On the Petaluma Road, in the former Gold Rush territory of Northern California, a man inherits a farm, marries a miner’s daughter called Lydia Mendez and adopts a four-year-old boy from a neighbouring farm, whose parents have been murdered by a farm hand. His wife dies giving birth to their daughter, Anna. He leaves the hospital with two girls: the second, Claire, is the daughter of another mother who has died in childbirth. He raises all three children as his own and now and then, Anna later remembers, embraces them ‘as any father would’. The boy, Coop, however, begins to move away in adolescence, restoring an old cabin nearby that belonged to his adoptive grandfather, and dreaming of the gold that might still be found in the riverbeds. He becomes ever more distant, and more fascinating, to Claire and Anna.
There is an almost mythological necessity about the narrative set-up of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. A sexual relationship develops between Coop and Anna; they are discovered by the father, who viciously beats his adopted son and drives away with Anna, leaving Claire to nurse the injured Coop in the middle of an ice storm. The mythic structure of this opening section announces a simple narrative schema: the dispersed characters’ lives will be shaped by this unprocessed trauma, and the biographies of all those drawn into their orbit will similarly turn out to be haunted by episodes of violence of which they cannot speak. It makes for a consistent tone, with long stretches of meaningful miscommunication between characters, punctuated here and there by catastrophe, and by the third-person narrator’s timely but strangely vacuous interjections: ‘Will these children, in their eventual cities, turn out to be the heroes of their own lives?’
Anna, who in adulthood has failed to forge any emotionally intimate relationships, becomes a literary historian, a lover of archives, and travels to France to research the life of a novelist and poet, Lucien Segura. Out walking in the country, she meets Rafael, a guitarist whose own vulnerability is hidden (except, inevitably, when he plays) by a gruff exterior. They become lovers; he recalls his youthful encounters with Segura; he educates Anna about the surrounding landscape; they listen to Bach in the kitchen and together explore a dusty and blatantly metaphoric attic that has been invaded by pigeons. As a character, Rafael is a rather implausible holy primitive: his guitar is ‘sacred’; his hands are scarred, his pockets are full of herbs, ‘so he could rip off a heel of bread and create a meal wherever he was.’
Claire, meanwhile, lives in San Francisco, on Divisadero Street – its name denoting both a division and a vantage point. She works for the Public Defender, goes riding and camping in the hills outside the city, regularly visits her elderly, isolated father (who will not have Anna’s name mentioned) and one day happens upon Coop in a diner. He has been living as a professional gambler and has been trained in the art of the cardsharp by a sort of Zen hustler out in the desert. He is lured by his junkie lover, Bridget, into the company of a gang planning an intricate con. He refuses to join them, is once more beaten half to death, nursed again by Claire, and loses his memory.
At which point the novel itself seems to suffer some sort of amnesiac seizure: the family’s story is all but forgotten, and the final third of the book is given over to tales of the writer Segura’s youth, the travails of his peasant neighbours and the picaresque adventures of Rafael’s father, an honourable thief married to a Tarot-reading Gypsy. (Like Rafael, the father prefers simple fare: he spends a good deal of time stealing vegetables.) The plot has not so much unravelled as wandered off into the countryside, collecting stories of hardship, longing, violence, poetry and furtive onion-pilfering. One can only assume that Ondaatje has in mind a set of elemental images that confirm his opening dictum that ‘the raw truth of an incident never ends’; it is just that there are so many similar episodes that the raw truth starts to seem rather conventional. This entire section reads as though appended to make up in terms of its crude symbolism for the unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) narrative strands of the earlier part of the novel.
Ondaatje’s admirers often excuse his deficits in the plot and character departments by insisting on the musical or ‘poetic’ qualities of his prose. But prose is generally beautiful by virtue of its exactitude, whether this is achieved by economy and concentration or by weaving such a skein of indirection that reality appears as in a dark mirror. Ondaatje’s prose is not economical, or elaborate, or especially enigmatic. It is rather an amalgam of pretended precision and aspirant mellifluousness. Take this sentence, in which the thief Liébard is made to reflect on the moral balance in nature: ‘Wasps lay eggs that ate the larvae of butterflies, but then wasps were better for plant life than the beautiful flutterers, just as Liébard knew that it was lazy wealth in the fluttering class that made them mean-spirited.’ The whole of Ondaatje’s style is here: the assonantal awkwardness of ‘the beautiful flutterers’; the broken back of the sentence halfway through, at which juncture ‘just as’ announces a sudden swerve to profundity; and then the cheap pay-off, the ‘fluttering class’ from which Liébard feels justified in stealing. But it doesn’t work, in part because ‘lazy wealth’ is the lamest of phrases. And as Ondaatje nears the end of the sentence, the entire image starts to look, in terms of its metaphorical force, like something to do with butterflies and wheels.
What truly amazes is the imprecision of such language: the way Ondaatje avoids, with almost studied clumsiness, saying anything very specific at all. This would be acceptable, even intriguing, if it sounded as though he were aiming for a species of syntactic estrangement, a telling obliquity arrived at by surprising word choice and order. Instead, everything simply sounds wrong. Here is Anna, watching her father fall asleep: ‘I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signalled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place.’ Where to start with that ungainly sentence? How exactly does a flicker ‘within’ (he likes ‘within’ a lot more than he does ‘in’) ‘that covering skin’ (as if we don’t know what an eyelid is) give anything like the impression that the father is being tugged anywhere? And given the boating metaphor (then again, perhaps the father is meant to be swimming, or maybe drowning), isn’t ‘some other place’ just a means of avoiding some such phrase as ‘the far shore of sleep’, which is after all the cliché that the second half of the sentence depends on? Better all this confusion, however, than a phrase like ‘the croak of a duck’, which is less a fresh new phrase for an old thing than an invitation to imagine a very curious creature: half duck, half frog.
It is hard to know what has hypnotised some reviewers about such sentences, but they clearly go down well with Ondaatje’s fans, because there is more, much more, in this vein. Coop attempts to repair an obviously allegorical water tower (twin to the pigeon-filled attic), and Ondaatje tells us ‘there was a leak somewhere within the tower’s dark interior.’ So far so symbolic, in a book that is all about the ways we try not to spill our deepest secrets. Isn’t it, however, in the nature of a leak that it exists not only in the interior? That the leak is precisely what links the interior to the exterior? (Come to think of it, wouldn’t a leaking water tower leak water, thus providing the first clue as to where the mysterious and meaningful leak might reside?) But ‘there was a leak in the water tower’ is too precise for Ondaatje. It has first to be ‘somewhere’, then not just ‘within’ but within the ‘interior’, which in turn had better be ‘dark’, otherwise the whole rickety structure, so he fears, will somehow not signify. As if the reader could miss the import of the increasingly secretive and brooding Coop climbing to the top of a tower, opening a trapdoor, lowering himself in and treading water until he finds the leak, which he then manfully plugs. Talk about a journey to the interior.
Often, such awkwardness arises from strange vestigial clauses or extraneous phrases, as though Ondaatje thinks the reader is an idiot who cannot be trusted with the most ordinary verb or adjective. As in: ‘He had a rough grey stubble that made him appear ponderous, as if used to lazy movement.’ Or this, of Anna’s first meeting with Rafael: ‘When she got close she could see his hands had been bitten by insects, were scarred.’ At other times, the prose is stilted by an odd reliance on the power of a preposition to marry abstract and logically unconnected nouns. Lucien Segura recalls watching a clockmaker: ‘Soon I was almost within the pleasures of his serious demeanour.’ It sounds poetic only if you don’t read poems.
In places, Ondaatje tries to brace these flimsy sentences with a particular professional or subcultural vocabulary, grafting onto his unidiomatic sentences a lexicon that never really takes. Describing Coop’s career as a gambler, for example, he writes that ‘the plan is for him at some point to double-duke … He will place this riffle-stacked slug of cards beneath a crimp … If the man cuts at the crimp, there will be no need for Coop to hop or shift the deck secretly.’ At which point, for all the reader knows, or cares, Coop and his picturesque pals could be playing snap. For matchsticks. Such ostensibly hip verbal forays fail to give energy to Ondaatje’s prose, and his usual awkward register is almost preferable. Almost: ‘this was furious mathematics, a stone in your heart, luck, and the chance of an eventual card – the River – that would glance you towards your fate.’
When Ondaatje is not trying to get terminologically down with his characters, he tends to hover above them, sage and loquacious, ever ready to dispense his thoughts on love, mourning, memory, life and stuff. Sententiousness in a novel, of course, shouldn’t necessarily be taken to represent the worldview of its author, but there is no sign, in Divisadero, that the very many instances of lugubrious counsel and cosmic reflection are to be understood as anything other than sincere emanations of authorial intent. This display of Ondaatje’s opinions would also be fine, and even interestingly reminiscent of 19th-century novelists in charge of more robust narrative machinery, were it not that his observations, apropos of his characters’ predicaments, are so dispiritingly banal, or just nonsensical. The apothegms come thick and fast, though none of them suggests that, in terms of style or content, Ondaatje would have E.M. Cioran, say, troubled in the aphorism stakes. ‘Succinct histories tell us something – that anything peaceful has a troubled past.’ ‘Sometimes we enter art to hide within it.’ ‘If you do not plunder the past, the absence feeds on you.’ And this, which still has me flummoxed: ‘Those who have an orphan’s sense of history love history.’
There is a weird, omnipresent ‘we’ at work in such statements. ‘We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.’ ‘We think, in our youth, we are the centre of the universe, but we simply respond, go this way or that by accident.’ ‘We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue.’ Whoever ‘we’ might be, we seem to like mixing our metaphors into a big lump, like a warm handful of sweets, then stretching the garish whole until it snaps.
We are also given to invoking various literary and philosophical authorities, many of whom seem merely to confirm our rather ordinary observations of the world. Quite the oddest feature of these citations is that Ondaatje consistently quotes very interesting people saying startlingly uninteresting or at least unoriginal things. Thus: ‘“We have art,” Nietzsche said, “so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.”’ Or: ‘only the rereading counts, Nabokov said.’ That Nabokov borrowed this from Proust is no reason not to quote Nabokov, but it ought maybe to suggest to Ondaatje that he is channelling a more conventional dictum than he imagines. The same might be said of ‘everything is biographical, Lucian Freud says,’ which is also unfair to the painter, given that it sounds, out of context, like an absurd simplification of something his grandfather might have written. At its worst, this tendency becomes quite embarrassing, as when Ondaatje has Anna quote a passage on the absorption of one foetal twin by the other, then adds: ‘that marvel, Annie Dillard, wrote that.’ No doubt it is very nice for Dillard to be noticed like this. But really: ‘that marvel’? What is she, his cleaner?
Divisadero is the sort of book that makes you wonder what some people are after when they open a novel. Vapid nostrums dressed as timeless wisdom? Pretty vignettes from a simpler life? Flowery assurance that this simpler life conceals, would you believe it, a seam of tragedy? Cooking tips? Whatever it is, it is all there, and they are welcome to it. Ondaatje takes some of the techniques that we might value most in fiction – the formal refutation of strict chronology; the elaboration of character as little more than a rumour or a scattering of particles; a narrator’s capacious sense of literary and intellectual history – and drains them of all energy, wit, mystery and real ambition.