Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

In the midst of Divisadero, when I was asked if it was a good book, I wasn't sure how to answer. "It's a good book," I supposed, "because I'm not sure Michael Ondaatje is not in the habit of writing bad books." But I was not convinced from where I stood. Which is not to say that reading Divisadero was not an absolute pleasure, but I couldn't tell where the plot was going. Where the plot eventually went, I could never have foreseen. Even now, having finished the book, I'm still not sure what to make of it, but then my response to that is to want to read it all over again.

Divisadero has a plot-- an unconventional family, their ties forever severed by an act of brutal violence. One sister is researching the life of a French writer whose own story becomes the focus of the latter half of the book. Between the siblings' separate lives and the life of the writer, Ondaatje draws connections through parallelesque plot lines, recurring symbols, characters haunted by their counterparts. But these connections are not in symmetry-- symmetry would be too easy. And nothing is easy here. These connections are only suggestions, some of the story was so inaccessible to me (mainly due to my lack of familiarity with matters as divergent as the work of Balzac and the rules of Texas Hold'em), time shifts, narrative shifts, as a reader you are led you know not where.

And yet I trusted this writer completely. Clearly, I felt, I was in competant hands. This was not based solely on the writer's reputation either, but rather the strength of the prose, the beauty of the imagery, the structure of the novel which demanded my engagement, no matter what else conspired to shut me out of it. Ondaatje's ending tied up ends, not neatly of course, but in a way that cast the whole novel in a new light, which is why I so want to read it again. That so much can be obscured but made satisfying is a testament to great work. Similarly, that a book can be an abstraction, and yet well and truly solid.