In Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Divisadero, the narrator says, “I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.”Elsewhere he writes of a steeple: “Built in the thirteenth century, the belfry had been constructed like a coil or a screw. It had one of those unexpected, heliocoidal shapes–the surface like a helix–so that as it curved up it reflected every compass point of the landscape.” It’s the surprise in this text that keeps me reading. How can you look into the distance and see those lost people everywhere? How does so expansive a word as “everywhere” manage to loop me back so close to the narrator’s consciousness? How can “everywhere” conjure up personal, proximal space? The belfry, too, curves up in a single sharp, clear image. Yet its multiple reflections seem created purposefully, to reflect “every compass point” and thus to distract the reader’s mind into attentiveness. So how does all this internal contradiction work in narrative, given how much we’re taught to prize logic and order? Shouldn’t the work of crafting a story be all about trying to figure out what makes sense? I will admit that I love complication and contradiction. I love the places in books where meanings rub up against one another and create new and mind-boggling patterns. Always did, even as a kid. I’m writing this from India where continuum and contradiction are present in tandem: Republic Day flag-buntings and traditional rice-flour kolam on thresholds and sidewalks, the whir of ceiling fans and the shrieking of tropical birds at daybreak. Here, controverting meaning is part of daily life.
Take the other day, for example, when I went to the bank. A young woman was seated at a table as people came and went. She was creating mehndi designs with henna paste on customers’ and bank employees’ hands. A caricaturist was working away in a back room. A bank employee directed anyone who caught her eye: Mehndi? Quick sketch? Naturally, I volunteered.The bank, it turns out, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This birthday bash could last a week, a couple of weeks, or a month. No one is quite sure, but a party is promised at some point soon. This mega-promo deliberately sets out to disrupt your sense of what is normal, so you’re compelled to ask, Why is this happening? What could it mean? That asking keeps you guessing, and more to the point, it keeps you from walking out. Maybe you’ll open a new account, or refer a friend. See the parallel with a reading experience? The henna went on cool and dark green. Within an hour the leaf paste had flaked off, leaving a pale orange tattoo. A few hours of later, it turned a deep, glorious brick-red, the pattern having been fixed by the heat of my palm. So it is with challenge, countering and controverting. It heats text up. It shifts expectations. It disturbs the rhythms of normalcy. When it’s done right, it can keep us turning the page.