Desktop versionMobile version

Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works

Jean-Michel Lacroix

Once Upon a Time in The South: Ondaatje and Genre

George Bowering


Critics have often noted that Michael Ondaatje likes to mix literary modes and genres, but there has not been much speculation about his reasons for doing so. Clues can be derived from his predilection for community over individuality, both in his subject material and in his method of book production. Genre fiction provides readers with the memory of their early joy in reading as well as a sense that they are part of a society involving stories. A postmodern parody of genres, especially as they are commingled, will further promote the reader’s awareness of participation in a literary community, and permit the primary author to feel that he is helping to tell lives rather than Jamesian art. In its first sentence, Corning Through Slaughter invites the reader to join writer and characters in some travel around the setting, and provides us all with the opportunity to close the distance between self and the trope of others.

Full text

1Michael Ondaatje is the plainest of men. He never has a decent haircut. He wears jeans that look like two blue bags. His favourite movie is a spaghetti western. It takes him years and years of painstaking assembly to write one of his elegant novels. His lyric poems are the envy of lazier poets for their meticulous wonder. He writes as if the fragile balance of our universe depends on every sentence he accomplishes.

2Between his early lyric poems and the recent semi-historical novels he produced a sequence of books that were characterized by confusion and transgression — of literary forms, and most notably of genres. In conversations and interviews and in his restless works, Ondaatje has always shown a fascination with genre fiction and especially with genre cinema. His most famous crush has been on the western movie. One of his books features an author’s photograph of the Ceylonese boy dressed in cowboy gunfighter gear, a picture that like many the endpapers in his books was designed to mislead readers into realization.

3In the 1970s and 1980s Ondaatje was notorious for producing books that confused his readers and the critics about their modes. In 1970 he won the Governor-General’s Award for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in the poetry category, but critics then and more recently have suggested that the book is really a short novel. The fact that it is assembled of prose dialogues and photographs and interior monologues lead one to think that Ondaatje was deliberately blurring the boundaries between forms. He has gone on record as saying that it was a scenario for a movie that he could not afford to film. The book is also ambivalent about genre. The troublesome title promises a whole literary career. The discontinuities visible on the pages suggest a historical ana. But there is good reason to see the book as an incursion into the field of “penny dreadfuls” or “dime novels,” those cheap narratives about the wild west in the nineteenth century, most of which promised an authentic story while practising extravagance for the dream-besotted eastern (or South Asian) readership.

4That was the book that preceded Corning Through Slaughter. and its titular character will make a disguised appearance in the later book, as will its author, presumably Ondaatje. The book then to follow was the equally puzzling Running in the Family. It shares more than a title’s present participle with its predecessor. Reviewers did not know what to call it. Was it biography, autobiography, memoir, family saga, travel journal, photo album, poetry, short stories, social history, tall tale, satire, oral history, sociology, or portraiture? Was it a novel?

5I am not going to talk about genre in the sense that Plato and Northrop Frye did. Plato maintained that there were two modes of writing poetry — the descriptive and the mimetic. They had an ideal existence, and separated narrative and theatrical verse. He relented after a while, and said that there was a third, mixed mode that resulted in the epic. When neo-platonists were asked about the obvious existence of lyric poetry, they said that it was mimetic of the self. This is the sort of thing that caused trouble in genre studies. It was not long till champions of the idyll and the epithalamion claimed genreship for their favourite interests. No wonder that Italians such as Bruno and Croce said that it would not be long till every poet had his own genre. The notion of ideal modes had disappeared by the time of the Renaissance.

  • 1 Anatomy of Criticism, New York, Atheneum, 1968, p. 98.

6But still, critics do want to classify. If there are not ideal divisions, there can still be earthly, maybe psychological divisions. Northrop Frye goes further, replacing the ideal with something between heaven and earth: “The true father or shaping spirit of the poem in the form of the poem itself, and this form is a manifestation of the universal spirit of poetry1.”

7I do not quite understand the difference between human beings made in the image of God, and human beings having universal characteristics. Frye’s analogy between the individual human and the individual literary work must now meet a world full of experiments in reproduction, as well as miscegenation, mongrelization, organ transplants, mass migration and cloning.

8There are those who say that the greatest works have always been those that violated the boundaries of genre. Not so Alan Tate the New Critic, who liked some of the poetry in Finnegans Wake but dismissed the book as a misdirected hybrid.

9It is nice to have the idea of genre, though. It gives us a diachronic measure to lay athwart the synchronic measures that engage us, literary groups, best-seller lists, fads, technological adjustments.

10Here are two more ways in which I will not use the word “genre.” A lot of my professor friends just use the term to separate prose and verse, and maybe drama and non-fiction. That seems to me a waste of a nice foreign word. In the art world a “genre painting” is a depiction of ordinary people going about their humble tasks. The term has occasionally been used about poetry or novels about the lower classes.

11There is a trace of that class snobbery in the way that I will use the term. In the publishing world “genre fiction” means those kinds of popular prose that are easily separated into categories of books sold by the millions to non-literary readers. These will include, in the western world, detective stories, spy thrillers, westerns, romance novels, science fiction, and several sub-categories of each. One of the most interesting things about these books is that though their readers are not presumed to be intellectually discriminating, they will seldom deign to try reading a book from a genre that is not their favourite, not even if it is written by one of their favourite authors. Science fiction readers do not read Harlequin Romances. Many science fiction readers will not even read non-scientific fantasies involving other worlds.

12In North America, and probably elsewhere, there has long been a popular genre of romance fiction involving a nurse in an exotic setting and situation. She usually encounters a dashing and seductive exotic male — often an aviator.

13Question: why do people like to read genre fiction?

14Question: why does Michael Ondaatje like to write books that resemble genre fiction?

15There are many people, who like to call themselves “big readers,” who gobble up mass-market genre fiction Wholesale. They look at fiction as recreation, as rest, as escape from a frustrating world into order. They are rewarded by the familiar, whether in the mode or in a single author’s writings. They do not like the book that their author produces outside his usual series or genre, even if it is in another popular genre — spy novel rather than police procedural, for example.

16As for the writer of genre fiction — let us say the western — he is adding his particular voice to a kind of collaboration. The western has a vocabulary and a set of conventions, and thus a community. The book that its author will produce will be part of a community lore, pulling together intertextuality woven by other books and the pleasure of the readers who like to find themselves in their landscape.

17Everyone who reads difficult books remembers a golden youth when he received great pleasure in simply reading. When he was young he consumed lots of books of a certain genre. People argue that “children’s literature” is a genre in itself. I read hundreds of westerns and then hundreds of science fiction stories. When I began more and more to add literary books (Hemingway) and near-literary books (Maugham), I continued as best I could my habits of sinking bodily into the world of the book. It helped to read a literary book that seemed to belong in the genre I was experienced in — Orwell’s 1984, for example.

18In other words, genre-reading seems to preserve the innocence of childhood. Here we could be talking about comic books, movies, radio programmes, baseball novels. Genre reading is nostalgie. When a literary writer flirts with genre writing, he is often described as a parodist. Perhaps he is — we can easily find examples — but he is not making fun of the books he read as a youth — he is not advising his readers to grow up. He is not trying to head off a reader’s escape or his own. Maturity does not entail moving on. It allows one to declare that the pleasure of reading a generic fictive world can be incorporated with artistic intent into serious contemporary text production, whether in the avant garde, at the political barricade, or in the heartland of a country’s canon.

19As a poet, Michael Ondaatje did not look for marketing by a “professional” publisher; he joined Coach House Press, the fervid alternative in the 1960s. Where the commercial presses look for efficiency in production and attractiveness in packaging for the market, the poet is a kind of contract worker hired and paid for the season. At Coach House Press, the activity was collaboration. Artists and writers and printers tried ideas on each other and came up with works that will always remind us that the author was there, figuring out how to make a book. This kind of collaboration is probably the realization of a dream that the young writer had when he was fervently reading himself into a world different from the marketing model called high-school and after-school.

20When Ondaatje’s first book Dainty Monsters (1967) was being built, he picked out the Ceylonese batik for the design of the wrapper. When House of Anansi published The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, it was designed at Coach House, and signed with a photograph of little Asian boy Ondaatje in full western movie regalia. The “Acknowledgements” page in Running in the Family (1982) supports collaboration as necessary to composition: “A literary work is a communal act. And this book could not have been imagined. let alone conceived, without the help of many people.” Sort of like a movie.

21Ondaatje’s only piece of extended criticism is his series pony on Leonard Cohen, published when Ondaatje was twenty-seven. Of all his Canadian predecessors, Cohen is probably the best known mixer of forms. Some of his books of poetry contain the lyrics of his most famous early songs. His last book of poems is a collection of Buddhist-Jewish-Christian prose meditations and prayers. He wrote a sequential dramatic poem that was produced as a television documentary extravaganza, and on that occasion the poet declared that he was a hotel. After the age of sixty Cohen brings his poetry to a television channel that specializes in three-minute advertisements for record companies. Cohen lives in the DMZ where genres meet.

  • 2 Leonard Cohen, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, Canadian Writers No. 8, 1970, p. 23.

22Ondaatje, in his chapter on Cohen’s first published novel, introduces it as an incursion by a poet into the field of the kunstlerroman: “the novel was rewritten at least five times, with the result that its descriptions, dialogue, and portraits are shaved down to an almost poetic form. The book has the effectiveness of a long prose poem, with each scene emerging as a potent and enigmatic sketch rather than a full blown, detailed narrative. As in a poem, the silences and spaces, what is left unsaid, are essential to the mood of the book.2” This is not mature critical writing, but it shows an interest that may be itself interesting to those who want to read Ondaatje’s books written after 1970.

23Introducing Cohen’s second novel, Ondaatje transcribes a radio interview with Phyllis Webb, in which Cohen announces that he was trying for one genre while like the Black Romantic he had been called, rifling the storehouse of what would appear to be its opposite:

  • 3 Leonard Cohen, pp. 44-45.

I was writing a liturgy... a great mad confessional prayer, but using all the techniques of the modem novel which was the discipline in which I was trained so there’s this huge prayer using the conventional techniques of pornographic suspense, of humour, of plot, of character development and conventional intrigue... Beautiful Losers was everything I could give at the time3.

24Everything he could give. Cohen’s image of the writer as a person who pours out all the modes rather than stitching a text together is worth remembering when we encounter a book such as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid or Running in the Family.

  • 4 Sam Solecki, “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1974,” in Spider Blues, ed. Sam Solecki, Montrea (...)

25 Billy won that Governor-General’s Award for poetry in the year that Ondaatje’s little book on the collected works of Leonard Cohen came out. During this time the Canada Council often recruited writers for help, asking them what category certain texts should be entered in for the GG competition, especially when they were texts from Coach House Press. Some of us told the CC that they were almost getting the point. Trendy Canadian Literature commentators said, remember, that Billy was Michael’s first novel. A few years later, remember, Ondaatje told Sam Solecki that “with Billy the Kid I was trying to make the film I couldn’t afford to shoot4.” In that book the piece on page 90 starts: “Sound up.”

26But poems and novels and movies are art forms, not properly genres. There was a real genre, popular from the last quarter of the nineteenth century into the second quarter of the twentieth. This was the true revealed authentic adventurous life story of someone famous and western, often an outlaw, quite often Billy the Kid. It is interesting to note that Ondaatje shared the Governor-General’s stage with his friend bpNichol, who was receiving the poetry award for The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid.

27You had to be ironical to enter your late title in this list, of course. But Ondaatje was also trying to write Billy Bonney’s autobiography. He called these pieces “Left Handed Poems.” I think that he was aware that Billy was left-handed only in the fancy of those yellowback authors who wanted to present him as diabolic and glamorous.

28Of course everyone remembers his first impression of the book — it is a hodgepodge, an olio, a collage, a very obvious compilation of forms. The appearance of the pages, turned or flipped, speaks against continuity and decodedness. If these are his collected works, Billy worked as a lyric poet, a documentarist, one of Ondaatje’s many photographers, and a pop novelist.

29The question of genre has, from the first reviews onward, been the first question that critics and readers ask about Running in the Family. On the ISBN page it is called biography. In the list of Ondaatje’s books appended to The English Patient, Running in the Family is called a memoir. The first page, in italics, is written in the third person, and appears to be the beginning of a fiction.

30But this book, too, is assembled. It combines autobiography, family saga, travel journal (or the then-popular search for roots), poetry, photographs, short stories, social history, tall tales (perhaps in the tradition of Swift’s Gulliver), satire, oral history, sociology and portraiture. To make matters more interesting, it is sometimes written in the “present tense,” and sometimes in the preterit, depending on which genre is being imitated — or parodied. Further instability is produced as the book (Ondaatje’s third book in a row to have a present participle in the title) is delivered sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first, sometimes singular, sometimes plural.

  • 5 “Running in the Family, the Postmodernist Challenge, in Spider Blues, p. 303.

31Linda Hutcheon, of course, calls the book an “historiographic metafiction.” She says that all his books are “texts and meant to be read as such, that is, with suspicion5.” Smaro Kamboureli, in The Alphabet of Self” writes of it: “…

It whimsically insists on inhabiting the terrain of autobiography while at the same time displaying its energy as a text that wants to be the ‘other’ of what it declares to be.

  • 6 In Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature, ed. K.P. Stich, Ottawa, University of Ottaw (...)

32So, she says, “autobiography in relation to Running in the Family is not a genre but a rhetorical trope6.” She is right, and I believe that we can say that of all Ondaatje’s entertainment of genres — western, nurse novel, detective novel, etc.

33When we run into a little chapter made of verse, or a photograph, we cannot help asking ourselves: now, how did this get here? And we know that the writer, not some kind of inevitable god of narration did it.

34In a 1984 interview with Sam Solecki, Ondaatje said, probably without teasing, “You know, I wanted to call my new book of poems, Secular Love, ‘a novel’.”

35First the writer pushes textuality into our faces. Then he tries to disappear. Or is he trying to make the author disappear, as he did with Billy and Buddy?

36“Left-handed poems,” he said, as if poems were a gun. But only in legend was Billy left-handed, only when he had slipped from life into genre. Ondaatje is right-handed. If he wants to write left-handed, he will have to wait till they make dime novels and horse operas about him.

37Billy died in 1881. As often happens with pop heroes, rumours of his continued life abounded. Stories and movies in which an aged Billy talks to youngsters make up a sub-genre themselves. Ondaatje finds an odd fate for him in Corning Through Slaughter. Under one of Billy’s numerous names, Antrim, he appears as a patient in Buddy Bolden’s loony bin. Antrim, who gets a shot of some drug every week, insists on getting this week’s shot in his left arm, though the doctor insists on the right. The dispute triggers an escape from the prison, and almost from the text.

38We have come, thank heaven, to understand that any kind of writing, from office memo to epic poem, is action, not just imitation of the world. Writers are doing something, not copying what they see. Writing is part of a dialogue with the world. So a writer writing anticipates the responses of his readers. Nowadays, the theorists of language-composition use the word “genre” to talk about the writer’s decisions in addressing the situation in which his rhetoric will find its way.

39So the detective novel is not just a book that shares certain formal characteristics with its predecessors. A detective novel is a book that addresses the expected expectations of the detective-book reader. Everybody knows this. But does everybody know why Michael Ondaatje makes serious books out of nurse novels, westerns and family chronicles?

40Does anyone know why Ondaatje begins his novel about various artists as if it were a journalist’s magazine travel piece about New Orleans? That journalist use the second person because he is promoting travel to reader-customers: “Circle and wind back and forth in your car and at First and Liberty is a corner house with an overhang roof above the wooden pavement, barber stripes on the posts that hold up the overhang. This is N. Joseph’s Shaving Parlor, the barber shop where Buddy Bolden worked.”

41When the author begins his writing in the second person, the reader knows that she has been induced to take up a subject position in her own narrative of reading. It is actually easier to travel in space than in time, so the writer here offers at the beginning not history, but “His geography.” But he then offers, in that context, lots of well-researched detail about the city during the era of barber and trumpeter Buddy Bolden. “History was slow here,” we are told, and Buddy’s various homes still exist “away from recorded history.” But if we are going to chase a central character whose main activity is disappearance, at least we are going to be offered a lot of detail about the streets of gambling, music, alcohol and prostitution. We will “circle and wind back and forth” in a place during a time before there were cars to get us there. There is a novel to get us there, a historical novel. We get a setting in which time and space are already mingling, including this time. On first mention, the central character leaves us there: “Bolden walks off and talks with someone.”

42Henry James told us that the serious novelist takes history as his model. James was hoping to establish the novel as a high art, like painting, which had nature for a model. He wanted to escape the social implications of genre. Writers like Michael Ondaatje are trying to escape Henry James. Coming Through Slaughter is an extremely un-Jamesian book: it is a wild proliferation of genres. The front cover of the first edition bears a time-battered photograph of Buddy Bolden’s jazz band, promising documentary; but the title page reprints a less-cropped version of the photograph, showing that the band is assembled in front of a big white sheet that does not quite hide the real world in front of which it is hung. Ondaatje does this sort of thing with all the genres he introduces. They will be handled fondly, but they will be exposed to irony.

43To give the name Webb to the detective who spends most of the book’s time trailing Buddy, is to mock one’s own trope. To use the name of the self-parodying cop of Dragnet, the most famous camp-detective television show, is almost unforgiveable. So what are we to think about such comic deflation when we come to know that Webb, like the photographer and the trumpet-player will be revealed as mask for the author: “Webb circled, trying to understand... taking almost two years, entering the character of Bolden through every voice he spoke to.”

  • 7 I am grateful to my colleague Richard M. Coe for this note.

44Speaking to a voice is a pretty good way of acting out the dialogic nature of any job in literature. That is what theorists in composition mean by “writing tasks as defined by rhetorical situations (classically stated as purpose, audience, and occasion)7.”

45Ondaatje is playing playing with genres (forms made by others) to invent something his own. He leaves his signature everywhere. We almost begin to suspect that there is a genre called the Ondaatje. Does anyone, Bakhtin or you, believe that you can invent a genre? If there is an Ondaatje, it features this response to the author’s Canadian critics, who complained that he set his books in Australia, the United States, Asia, Europe: in Billy the riders mention riding into Canada; in Slaughter there is an early reference to “Miss Jessie Orloff’s famous incident in a Canadian hotel during her last vacation,” Canadian content is that easily taken care of. It happens as quickly as Billy’s dropping in on Buddy’s book.

46As if it were a movie, the Ondaatje allows the author’s friends to drop in, too. One of these is bpNichol, the famous Canadian experimental poet. He appears as Crawley, who tells Webb about fasting in order to expel “the tail of shit,” a regimen that Nichol described to Ondaatje. Much later, the Canadian academies and anthologists Geddes and Moss are listed as the undertakers and embalmers of Buddy’s corpse. Of course Ondaatje will swear that the names are accurately historical, but in Billy there is a cat named Ferns, an unlikely name for a cat, but the actual name of a Canadian academic poet.

47It is almost as if Michael Ondaatje were finding genres in life and comically mixing them with genres in fiction, isnt it?

48I know why Ondaatje toys with the genres. I’ve written a literary western, a Heraclitan spy novel, a Young Adult science fiction, and a literary historical sea adventure. When Gertrude Stein was asked why she read a detective novel every day, she said that she did so because the central character was dead before page one, so one did not have to get bogged down in the Jamesian symbiosis between character and plot.

49The writer writing literary resumptions of genres remembers the fun of reading, his experience, the satisfaction of re-encountering vocabulary and gesture. This writer is self-absorbed, all right, as hostile critics say, but he is also handing the memory to his reader, and his reader, noticing the play, is highly aware of the textuality of the book, and therefore of her contribution, finally of her life. If this is what is meant by the pleasure of the text, the reader may not be surprised to notice herself coming through laughter.

50In his next book, Ondaatje will take a run through his family, turning an occasion for auto-bio-graphy into fiction, making sure that we notice a wide gap between the I that is written and the I that is writing. In Billy’s story and Buddy’s story he takes the time to inform us wary readers of the relationship between pronouns.

51Billy (?) says: “Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, to be in.”

52Someone without a pronoun says of Buddy: “Did not want to pose in your accent but think in your brain and body…”.

53I am amazed that after all these years I have not figured out the meaning of that letter-g-that one is shown how to erase, though I have just been told that it is the silver key. Ondaatje’s favourite novel by John Berger would not be published till two years later. If I dropped my personal initial I might be allowed into Billy’s I. One does not yet know, but one does know that the book is not about the gunslinger through the I’s of others, not those numerous first persons.

54Not the visiting single first person, either, not that simple egoist shove so popular among Canadian poets who find some historical figure and fashion a long poem by a written “I” who died long before all this started. No, not that pose for anyone in Ondaatje’s book. The problem for those Canadian poets and in their long poems is that they are so busy pretending to be a personage that they do not give their attention to the art — of writing. What is the occasion, I always ask — how did this writing get into my hands?

55If the writer is so conscious as to write right on top of the usual lull-inducing genre, you the reader know where he is and what you are both doing. You can see that such a thing would not be as clearly done on top of a mainstream bourgeois literary form. It could not be so joyful. Parody of the ordinary is ordinary.

56bpNichol’s term for operating on the overlapping margins of form or genre was “borderblur.” In another essay years ago I said that Ondaatje’s poem addressed to Victor Coleman marked a significant tum in Ondaatje’s poetry career. “‘The gate in his head’ “was written while Billy’s works were being collected, and it is usually seen as a declaration for process over closure. It notices a west coast letter from Coleman:

with a blurred
photograph of a gull.
Caught vision. The stunning white bird
an unclear stir.
And this is all this writing should be then.

57In Coming Through Slaughter there are lots of people circling and trying to find Buddy Bolden — a photographer, a detective, an archivist, a woman. And Buddy is always just leaving, a blur. He is out the door while everyone’s gaze is diverted. He can vanish from a room, or disappear in a crowd. When he does, the writer replaces Bolden. It is almost as if the writer has caused Buddy to leave the scene.

58When Buddy departs, or is spirited away, we are made aware that the writer is present, to be accounted for. Sometimes we know this because we can see his obvious hands on the linguistic furniture. Sometimes his signature is on the sentence. Sometimes we are just plain invited to look and listen.

59We saw the photographer Bellocq scratching at his pictures that appeared out of nowhere white paper in his tray, trying to get into them. We saw young Buddy and Webb “paste their characters onto each other.” Now we see the writer taking the place vacated by the vanished trumpet player. He is trying to be fast enough to be in the same place at the same time, fast on the draw. At the end of the book we see that he thinks that he has succeeded. After the earlier experience of white room and black room, and like a disappointed spider:

I sit with this room. With the grey walls that darken into corner. And one window with teeth in it. Sit so still you can hear your hair rustle in your shirt. Look away from the window when clouds and other things go by. Thirty-one years old. There are no prizes.

60How else might we do this conjunction save with genre, with the confusion of genres? The fiction artist obsessed with making desires to make a life. At the frontward edge of this desire is the desire to make his life rather than merely live or endure it. To make his life a fiction and therefore real. The producer of stable genre works is aiming at making a career. If he has a character, a cowboy, a cop, he will exploit his exploits, against one backdrop, range or mean Street. His reader will be safe in bed, reading by lamplight, a glass of milk to hand. She wont have to ask herself, what is this, and who is writing it?


1 Anatomy of Criticism, New York, Atheneum, 1968, p. 98.

2 Leonard Cohen, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, Canadian Writers No. 8, 1970, p. 23.

3 Leonard Cohen, pp. 44-45.

4 Sam Solecki, “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1974,” in Spider Blues, ed. Sam Solecki, Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1985, p. 20.

5 “Running in the Family, the Postmodernist Challenge, in Spider Blues, p. 303.

6 In Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature, ed. K.P. Stich, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 1988, p. 83.

7 I am grateful to my colleague Richard M. Coe for this note.


Author, Lecturer at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999

OpenEdition Books License

This digital publication is the result of automatic optical character recognition.
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search