Michael Ondaatje – “The Cat’s Table” from The New Yorker, May 16, 2011

I try to imagine who the boy in the narrow bunk was. Perhaps there was no sense of self in his nervous stillness, as if he were being smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.

Participants in writing workshops and classes recognize certain commonly-offered critiques. “It took me out of the story” is one of the most ubiquitous, and can be used for anything. Tricky or long sentence construction, an unusual image, a tortured metaphor, the parentheses Zin loves to use, punctuation errors, these all will take various readers out of the story and thus are to be avoided at all costs, because taking the reader out of the story is the worst thing in the world, the enemy of an enjoyable read, the death of one’s writing career, at least for the duration of that particular piece.

Not always.

In this piece, the first few paragraphs are written in third person – “He was eleven years old that night, green as he could be about the world, when he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life.” Very close third person – “Already it felt as if there were a wall between him and what took place there…” So I’ve got it. It’s a story about a little boy going on a journey by ship from Colombo to, well, somewhere. I’m more or less oriented in the person, place, and events. But then, this paragraph happens: “He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at the relatives who had brought him to the ship. He could hear singing and he imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude.” What? I? Who’s I? What’s I’s relation to the little boy? I get more oriented in time – the little boy was a long time ago, the I is now, looking back – but less oriented to person. Who is the I? Then I get the quote above, and a section break, and I gradually realize the “I” is the little boy now looking back on who he was then. But I read several times to make sure I haven’t missed a character somewhere. I’ve spent a good five minutes on the opening page, 5 paragraphs, of a short story. I’ve been taken out of the story, big time.

And you know what? It’s ok here. Because once I get it (and if I’d read on instead of going back to look for what I’d missed, I would’ve gotten it much sooner), it’s really kind of cool. The two people, the same people, one as little boy, clueless, distant, and one as adult, present, understanding, observing himself rather than experiencing himself. That clicks with the whole “no sense of self” and other comments along the lines of a kid so frightened, so lost he’s just barely connected to reality. And that’s pretty cool. It’s a cool way to start a novel, and a cool way to subtly establish character. A memorable character with, as he puts it later, parents who are “missing or unreliable.” Once I get it, it doesn’t take me out of story any more, it puts me much more deeply into it.

Maybe the short story workshop – and journal editors so sure readers will zip past anything that even momentarily causes the reader to have to think – should consider that sometimes not every sentence, every paragraph in every story has to be ready for immediate understanding, like simple sugars. A little fiber, some complex carbs, these can be good things, too, even if they slow the process a little bit. Maybe because they slow the process, and get us to consider, when there’s something to consider, as we consume. But I think I’ve ventured into a tortured metaphor here. And I wouldn’t want to take anyone out of the story.

The boy, unnamed and now our first-person narrator, is travelling by ship from Ceylon to England, where he will join his mother. Why they’ve been separated is unexplained in this excerpt. Along the way, he sits at his assigned table, nicknamed “The Cat’s Table” because of it’s poor location, with two other boys his age who become friends and companions in various adventures, and a selection of adults we see just a bit of. He also runs into his seventeen-year-old cousin Emily who is on her way to school in England. She, too, has missing/unreliable parents, but she has reacted to it very differently; of course, she is also a bit older. When the narrator is involved in an incident that eventually results in the death of a wealthy passenger, she advises him to stay quiet about his tangential involvement. He has some glimmer of sexual stirrings that lead to loneliness, tears, and comfort. I’m pretty sure the novel will have a lot to do with their relationship over the years. She is a pretty quick thinker and knows how to get what she wants from men, so it could be very interesting. Several themes are introduced: class differences (“For the first time in our lives, we were interested in the fate of the upper classes; and gradually it became clear to us that Mr. Mazappa and his musical legends, and Mr. Daniels with his plants, who had until then been like gods to us, were only minor characters, there to witness how those with real power progressed or failed in the world”), self-perception (“What was I in those days? I recall no outside imprint, and therefore no perception of myself”), and “what took place behind the thin curtain of art” after the narrator glimpses a performer putting on makeup that gives him a terrifying appearance. None of these are developed, because it’s an excerpt, after all. Maybe they won’t be developed. But I am guessing some of them will be.

As someone who is working on understanding short story structure, plot, flow, and design, I’m again annoyed that what is presented here is not a short story but a novel excerpt, though there is no indication of this in the pages. It’s just after you finish the story and realize, hey, wait, that’s it? and go googling you find out, oh, that’s why it stops in a logical but incomplete place, that’s why the opening seems so strange, that’s why there are so many loose ends, and that’s why once this excerpt is placed in a longer work that obviates these aspects, it’s probably going to be a damn good novel.

One response to “Michael Ondaatje – “The Cat’s Table” from The New Yorker, May 16, 2011

  1. Pingback: Alice Munro: “Gravel” from The New Yorker, 6/27/11 « A Just Recompense

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