Remember man books and woman books? If not, you should probably review the subject here, because I am going to use this model a bit in reviewing Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, which I categorize as a woman book written by a man. Keep in mind that I mean nothing pejorative or condescending or emasculating about this statement in any way. I value actual men and actual women equally, and I have equal respect for the literary quality (or at least for the potential literary quality) of man books and woman books. It is true that I have certain personal preferences on this subject, which may or may not already be clear to you and which may or may not become even clearer over the course of this review, but I don’t claim the right to subjugate or dismiss an entire gender of the literary canon. Gosh, no. I would never do that.
I think this is the first novel I have read of Ondaatje’s. I may have read The English Patient back in college, but I don’t think so. I know that I purchased the book for a class that I meant to take but ended up dropping, and I know that I kept the book because I wanted to read it. I think I probably started reading it but didn’t finish it (I had zero tolerance for woman books back in those days; not so today). I both liked and disliked The Cat’s Table. I certainly found it quick and easy to read, while also fairly complex in its structure and in the exposition of the emotional life of its protagonist.
The bulk of the novel concerns a three-week ocean voyage undertaken in around 1950 by the then-eleven year-old protagonist, Michael, who apparently both is and is not Michael Ondaatje. Certainly the protagonist grows up to become a writer of some renown who lives first in England and then in Canada, like the real-life Ondaatje, who is careful to disclaim on the book’s acknowledgements page that his novel is a work of fiction and that no journey like the one in the novel ever took place. Regardless of where the line between fiction and memoir lies in this book, there is no doubt that Ondaatje intends us to ask questions about things like truth and fiction and the reliability of memory. And who doesn’t like to ask questions about these sorts of things? I know I do.
The purpose of Michael’s journey is to travel from Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he has been living with his uncle, to England, where his mother will be meeting him. The reasons for Michael’s transitory existence at the age of eleven are never fully explained, and Michael seems to accept them without question and with very little emotion, in both his pre-adolescent and adult incarnations. On the ship, Michael is billeted with a man named Mr. Hastie – a ship employee who is initially charged with caring for the ship’s kennels but who spends more of his time reading novels and hosting bridge tournaments in the room he shares with Michael. In the hierarchical world of the ship, Michael is assigned to eat his meals at the “cat’s table,” which is located farthest from the captain’s table and is therefore the place of the lowest possible status among the ticketed passengers on the ship. At the cat’s table, Michael meets two more unaccompanied minors – serial iconoclast and future artist Cassius and the timid, wise, and overweight Ramadhin, who has a heart condition that endangers his life and is later to become Michael’s brother-in-law. They also meet a number of mysterious adults – a professional pianist, a botanist, a professional ‘ship dismantler,’ and a young female spy who befriends Michael’s cousin Emily, who is also a passenger on the ship but seated at a superior table.
On the one hand, this novel is an adventure story about a journey that on some level is a young boy’s dream vacation – and Michael and his friends do some of the sorts of things that one would expect young boys to do on a journey like this one: they hide in the lifeboats, where they eavesdrop on the other passengers and eat the stores of emergency chocolate bars; they sneak into the first class area to swim in the pool before dawn; they befriend ship employees and are invited into the kennels, the engine rooms, and other places of interest; they spy on the nightly abovedeck walks that are allotted to a prisoner who is being transported to England for trial; on one occasion, Cassius and Michael even persuade Ramadhin to die them to the decks of the ship during a cyclone so they can see what it is like to be in the midst of a powerful storm (an episode that, for these pre-adolescents who show little sign of sexual awakening at this time in their lives, seems a child’s version of Odysseus’ demand that he be tied to the mast of his ship when it passes the island of the Sirens – an attempt to gain knowledge of a destructive power without being destroyed by it themselves). And a reader can take a certain amount of vicarious joy in living through these experiences with Michael and his friends. But there is also a certain emotional damper placed over Michael’s adventures that makes it hard for us to become totally enmeshed in his experiences. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer this novel is not.
For one thing, none of the characters that Michael meets on the ship are really as interesting as they should be. The ship dismantler never actually dismantles anything, and the female spy is a total snooze. The wealthy, semi-comatose rabies victim who is traveling to England for treatment is mildly fascinating, but he dies of a second dog bite before he can have any raving fits. The prisoner becomes the center of a larger story and is the link that connects the lives of some of the other passengers in that literary way that lives are often connected in novels, but not in a way that I found either personally compelling or essential to the story of Michael’s experience on the ship. The only character that I think has the potential to come to life is Cassius, but even he is dampened by Ondaatje’s narrative style, and he never really becomes the catalyzing force that the novel’s exposition seems to prepare him to be. I can’t figure out if I think these failures of development add up to a narrative failure on Ondaatje’s part or are something he has done for effect, to suggest a certain flatness about Michael’s life and the people in it.
I know – I promised you some elaboration about the distinction between man books and woman books, and in the past I’ve always been rather nebulous about exactly what this distinction means. Well here goes. If this were a man book, it would be told as follows: first Michael would board the ship, and we would see the actions of his family members as they bid farewell to him in the harbor in a way that would allow us to judge them for ourselves, rather than letting the first-person narrative voice explain to us that these relatives treat Michael indifferently.
(In general, the authors of woman books were absent on the day they taught show-don’t-tell in writer school. They probably all had their periods that day. Oh wait – I said I wouldn’t be judgmental. NEVER MIND.)
A man book can certainly be told in the first person, and it can be told by a narrator who is an older version of the protagonist and who occasionally comments on the story as it unfolds, but the first-person narrators in man books tend to be more effaced. They pop their heads out of their little groundhog-holes occasionally to say things like “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry” (That’s from The Great Gatsby, in case you didn’t get the reference, and no, I don’t know what it means either), but otherwise they tend to step back and let the readers forget that they are there, and for the most part I think that’s a good thing. The tendency of first-person narrators in woman books to be overly intrusive strikes me as a sign of insecurity on the part of author or narrator or both, as if one or the other in this duo is not confident either of his/her ability to tell the story effectively or of the reader’s ability to interpret the story correctly. There is often a sense of tacit apology in the narration of woman books.
After the exposition, a man-book version of The Cat’s Table would proceed linearly through Michael’s three weeks on the ship, and I want to say that it would let loose and allow the reader to experience a little more joy in Michael’s adventures. Now. I’ve already said that the scrim of melancholy that overlays Michael’s adventures and prevents me as a reader from really enjoying them may well be intentional on Ondaatje’s part, and if it is I’m not entirely sure that I disapprove. After all, Michael is just one step away from being an abandoned child. Some of his antics on the ship are harmless, but in other instances he is truly in danger (like when he and Cassius tie themselves to the deck during the storm, for example, and also during Michael’s stint as an assistant to someone called “the Baron,” who is definitely a petty thief and possibly also a child molester, as literary characters with vague aristocratic titles most often are), and on these occasions no one is looking out for him – in spite of the fact that his older cousin Emily and an “aunt” (really an older woman who is friends with one of his aunts) are present on the ship and occasionally make attempts to act as the guardians that they are supposed to be. If a sense of foreboding and danger hangs over this novel, I am not at all going to claim that it does so inappropriately. But I do think that this gloominess is part of what makes this novel a woman book. Man books like to live a little.
So few of the secondary characters in this novel are ever allowed to speak for themselves. Even Ramadhin and Cassius exist only in shadow form, their words and actions summarized by the adult Michael. Perinetta Lasqueti, the denizen of the cat’s table previously referred to as “the female spy” speaks for herself near the end of the novel in a series of extensive letters that she writes to Michael and to Emily – and that’s fine, and these letters do reveal helpful information, but by the time these letters appear (in the last 50 pages of the novel) my imagination had already decided that it was not especially interested in Perinetta Lasqueti, and that paradigm, like most paradigms, was hard to shift around.
Is it always true that a character becomes less and less interesting as she is viewed through increasing numbers of filters or lenses – as opposed to when she tells her own story on the page, man-novel fashion? Probably not. Is it often true? I think yes. How is it that Dickens can spend a page (one four-hundredth of the novel) on the meanderings of the seemingly-unimportant Mrs. Pegler in Hard Times only to shift his focus away from her for hundreds of pages, then return to her close to the end of the novel in a way that is entirely captivating? I care more about Mrs. Pegler in Hard Times than I do about any of the characters in this novel, and it bothers me that this is true.
I admire the artistry and lyricism of this novel, and I respect Ondaatje as a writer. I did keep returning faithfully to this novel until I finished it, and I wasn’t bored exactly, although it’s also true that my mind wandered quite a bit and I had to keep forcing myself to reread passages until I had processed them – especially when the novel leaves the ship and ventures out into Michael’s future and those of Emily, Cassius, Ramadhin, Perinetta Lasqueti, and others. Man books move forward using momentum: they build up speed and keep going until they crash. This novel – and most woman books, I think – using something else: torque, centrifugal forces, some combination of gravity and inertia like the kind that keeps the planets in orbit. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon and want to continue to pull it apart and understand it.
But yeah, I’ll admit it. I like man books better. But you knew that.