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Assemblage

This is the second installment in Jonathan Crimmin’s reading of Ondaatje’s Divisadero. Find the first here. TM

On page 23 of Divisadero, Ondaatje describes his character Coop repairing a leak from inside a water tank:

“He let go of the ladder and swam into darkness until he reached a wall. The leak would not be under the water or above it, where the wood was dry, but somewhere around the surface line where the two met. Wood deteriorated at a boundary, it was where the weakness would occur. He was treading water, his fingers on the slippery edges. He had to feel for the leak, would not be able to identify it by sight. This could take hours, or days, in the numbing cold and the windlessness of the tank. Even when his fingers discovered the initials he had cut into the wood years before, he was not appeased. It suggested a fate. How many times in his life would he or this family need to fix the tank? They had built a prison for themselves.”

The paragraph above, although not the best in the opening section of the novel (copying it out there were several things that made me grumpy), articulates a question that’s been treading water in my own dim water tank: the how many times question. How many times can Ondaatje construct a book out of all the same pieces and still produce a new machine? Remember Kip’s exam in The English Patient, to assemble a mechanical object out of parts without knowing what the machine was? And how, after finishing early, he spent the remainder of the time inventing other objects from the very same parts? Ondaatje writes novels that way and he knows it. Like Coop in the water tank, Ondaatje must always be finding, in his new work, traces of the old. Isn’t the tank a dim echo of the stunning dye scenes in The Skin of the Lion? There are other louder echoes as well. The two daughters in Divisadero, Anna and Claire, are reincarnations of Alice and Clara, from The Skin of the Lion, with Coop playing the part of Patrick. Gambling in Divisadero stands in the half-art-half-skill role played by marksmanship in the The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, jazz in Coming Through Slaughter, and thievery in The Skin of the LionThe English Patient and . The etceteras here go on for miles. More grandly and recklessly, one could even say that Ondaatje rewrote whole novels, that The Collected Works of Billy the Kid = Coming Through Slaughter while The Skin of the Lion = The English Patient.

Somehow none of this diminishes his achievement–a fact that is at the heart of the how many times question. In the New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer writes, “Because, like most original writers, he has a commanding vision, one knows in advance, to some extent, what kind of characters (in every sense of the word) will appear in an Ondaatje book.” As far as an explanation, the appeal to a “commanding vision” is pretty mediocre. It makes Ondaatje sound more like The Decider than a novelist. Perhaps it’s better to pose the question more generally: which artists transform themselves with each new work and which artists produce new work that remains haunted by recurrence?

What implications does this have for our ideas about art and originality?

Jonathan Crimmins lives in Seattle. You can find his stories published in The Laurel Review and Harpur Palate.

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The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

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