A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, January 18, 2008

Metacriticism and Ondaatje's "Divisadero"

Forgive the title of this entry, which sounds like an undergraduate's term paper, but on the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, critic Molly McQuade has just finished a three-part essay on book reviewing, for which she read some twenty reviews of Michael Ondaatje's recently published novel Divisadero. I read McQuade's essay -- which you can find here, here and here -- with some trepidation. I had reviewed Divisadero myself. Would I get zinged?

Turns out I'm safe. Several other reviewers were not so lucky -- she has some pretty corrosive things to say about their prose and their approaches to the book. But maybe she didn't read mine.

In any case, her essay provides a somewhat insidery look at the reviewing game, worth reading if you're a reviewer because the critiques of the critics make you ask, "Do I do that?" But it's also worth reading if you're just a reader of reviews, because of what she has to say about the state of reviewing today. (It ain't good.) Not to criticize the critique of criticism -- which would be to commit metametacriticism, I guess -- but I found some of the essay a bit waffling and inconclusive. But these are inconclusive times.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my own review of Divisadero, which appeared in the Mercury News.

DIVISADERO
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 273 pp., $25

Divisadero is one of those San Francisco streets on which you climb to a summit and are suddenly plunged toward the bay. One of the characters in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, which bears its name, explicates: “Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ ”

“Divisadero” is really something like two novellas bound together by some slender narrative threads and images. (A blue table plays a role in both stories.) And just as you do on the eponymous street, you reach the climax of one story only to be plunged suddenly into the other.

The first story has to do with three young people raised by a man on a farm in Sonoma County near Petaluma. His wife died giving birth to Anna, and when another woman also died in childbirth at the same hospital, he adopted that baby too, naming her Claire. Earlier, he and his wife had also taken in a 4-year-old boy named Cooper, whose family had been murdered by their hired hand.

So Anna, Claire and Coop, unrelated by blood, grew up together. And when Anna was 16 the novelistically inevitable happened: She and Coop became lovers. When their father learned of it, he beat Coop senseless and drove off with Anna – “as if distance would dilute whatever existed between Coop and me,” she tells us in one of the sections she narrates. But somewhere south of San Jose, she escaped from him and hitched a ride with a truck driver, vanishing from the lives of her family. Claire nursed Coop’s wounds, but he too fled from their father’s anger, leaving her alone with the old man when he returned.

The years pass. Coop becomes a professional gambler, Claire a researcher in the San Francisco public defender’s office, and Anna a writer who is living in France while she researches the life of a poet named Lucien Segura. Anna has an affair with a part-Gipsy musician named Rafael who, when he was a boy, had known Segura. Meanwhile, chance and calamity reunite Claire and Coop.

And there that story hangs as we plunge into the life of Segura, which is similarly a story of separations and thwarted love. Segura’s boyhood infatuation with Marie-Neige, a young married woman almost his age, blossoms into a lifelong obsession. His mother teaches the illiterate Marie-Neige to read, and Segura reads aloud to her from novels: “They had both grown up far from the intrigue of cities, and now they fell upon Dumas as a guide into those cities that were always in peril and where the sight of an emerald on a neck could betray a family dynasty.”

Later, Segura would write a series of adventure romances in the Dumas mode, published pseudonymously. “The books hardly seemed the work of a well-regarded poet, or the author of the bitter jeremiad on the recent and already forgotten war,” but they were the outpouring of Segura’s sense of loss – of Marie-Neige and of a romanticized idyllic past.

Ondaatje is one of the most romantic of contemporary “literary” novelists, and his flights of passion, even in his Booker prize-winning “The English Patient,” turn some readers off. Coop and Rafael are the kind of Byronic bad-boy loners who make romance readers’ hearts go a-flutter, and Ondaatje even resorts to the soapiest of psychological phenomena: a case of amnesia. Realists will also niggle that no team of paramedics is going to leave a man who’s been beaten unconscious to be looked after by a non-professional. In these days of high liability insurance premiums, they’d haul him in for at least a CAT scan.

Moreover, readers who insist on fictional closure had best stay away from “Divisadero.” Anna, Claire and Coop are left suspended up there on that summit. “Divisadero” is a book for a reader who can go with its flow, who is mindful of small details, who relishes its author’s almost D.H. Lawrencian attentiveness to nature, who hears its sonata-like entwining of themes, and who’s happy to reflect upon and reread a novel rather than shelve it and move along to the next. For this is a novel by a poet – Ondaatje has published at least 13 volumes of verse – who’s more fascinated by the texture of life at given moments, and the way those moments can be captured in words, than he is at tracing lives from beginning through middle through end.

It’s also probably the best California novel – the action of the first part of it ranges from Sonoma to Santa Barbara to Bakersfield to Tahoe -- ever written by a Canadian born in Sri Lanka.