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Guest Post: 20 Ways of Reading Ondaatje, Part 2


Last week, Critical Mass began publishing an essay by Molly McQuade, columnist, editor, former NBCC board member and author of the critical volumes “By Herself” and “Stealing Glimpses,” on how critics dealt with Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, “Divisadero.”

It’s a fascinating window into the patterns and foibles of modern newspaper book reviewing. The installment publication of this piece was interrupted by the announcement of our 2007 book prize finalists. Here, at last, is part 2 of the essay. Part 3 will run tomorrow. And if you missed part 1, go here —it’s really worth checking out.

Living in It

    If Ondaatje takes what he needs from a genre and makes up the rest, as he wishes, then his writing invites us to land there a little baffled or bemused, as readers. We stumble our way through the fiction, rather like auxiliary characters, not sure where we are or what we’re after; by the time we’ve finished reading or rereading the novel, we’ll soon be telling or retelling the story to ourselves, believing that we’ve finally found it. Though we didn’t write it, we must recount it, in retrospect—and this experience is oddly more like living life than it is like reading most fiction. To that extent, Ondaatje’s fiction is intrinsically more realistic than what usually passes for literary realism. This fact marks a subtle achievement. As Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times of London, put it in her New York Times Book Review piece about Divisadero: “It’s possible to believe that Ondaatje’s method of mosaic more accurately reflects the untidy turns life tends to take. . . .”

To the critic who begins reading Divisadero, does it feel strange to lend oneself to the novel as a kind of character? For some, I think it must. After all, the new novel, less beholden to convention than some new novels by other authors, has emerged unattached to critical verdicts or appraisals—there is nothing “academic” about it to reassure or guide us. Instead, there it is: something previously undiscussed for us to read. Yet as soon as we begin discussing it, we become a bevy of narrators, needed or heedless. For better or worse, we are the ones who will recount the story of the story in a periodical’s pages. And to do it right, we must be able and willing to narrate.

The difference between a critic who can narrate, and another who can’t: feeling prospective readers in his midst, the critic who can do it becomes a leading character in the very book, a character with aptitude and confidence who must still be able, at times, to separate himself from the written characters.  The critic thinks, talks, listens, and lives in the review. Yet before that can happen, the critic lives first in the book that will be reviewed by him. To narrate means to tell the story of living in it to somebody who hasn’t yet gone there to live. Few reviews do this, and few reviewers do it consistently, maybe because it takes time, energy, play, and work. (Alone among the reviews I read of Divisadero, Janet Maslin’s took care to do this.)

The work and play of a critic are not just about making nice judgments on the writing or the writer, but also about postponing that moment for long enough to live there in the writing—to live alone as an imaginative soloist who also wants, eventually, to make judgments. Writers as a whole deserve this with their books. Yet few writers of prose deserve it more than Ondaatje. When reviewers fail him, the mistake seems worse.

Consider this: you read twenty reviews of a book, Divisadero, that sounds like no other, only to find that many of the reviews sound a lot like one another. But why should we aspire to sound like everybody else? Or like anybody? All pens are not alike.

Can I hear my own voice, as a narrating critic?
Can I hear my own voicelessness?
Can my editor hear it?
Who else might?

Not a Hack

Reading twenty reviews of Divisadero brought me surprises. And I like surprises. But I don’t normally expect them from book reviews—not even from my own. For reviewing is, when viewed cynically, no more likely to surprise anyone than it is likely to invent anything. Isn’t reviewing, as George Orwell once groaned, nearly always almost impossible to carry out except as a sporadically idealistic sort of hack work? Consider the small fee (if any); the short deadline; the grudging, puny editorial space; and the badly chosen books, which are often bad themselves: this imperfect kind of work would seem likely to summon imperfect work from the reviewer.

And at times this came to pass with Divisadero. Why shouldn’t it? But not always. When it didn’t, I was surprised.

Surprise #1: We Can Safely Avoid Plot Summary. One of the best reviews I found among several very good ones was written by someone previously unknown to me named John Barron, who happens not to be a “career” critic of books at all. Instead, Barron is the general manager of the Chicago Sun-Times, where his review also appeared. What I liked most about his review of Divisadero: he resisted any urge to summarize the complicated plot of this novel. Instead he began, continued, and concluded the review with gracefully persuasive stylistic and thematic analysis, and in a mere 765 words. His analysis avoided the potentially damaging dull scrape of routine critical remarks (of these, more later) in favor of a rare and useful critical tool: a subjective precision of expression cued partly, perhaps, by the style of Ondaatje. Nevertheless, in his prose Barron did not bow to Ondaatje’s prose. He wrote as himself.

Surprise #2: Metaphor Can Stay Alive in a Newspaper. In a conspicuously intelligent phrase, Barron characterized Divisadero as possessing “the delicate architecture of open verse.” Although architecture is usually considered a genre of the sturdy, Barron’s choice of adjective—“delicate”—instantly and improbably renewed and enriched the metaphor, and did so truthfully, in Ondaatje’s case. The reviewer also enriched the metaphor further by his use of the adjective “open” to qualify the noun “verse.” To the untutored eye, open verse may not seem to have an architecture. Yet it can, if it’s good.

Surprise #3: Sometimes Short Paragraphs Are Better Than You Think. Barron or his editor seems to prefer a review composed in brief, self-evident, expository paragraph. This is the journalist’s way, though not always the critic’s. My own preference happens to oppose his. Nevertheless, these tough little wads of words accomplished much in their angle of approach, and in the resourcefulness of their critical imagination, so that eventually it even seemed like a fine idea for them to behave as if the long sentence were illegal. Each short paragraph of Barron said something of strong, undeniable interest—and said it clearly, as well as strongly, no matter how elevated or allusive the point. For example, consider his three opening paragraphs, each one consisting of no more than two short sentences:

    William Faulkner believed that all novelists were failed
    short story writers. And that all short story writers were
    failed poets.
    The poem, for Faulkner—with its concision, density of
    description and layered meaning—was paramount. Poetry
    was the demanding art toward which anyone with a pen
    should strive.
    Divisadero, the new novel by Michael Ondaatje, might have
    forced Faulkner to rethink his rulebook. I’m not sure what he
    would call it, but it wouldn’t be “failure.”

    How could I not read on?

Word Fatigue

Since book reviewing often seems foreordained as hack work even by the consummate critic, it seems only fair to note incipient signs of hack work—or, call it “word fatigue”—in certain reviews of Divisadero.

The following occurred within millimeters of one another in a single brief review: one starry night; one night of rage; that fatal night.

This adjective recurred in reviews: breathtaking.

These words and phrases swarmed in some of our critical writing: big novel; terrific writing; memorable characters; a million-dollar sentence; exquisitely crafted; covering a lot of ground; hauntingly beautiful; peerlessness; deserves every literary accolade he will doubtless earn.

If our own words fail us just as we are praising a “peerless” volume, then why should we be writing about it? Who should?

To Praise, or Not to Praise

The burden of praise could be felt in more than a few rapt reviews of Divisadero. I felt it also in two of the eviscerating alternatives, whose rebuking reviewers wrote as if stung personally by Ondaatje’s critical popularity. Either way, the pressure to praise, or not to praise, seems to have brought out the worst in many. (I would almost always rather read a mixed review, incidentally. Though mixed reviews can sound a little too safe in their own measured modesty, they tend to provide a more accurate and realistic view of any book, flawed inevitably.)

The pressure to praise can lead to word fatigue, for encomiasts. For debunkers, it can lead to ill-judged jabs that seem innately frivolous, or stupid. Why? Because a fist is not a brain, just a fist. To review a book is not a boxing match, either, since a critic is never the equal of a novelist, nor is a novelist ever the equal of a critic, not even when the novelist is also well known as a critic, or when the critic is also well known as a novelist. Perhaps for this reason, pugilistic reviews are apt to preserve in their precincts a trace of the ridiculous.

When critics lament Ondaatje’s shortcomings, for instance, the lamentation often seems less intelligently thought and less skillfully wrought than his novels. Do those railing critics admit that possibility, if only silently, to themselves? They don’t admit it in print. Maybe they should, for the sake of honesty—and our amusement. For an example of the shortcomings of pugilism, consider the following.

    [Ondaatje] 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

The first sentence, appearing near the end of the review’s opening paragraph, is just general enough in its phrasing to suggest a credible (if vaguely stated) critical position, lofty and omniscient. Yet the second sentence forbids the prospect. The second stoops low, abruptly, to serve its nether blow: abruptly, it compares Ondaatje’s novel to genres of inarguably inferior (and progressively diminishing) importance, from a criterion of the literally small and thus putatively eccentric (those Cornell boxes!) to the laughably, trivially perishable (the mocked flowers). Loaded with prejudice, the comparisons are specious. Picture it: novel as poinsettia?

The dishonesty of the sneaky swipe got my attention, of course, as it was meant to do; the triteness of the metaphors (rock gardens!) also irked me well. So, I read on with curiosity, wondering what other swipes awaited and how philistine or vacuous they might turn out to be. But I also read on with my mind already semi-hardened, since this critic’s mind was still more hardened than mine. This was to be only a bout, critic versus book—and no more.

What really got the critic into trouble, though, was the rise of a third boxer in the ring of the review, later: that of metaphor. If metaphor exists partly to test us, then I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised to find lackluster metaphors crowding the paragraphs after the “floral arrangement,” et cetera.

I learned from these metaphors that Ondaatje’s disregard for steadfast chronological order in his fiction leaves some readers, according to the critic, feeling “almost commanded not to try to iron out the kinks”; and that events in his writing “bounce around”; and that the novelist tolerates “stray threads.” (Bob Hoover of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette disagreed about Divisadero: “Connection is Ondaatje’s motif in this lyrical yet preternaturally calm work about emotional disruption.” ) Not only that, but the “ladder” of Ondaatje’s plot has “missing rungs”! Those rungs raised a question, for me: did the critic—or his editor—ever pause to notice, or to query, the pedestrian bondage of his own writing and his thinking?

Yet he was not alone. Flamboyantly, the first sentence of a review of Divisadero in the Washington Post Book World exclaimed:

      What an unusual, and unusually rich, experience it is to read
    Divisadero, the new novel by Michael Ondaatje—like going for
    a walk in a familiar neck of the woods, getting lost and then
    discovering an entirely new neck of woods filled with unknown

Do necks of woods hold wonders? To me, the woodsy cliché falsifies absolutely the critic’s attempt to praise originality in another writer. If so, then why praise? Why not analyze? Also, where was the editor?

In a review of the same book posted on Amazon, a reviewer acknowledged, “I can’t praise this book enough.” Though that confession can be considered as a cliché in its own right, I found it freakishly rewarding. For if read soberly, it sounds a secluded cautionary note about the difficulties of praise in general—namely, that it often sounds incredible.

Why praise, if you know you can’t?

Stay tuned for part 3 of this essay….