One of a Kind
Haunted lives and lucky hands at the poker table.
Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By TED GIOIA
Michael Ondaatje has earned a reputation as a major novelist based on a small body of work--five short or medium-sized books published over a period of more than 30 years. One could squeeze all of these novels into a single volume and they would take up less space than, say, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. In an age of loquacious writers, where words are flogged and blogged in mass production style, Ondaatje stands as the odd man out, a craftsman who favors concision and taut poetic expression.
Now seven years after his last novel, Anil's Ghost (2000), Ondaatje offers us Divisadero, a story of broken families and fractured lives in California, Nevada, and France. Here the reader encounters all the trademarks of Ondaatje's fiction: the jazzy rhythms of his prose, fragmented narratives that seem to echo the cracks in his characters' psyches, and a delicate probing into enigmatic personas defined by shameful secrets and sudden moments of violence. Ever since he launched his writing career with books built around the historical figures of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden, Ondaatje has erected his narratives around protagonists who are desperately in need of a 12-step program if not a prison sentence.
Ondaatje's most successful exploration of the complexity of such self-destructive lives came in his celebrated 1992 novel, The English Patient. The book earned him a Booker Prize, and the resulting movie won nine Academy Awards, including the top honor for Best Picture of 1996. Although the film added a double dose of Hollywood romance to the plot line, it successfully (and daringly) remained true to the disjointed chronology of Ondaatje's narrative, in which flashbacks and recollections constantly interrupt the current action, and the audience is left to pull the story's individual components together like so many puzzle pieces scattered on the floor.
The narrative now shifts its focus to the adult Coop, who has become a card shark and professional poker player. Poker, it seems, is the new subject of choice for novelists trying to emphasize the alienation of their protagonists. Just a few weeks ago Don DeLillo published his latest novel Falling Man, in which a survivor of the World Trade Center attack recovers from this experience by an intense submersion in Texas hold 'em. Cristina Garcia has also featured poker prominently in her latest novel, A Handbook to Luck, in which a math whiz turns to the game to support his father.
I am happy to report that poker works even better on the page than on ESPN. As a game built on bluffing and posturing, it almost requires a probing psychological novel to do justice to its subtleties. Perhaps the next Henry James will learn his craft at the Las Vegas card tables rather than waste his time on those European jaunts. In any event, Ondaatje rises to the challenge. Some of the most engaging pages in Divisadero deal with Coop's exploits in scamming a gang of hoodlums with bottom deals and phony shuffles.
Coop decides to take on the Brethren, a gang of born-again card sharks working Tahoe and Vegas casinos. The Brethren are colorful scammers: They even form a prayer circle before sitting down at the poker table to cheat their unsuspecting victims. Coop trains for months before taking on his adversaries in a high-stakes game that Ondaatje describes artfully, card by card, wager by wager. Coop captures the pot, a $300,000 triumph, but sets off a chain of ugly events by this win that he can neither predict nor control.
Yet this second interlude in Divisadero is abandoned even more abruptly than it begins. The last hundred pages shift their focus, in a jarring and unconvincing manner, to the life and times of Lucien Segura, a French poet from the first half of the 20th century. The grown-up Anna is studying him as part of her work as a literary scholar. Yet beyond this, the characters and events of the first half of the novel fade completely from view in these concluding chapters. This type of disjointed structure worked well in The English Patient, where the musings and recollections of a dying man served as a unifying device linking the various threads in a complicated plot. But here Ondaatje has no such justification for this unexpected break in the narrative flow. His book reads like three separate stories--each one well crafted in isolation--struggling to join hands in a single novel.
Ondaatje's sparkling prose somewhat compensates for this defect. In his early books, such as Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje veered back and forth between poetry and prose, almost as if he aspired to some exemplary merging of the two approaches. His writing today is less overtly experimental, but the meticulous care he imparts to each sentence is still apparent. His stories frequently depict characters reading aloud from great works of literature--Herodotus, Kipling, Dumas, and the like--and they give great attention to the placement of commas, the cadences of the succeeding phrases. This is also the best way to experience Ondaatje's own writing, and I found myself, while reading Divisadero, returning to certain paragraphs and sentences, and reading them aloud, basking in the aural pleasure of his text.
Even so, the finished work would have been more powerful and coherent if presented in the form of three novellas, separate tales with some overlapping characters--like the seven stories of Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. By trying to squeeze these disparate accounts into a single narrative structure, Ondaatje leaves his reader hanging, expecting connections and closure at Divisadero's end that he never delivers.
Perhaps the title inadvertently highlights this limitation. Divisadero Street in San Francisco is only mentioned in passing here, but Ondaatje lingers to point out that there are two possible sources for the name. One interpretation links it to the Spanish word for "division" while the other etymology refers to the word divisar, which means to "gaze at from a distance."
Ondaatje's novel embodies the first of these perspectives. It is a divided work, a splintering of stories, which resists our best efforts to pull the various narratives together into a coherent whole.
Ted Gioia is the author of Work Songs and The History of Jazz.