Knowledge as a Problem in Style
This something that used to bother me, is bothering me again. (And this sentence could be the first line of a new M A Carter poem.) I'm referring to my discomfort with over-showing, over-researched novels. Novels packed with 'knowledge' by writers who seem to have no direct line to that knowing by nature of time, lifestyle, experience, era, etc. And this following sentence is simply one kind of example, a description of how the child character (Claire) tries to stop her horse rearing and bucking:
'She carries plastic bags of water with her and leans forward and smashes them onto his neck so the animal believes it is his own blood and will calm for a minute.'
Really? She couldn't talk to the horse, reassure it by touch, tone and manner; she couldn't train the behaviour out? No, she carries bags of water with her while riding. Not an easy or comfortable thing to do when riding. Water is heavy and bags of it would be cumbersome. How many fiddly bags of water does she carry? How big are they? Where does she carry them? What happens when this difficult horse of hers, minute by minute, bag after bag, realises the trick - or otherwise imagines it has bled to death? The horse is called... no, nothing obvious surely, and so... Territorial.
The quote is from Divisadero by Michael Ondaatjie. It's about 400 words into Claire's chapter, which is the first of the book. This startling kind of 'knowledge' and detail is a mannerism found in all of Ondaatjie's novels. It is very 'Ondaatjie' in feel and kind. The character is a loner or is given such private focalisation they become focused into a bubble of being – and their particular knowledge has to be odd, strikingly unusual so you remember it, usually vividly physical, usually esoteric or unique in feel, heightening and possibly 'poetic' in its strangeness ... and therefore it immediately 'makes strange' the character, of Claire in this momentary example. Knowledge as motif. As a reader you are led to think no one else but Claire seems to know this bag-of-blood trick. Has anyone actually used this technique? Has Ondaatjie discovered the information by research and willfully applied it? Does he ride horses and is he attracted to the possible idea of it ... or does he ride and 'know' it? Or did he just make it up? And all the thousands of like descriptions found everywhere throughout his novels, researched by the author and his researchers.
Nor is this a post-modern naivety on my part: prioritising lived experience over researched, the 'real' vs knowledge used to construct a simulacrum of period or purpose, ie: not 'real' and never real. So, regardless, a device of writing/reading; but no, what gets me about the 'researched' knowledge in this case is not its informing presence but the rhetorical next step: in Ondaatjie's books this knowledge is not so merged within the overall narrative (though of course it is there) as foregrounded within each character, and there the knowledge is foregrounded as knowledge. A big difference. It feels like a sleight of hand whereby research is demonstrated into knowledge.
And it's as relentless as a fetish. All of Ondaatjie's main characters (nearly all minor characters, too) know and perform amazingly (ridiculously?) diverse but very distinctive activities which are delineated in very specific, slow-motion, consciously presented sensory detail - representations created by the author in order to individualise the characterisation. It seems he cannot admit to his fiction any 'person' who is like most people – just averagely endowed with knowledge and or skills. That is, having nothing especially unusual or developed as a practice. After a short time of reading it starts to drive me crazy. Especially as each uniquely gifted character then runs into erotic encounter with another and their love blows up into uniquely detailed sensuality, is written as poetically and 'romantically' specific (but also therefore, paradoxically, cliched... he can surely be parodied for all these fetishes) and then, often (more tragedy) is thwarted in some way. Still, they have their talent to fall back on.
The talents, the knowledge: gunslinging history of the 'wild west' century in the US, and the usage and details of six-shooters, rifles, shooting and riding and town and brothel life, illness and the desert and thirst (Billy the Kid); cornet players and the esoterics of jazz and its improvisations, trumpet and sax playing and also the involved techniques of daguerreotypes and photography and the chemistry of film development, and brothel life and black southern states' town history (Coming Through Slaughter); large span steel-bridge construction involving 19th Century engineering techniques as used in Canada, and the extraordinary abseiling techniques of construction workers (of course) (In the Skin of the Lion); bomb construction and dismantling, dis-arming and the vast array of army-intensive sapper skills generally, abseiling again (re-use from above) and the history of espionage in Europe during the war and WWI aeroplanes and flight techniques (The English Patient); medicine and archeology and civil war history in Sri Lanka (Anil's Ghost); horse-riding, card-cheat and card-gambling tricks and gambling systems and casino protocols, and more guns, and European and Roma music and cultural history, European herb gardening, agriculture, carpentry and roof-tiling.... He might be good to have on a quiz night table.
And yet... The portrait of the French writer in this sequence of narratives is extraordinary in many ways and the passion and depth - of inner commitment as against outer skill-performance - is a telling reminder of where the novelist's own skills are perhaps best developed and given. Not in showing off special effects. When Ondaatjie's writing gets in that close I am entranced and moved. His sadder and tragic love affairs cease to be so formulaic and more emotionally and perceptively 'known'. His poetry lifts above his tricks. It does not abseil.
I haven't mentioned other writers who re-create entire scenarios and eras from words stated to be the relevant research. It is a weakness in much historical writing, too, such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River. Though her information is applied to the narrative, as it were, not to the individual characters and is thereby more flexible and subtle. Perhaps I have a thing about comfortable, middle-class, full-time novelists sitting at home writing books which claim such broad authority. Yes. These people are not Shakespeare – I must prefer writers who make the work live through psychological insight, whose authority is within the character rather than as large-scale (and financially successful) representation of that which the writer has little or absolutely no hands-on feel for. I can read Ondaatjie because he is fascinating in many aspects of his made-worlds, and I can almost ignore his stylistic directness Vs nostalgia trick (having your cake and eating it) (too much and they both feel sentimental) and I admire those passages where he allows his characters their bodies to breathe and feel (rather than do, perform) as sharply as insight. I don't care for writers who are prone to such exotica: the masquerade of wow-ish effects as claims to being. And to woo the reader.
Just noted details from a review of his new The Cat's Cradle: a mute tailor, a retired ship dismantler, a pianist who has “hit the skids,” a botanist and a lady who hides pigeons in the pockets of her jacket. And so - here we go again....Brilliant, often, but so bloody unconvincing.