Tag Archives: reading

Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table. I didn’t get the ecstatic high from this novel that I did from The English Patient. His new one is too easy to put down and walk away from, not even a novel, really, so much as a collection of vignettes clustered around a character/narrator in whom I never really invested.

But look on the bright side—I’ve stumbled on something that feels like a perfect blog topic, something that stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what I found on page 208:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or lookdown on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

I had to read this passage twice when I stumbled across it, slipped in almost off-handedly, near the end of the book, where the narrator speaks to us as an adult, years after his experience at the eponymous dining table of ne’er do wells aboard a ship from Ceylon to England. Even now, when I read it, I feel my writerly hackles rise. (I’m not sure where my hackles are, exactly, but I know they’re stiff with indignation.) I am not so naïve as to assume what I’ve quoted is necessarily Ondaatje’s position, rather than the narrator’s, but there’s nothing in his rambling, uncertain novel to suggest it isn’t, either. In any case, the philosophy here is surely the one that governs the work of the real-life film director/ writer/teacher mentioned in this paragraph. But to take the democratic impulse that sparked the Dardenne brothers’ early documentary films about working class life in Belgium, and elevate it to a “first principle of art,” feels like a mistake, whether Ondaatje’s or his character’s.

By proposing as a moral and aesthetic mandate that readers should not have the upper hand, but should remain as mystified as our characters, as uncertain and ill at ease in the world –no wiser, no more confident than when they opened the book, Ondaatje’s narrator dismisses most of what I’ve always felt, written and taught about “empowering the reader.” His injunction also flies in the face of how powerful and moving I find many stories in which the author has deliberately contrived that the reader know more than the characters. This is especially the case with “unreliable narrators” like the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Remains of the Day; or with omniscient narrators and multiple view points in the great novels of the 19th century—it’s because we watch Jane Austen’s characters part and come together in kaleidoscopic patterns only we are aware of, that we can see them as tender, flawed. It’s because we know more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess that we love her. An empowered reader, it seems to me, is the basis of much fine literature, just as a privileged observer (who sees, for instance, an echo of the playful dance and eyes of Matisse’s “Goldfish” in the nodding heads of the flowers above them) is the basis of much great art.

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Does this broader perspective, this “advantage,” make us feel scornful of characters, as Ondaatje suggests? Do we feel smug because we know what their future holds? Or how their past is shaping them? No more, I think, than the author who wrote them into being looks down on or dismisses them. No more than the artist scorns goldfish or lilies when he paints them to say something about the world.

The English Patient ranks as one of the most emotionally excruciating novels I’ve read. A large part of its profound effect, I think, can be attributed to the way in which Ondaatje makes us privy to the feelings of all five major characters. (In The Cat’s Table, he essentially limits us to the perspective of his narrator.) Unlike these characters, then, we can weave a tapestry from all their individual sensitivities and passions, making something deeper, more profound than any of them could forge on their own. Playing God this way doesn’t make writers or readers smaller of heart, but larger. By knowing more than our cherished characters, we can be both a tender mother bird with her wing around the world, and her nestling snuggled into the warm feathers of creation.

When he pairs empowerment with condescension in the passage above, Ondaatje sets up a straw man, and begs the important issue of a reader’s relationship to the fictional world, a relationship I don’t think has to mirror her relationship to the real one. I’m a reader, you see, who’s frustrated by a lack of resolution, by an aimless story that, like a painting which resolutely and faithfully portrays every pore and hair follicle with photographic fidelity, gives us a “slice of life,” not its juice. I don’t confuse reality with fiction. And I don’t want to: while our chaotic existence may inspire paintings or books, their art is born from the courage to give it meaning and grace.

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By Invitation Only

Lately? I’m re-discovering Jane Austen and falling in love all over again. I started with Northanger Abbey, a book I’d never read. I was bowled over by its cleverness, humor, delicious language, and lively pace. And then there’s her little gem of an epistolary novel, Lady Susan, whose scheming main character is great fun to hate. Finally, I just finished Mansfield Park, but not without dragging my feet. A lot. I had a great deal of trouble, you see, caring what happens to the insufferable, self-righteous heroine, Fanny. Park is the only Austen book I can’t really admire, not because it’s not strongly written and admirably constructed, but because Miss Goodie Two Shoes is simply so hard to take!

 Which started me thinking about other protagonists I might not be inclined to follow through a book. Some of them, like Melville’s Ahab, are folks even their authors knew better than to foist on us without a buffer. The white whale’s nemesis speaks like thunder, but without Ishmael’s more judicious voice for balance, could we bear the blast? A fellow writer, who’s gone back to grad school, is reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the first time. She emailed me that she just doesn’t think she can take any more of this character’s “victim mentality.” Since I adore Hardy’s novel, I begged to differ. But I also realized how individual our responses can be to main characters. And why not? I might introduce the same person to four friends at a party, and never know which combination will click. 

So how about you? Which protagonists do you wish you’d never been introduced to? I’m not talking about characters who start out totally unappealing and then turn likeable à la Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. And I certainly don’t mean delightfully, unrepentantly immoral or flawed m.c.’s like Gatsby or Scarlett O’Hara. I want to know, instead, who rubs you the wrong way from start to finish. (If you finish!) Maybe it’s a character the author doesn’t even know is unspeakable. (Does Philip Roth have any idea how truly loathsome Portnoy is?) Or perhaps it’s one who’s just plain boring. (I’m looking at you, Bella.) Bland or irritating, whiny or obnoxious, let’s invite them all together right here—for the world’s worst party! 

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Challenge, Counter, Controvert: Subverting Expectations — Uma Krishnaswami

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.

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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.

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