Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ondaatje's art of fiction

Came across this interesting review of Michael Ondaatje's new novel, Divisadero(Knopf; $25) by Louis Menand in the New Yorker magazine. I like the way it tries to dissect Ondaatje's approach to fiction writing:

Ondaatje is an enemy of the linear. He has called his novels “Cubist,” and we are almost commanded not to try to iron out the kinks. It’s not easy to extract a continuous narrative from his books, anyway, because events bounce around chronologically, styles and points of view shift, and there are gaps and stray threads.

The reviewer tells us that this new novel is named "for a street in San Francisco where one of the book’s characters, Anna, once lived. None of the action takes place there, and the street is mentioned only twice, in passing."

Interesting, isn't it? But why did he do this?

Ondaatje was asked recently why he chose the title. “It suggests division, and the concept of looking at something from afar, the way the writer Anna does,” he explained. “It is a book of separations and divisions, of two stories that link up.” This is not entirely helpful, but it does give a hint about how Ondaatje writes his novels and how he wants them to be read. He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.

This is what Jhumpa Lahiri has to say about this novel:

My life always stops for a new book by Michael Ondaatje. I began Divisadero as soon as it came into my possession and over the course of a few evenings was captivated by Ondaatje’s finest novel to date . . . Divisadero is a deeply ordered, full-bodied work, illuminating both what it means to belong to a family and what it means to be alone in the world . . . Like Nabokov, another master of twinning, Ondaatje’s method is deliberate but discreet, and it was only in rereading this beautiful book–which I wanted to do as soon as I finished it–that the intricate play of doubles was revealed. Every sign of the author’s genius is here: the searing imagery, the incandescent writing, the calm probing of life’s most turbulent and devastating experiences. No one writes as affectingly about passion, about time and memory, about violence, subjects that have shaped Ondaatje’s previous novels. But there is a greater muscularity to Divisadero, an intensity born from its restraint. Episodes are boiled down to their essential elements, distilled but dramatic, resulting in a mosaic of profound dignity, with an elegiac quietude that only the greatest of writers can achieve.

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