Saturday, May 19, 2007

Then You Love a Little Wild One and She Brings You Only Sorrow

Left open overnight, the internets' tubes slowly spill a May 11th concert onto my hard drive. Rain before dawn, birds racketing in the green trees outside the window, Don DeLillo's excellent Falling Man on the floor beside the futon. An excellent epigraph for the ghosts there, about midway through the text: "[S]omething that belonged to another landscape, something inserted, a conjuring that resembled for the briefest second some half-seen image only half-believed in the seeing, when the witness wonders what has happened to the meaning of things, to tree, street, stone, wind. . . ." And, too, a little earlier, a paragraph that perfectly encapsulates all the difficulty I've had with Ondaatje's Divisadero:

"'People read poems. People I know, they read poetry to ease the shock and pain, give them a kind of space, something beautiful in language,' she said, 'to bring comfort or composture. I don't read poems. I read newspapers. I put my head in the pages and get angry and crazy.'"

Tolagson writes in agreement: "[Your] Ondaatje disses are spot on. I have a theory that that mannered style of writing -- where everything is about scent and touch and earthy tactility ('memories drenched in the scent of cedar boughs') -- originated in that damn WCW poem about the plums. You know the one I mean. That poem should be removed from the curriculum. A hiatus on that poem."

I met Ondaatje, once. I was bartending at a Robin Blaser tribute at UBC's Freddy Wood Theatre. Send the fox to guard the henhouse, har har. Ondaatje sidled up to the bar and I pounced, full of rabid fan enthusiasm for Rat Jelly and Coming Through Slaughter and the rest. He was friendly, gracious to a fault, full of the shy lanconic humor so sorely lacking in Divisadero. Did Linda Spalding write half the book? It sure seems like it. The coked-up paranoid gamblers disappear about two-thirds of the way through, leaving the cliche-o-matic chattering away: "[T]hey knew each other's truthful desires. And what they discovered was not only conjugal love, but the quick danger of life around them. They were caught in the attempt at survival among strangers, these two who were strangers to each other. And they saw that anything, everything, could be taken away, there was nothing that could be held on to except each other. . . ."

This is tripe, so full of unnecessary modifiers ("truthful" desires) and mawkish sentimentality ("anything, everything could be taken away...") that my first instinct was to assume that Divisadero was a parody of middlebrow lit, a winking piss-take on Fugitive Pieces and Snow Falling on Cedars, and maybe The English Patient too. Apparently not, and this knowledge makes me sad, for the loss of the sharp intelligence of the Ondaatje who talked to me at the Freddy Wood bar over gin and tonic, and for the lack of the cutting wit that shines through Secular Love, Elimination Dance and The Conversations like the bright edge of broken glass.

Comparing Divisadero with Falling Man is instructive. DeLillo trafficks in cliches, too, but every one of them appears as if set off in quotes, or at the very least acknowledged as a cliche: "In the movie version, someone would be in the building, an emotionally damaged woman or a homeless old man, and there would be dialogue and close-ups."

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