First, he tries his hand at prospecting for gold. Then he perfects the art of stacking poker hands in his favor. Once he is cast out from the ranch at the start of the novel, he drifts and hides the same way Anna does and ultimately, his naiveté leads to the loss of his memory and whatever independence he had. Of all the characters, he suffers and loses the most. Is it because he took the gambler’s path to riches? Is it because he dared to have a relationship with Anna? The question remains open. Why some suffer more than others, even given similar circumstances, is one of life’s inexplicable puzzles, or so Ondaatje seems to be saying.
Anna’s story is the thread that bears the most of the novel’s structure weight. It is her point of view, sometimes narrated in first person, sometimes in close third person, that gives Divisadero most of its voice. And her biography of the French poet Lucien Segura makes her the portal through which we time travel back to the early 20th century to become enveloped by a story filled with beauty and sorrow, a story that feel like it has Ondaatje’s truest inspiration.
Like most of us did when The Histories of Herodotus seeped into The English Patient, we may dismiss this detail of what Anna is doing in France. We might read on. Yes, she’s writing about an obscure French poet but when will she have more sex with Rafael? Suddenly, we come to a page with an italicized paragraph. Anna and Rafael cross a stream. We turn the page and land a century earlier in the life of Lucien Segura. We are in Anna’s biography of this poet and we are in Ondaatje’s true homeland, the late nineteenth-early twentieth century; here we will remain for the novel’s last hundred pages.
As we descend into Segura’s story, we find ourselves shifting from Segura’s perspective to the perspective of Marie-Neige, his love but not his lover (for she remains Roman’s wife). When we return to Segura, he is ill during the war. While he suffers, he finally realizes that Marie-Neige, this girl he’s known since he was a teenager, who he taught to read, who he danced with, who picked glass from his eye when he was injured in a dog-attack – she is the true love of his life. He returns to his hometown eager to tell her that thoughts of her had helped him recover. Instead, he finds Marie-Neige ill, her body diminished to that of a “frail branch.” He cares for her for most of the night, then wakes in the morning to discover she’s gone. She’d been but a ghost or Segura’s hallucination. She had died while he was away.
Just before the final chords of the novel are struck, we are reminded of the story we came from, the story of Anna, Coop, and Claire, and Ondaatje hands us the prism through which we can look and make sense of all the novel’s jagged parts.
With memory, with the reflection of an echo, a gate opens both ways. We can circle time. A paragraph or an episode from another era will haunt us in the night, as the words of a stranger can.
Anna is haunted by Coop the way that Segura is haunted by Marie-Neige. Time keeps playing out the same old stories. Have we really assembled this novel correctly? My instincts say, yes. Perhaps this is the novel’s only punchline.
There are two approaches to assembly – read and re-read the directions or toss the directions and follow instincts. Either method will bring you to the end product and either may leave you feeling satisfied with the result. Is it enough to evoke feelings in your readers and to leave gaps and questions in the novel’s wake? For some readers, yes. We yearn for stories that make us feel and think. For others, this form of fiction leaves them on the side of the road, cold, angry or frustrated, still wanting their plots that climax appropriately and maybe end with sunsets.
Can we predict the next stepping-stone in the stream of Ondaatje’s work? He is inching us forward in time, both with Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero; both novels are full of contemporary settings. Will the Iraq War be the landscape of his next novel? Maybe. But Ondaatje seems unable to release the past. He shouldn’t. There is a vitality to the history he covers in his novels that makes the present seem a pale jumble of disoriented characters in comparison. I’m hopeful that Ondaatje’s future novels will continue to burn brightly into the past.
Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She is at work on a novel entitled Window to the West and lives in Half Moon Bay, CA.