Michael Ondaatje. Divisadero. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007.
Almost two thirds of the way through Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel, Divisadero, the reader encounters a scene in which a road that two characters are following is submerged in a river ford: “They merge,” Ondaatje writes, “the river and the road, like two lives, a tale told backwards and a tale told first” (167). This image of routes that mingle and merge resonates in a book whose plots also flow both forward and backward, with one of the interlocking narratives winding into and then pushing back, unfolding the others, so that—as in the image of the crossed river and road—one’s sense of direction begins to break down. For all this resonance, the image is both curiously belated and understated, and, as such, it is of a piece with a novel that seems designed to frustrate rather than fulfill a reader’s expectations of what a novel will be and will do.
Ondaatje’s earlier novels often reveal a preference for mosaic, both in terms of their formal structure (in his early and experimental The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, where snatches of dialogue, journalism, history, and lament mingle) and in their plots, where characters’ experiences are often juxtaposed to create jeweled, if sometimes opaque, surfaces. Divisadero features a plot whose multiple tributaries do indeed intersect, as the image of the flooded road suggests, though Ondaatje leaves wide open the question of what that intersection amounts to. In the opening pages, three almost-siblings, Anna, Claire, and Coop, grow up under their father’s watchful eyes on a farm in Petaluma, California in the 1970s. Their father lost his wife in childbirth and adopted Claire a few days afterward, at the same hospital where Anna was born. Years later, he takes in Coop after the boy’s family is murdered. These improvised ties prove vulnerable: Anna and Coop fall into a love affair whose discovery by the father prompts a storm of violence. Coop is beaten almost to death, saved only when Anna stabs her father, seriously but not fatally. Tended briefly by Claire, Coop disappears; Anna herself runs away. Though the novel picks up each of their lives later, the family is, even at this early stage in the book, definitively shattered.
When we rediscover Coop he is learning how to become a cardsharp, sliding haphazardly into a high-stakes life of crime. Anna resurfaces in one of the book’s other plots as—rather implausibly, given that she disappears from Petaluma in the cab of a stranger’s tractor-trailer—a Berkeley-trained scholar with an interest in an obscure French poet. Claire, whose story constitutes the most definitive cul-de-sac in a book strewn with useless specificity, works as a research assistant in a public defender’s office and spends weekends roaming the California hills on horseback. In the second main narrative, we follow Anna’s research in the Gers region of France into the life of the poet Lucien Segura and her involvement with a local man who as a boy knew Segura and whose own history we see in passing flashes. The third narrative—as the river flows backward, the last plot being the earliest in time—follows Segura’s own early years as a child and then a young man, lingering over an episode of almost unrequited love and the later dissolution of his own family life.
As if that weren’t enough, interspersed with these plots the reader is offered brief glimpses into still more lives, which are presented rather like flashes of some complicated landscape seen from the windows of a train. We see the delicate labor of Lucien’s mother Odile’s second husband, a clock-maker; the foreboding venality of a band of born-again gamblers whom Coop too casually cons; a nightmarish gallop through a forest taken as a boy by Anna’s lover, Rafael, when his horse was spooked by an eclipse. Amongst the excess of detail, some elements of the plots echo one another. Sexual infidelity, freak weather, and shards of glass link the narratives. Even motifs from other Ondaatje novels repeat. Like The English Patient, Divisadero features a good-hearted thief and a night-time visit to a church. As in In the Skin of a Lion, we see a man at work dangling from a great height, the world made small around him.
Tracking the swirling currents of plot in Divisadero, however, imposes too much solidity on a text that, on the level of structure and of plot, is about fluidity—life as Heraclitean flux or, in the spirit of Coming Through Slaughter, jazz improvisation, the mosaic of detail arranging and rearranging itself. While Ondaatje has always been interested in formal experimentation—even The English Patient, perhaps the most conventional of his novels, had to be pared of much of its poetry to succeed as cinematic melodrama—Divisadero bluntly whets our appetite for the satisfactions of novelistic fullness and then yanks away our plate.
In an early sequence, Claire enters a barn to find a horse loose and Anna injured and is then knocked down herself. The two are only saved by the appearance of Coop, whose confusion of the girls’ identities is dreamily noted by the semi-conscious Claire. But nothing much develops out of this sequence, just as nothing much develops out of the early attention the novel lavishes on the girls’ relationship. In annual family photos, Anna remembers, “One became more beautiful, or reclusive, one became more self-conscious, or anarchic. We were revealed and betrayed by our poses” (17). But the tensions in this relationship, though hinted at when Claire later crosses paths with but cannot save Coop as he descends into a shadowy criminal world, remain unexplored. Coop’s story itself dead-ends just before the image of the road hidden by water obtrudes into the narrative, and the novel at that point plunges into the story of Lucien Segura and doesn’t look back. Yet even if the novel’s heart is arguably in the Segura story—a romance narrative in mid-twentieth century European countryside, a return of sorts to the landscape of The English Patient—the denial of the ordinary satisfactions of plot remains the same. Divisadero echoes and shimmers with images and bits of language that never quite assemble themselves into a whole, a patterned formlessness with which the book seems explicitly concerned: “the raw truth of an episode never ends,” Anna observes toward the end of the novel (267).
To the extent that Anna’s passing remark comments on what, precisely, the satisfactions of plot are, it sheds some light on what exactly Ondaatje is doing in Divisadero. If the truth eludes closure—it “never ends”—it eludes too being understood as the product of an immaculate causality that is plot’s persistent promise: that decisions close a circuit with results, that the present engineers a sturdy bridge to the future. In this novel, characters find themselves across the river with no clear sense of how they navigated the gap. They tend to operate by whim rather than principle: Coop, overreaching himself in a consummate con, “looks up at the eye in the sky”—the closed-circuit casino camera that has taped his fraud—“that he knows… never captured what he has already done, and waves to it” (58). It’s a foolish gesture, but the novel repeatedly honors the substitution of gesture for action, the aestheticization rather than the actual living of life. If such aestheticization seems profligate, it also, the book makes clear, is faithful to the way people attempt to sublimate the potentially dreary slog of life—of prosaic narrative—into the illumined instant of art.
Even when characters themselves elaborate gesture into plot, moreover, the novel makes clear that doing so is only an exercise in wish fulfillment incompatible with real life. Toward the end of the novel, Lucien Segura transubstantiates an imperfect real-life romance with the wife of his neighbor into a dashing adventure series whose publication makes his fortune. But Ondaatje’s gift here is to suggest how Segura’s act is at once vital and hopeless. “Lucien gave his readers the happiness of a resolution,” Ondaatje writes (263), but Segura’s lover is dead, and his novels’ success gives him the financial wherewithal to abandon his own family. The satisfactions of fiction thus fit poorly with real life but, paradoxically, are what make that life worth living. In Divisadero, we see characters half-aware that their lives are only a kind of raw material of narrative, caught between sadness and delight in the fact that the truth only emerges as the lie of an invented plot. “[T]he terrain of my sister’s life and the story of my time with Coop are endless to me,” Anna writes near the end of the book (267). Like any novel, Divisadero grapples with how to bound that endlessness into a coherent form. By refusing fully to do so, and by thus compromising the fiction of novelistic realism, it aims to remain true to the aimless, formless beauty of real life.
Joanne Myers is Assistant Professor of English at Gettysburg College.