Michael Ondaatje, Colum McCann: the words between them

Sunday, June 23, 2013

At Herbsaint Restaurant, on St. Charles, in New Orleans, I turned to look at the wall to my left, and there these musicians were. "That's Buddy Bolden," I said to my husband. And because Coming Through Slaughter is one of those rare books that I've convinced my husband to read, he knew what I was talking about. He knew that Buddy, the horn player, stood at the center of Michael Ondaatje's first novel. He knew that Ondaatje had captured the sound of the man's New Orleans crack up, during a parade down Canal. He knew that few writers thrill me the way Ondaatje does, that I've studied Ondaatje, that once Ondaatje wrote me a postcard in response to a long letter I'd written, and that once my agent, Amy Rennert, gave me a signed copy of Ondaatje's brilliant memoir, Running in the Family, a book I teach at Penn.

Ondaatje's postcard and that signed book two prized possessions.

Meet Buddy Bolden, in the early pages of Coming Through Slaughter:
He puts the towel of steam over a face. Leaving holes for the mouth and the nose. Bolden walks off and talks with someone. A minute of hot meditation for the customer. After school, the kids come and watch the men being shaved. Applaud and whistle when each cut is finished. Place bets on whose face might be under the soap.
Now meet Emily, a character in Colum McCann's expansive and predictably wonderful new novel, Transatlantic. McCann, another of my very favorite writers, a man I once met at the Philadelphia Free Library, my friend Aideen at my side. A man whose friendship with Ondaatje is legendary; acknowledged in the back of McCann's books, Ondaatje is also here, on McCann's website, in conversation.

In this scene from Transatlantic, it's just ahead of the stock market crash. Emily is an American writer born of an Irish mother who is taking a trip with her photographer daughter. She's one of several characters from several time periods who cross back and forth, across the ocean, between Europe and the United States, on the high wire of hope and time, in pursuit of freedom, a word with two syllables and many meanings.
The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more.
Michael Ondaatje and Colum McCann hear the word—and scribe the world—with the same meter. I can't read one without thinking of, or hearing, the other. Those spliced sentences. Those hushed sounds. Those surprising images. Ondaatje and McCann are come-closer writers. Come closer and pause. They are two men whose books are risks ribbed together by pierce and poem. Their sentences smoosh, then stand erect. They whisper, then they startle. They cut each other off and the joinery shocks us, as much as the flow of syllables.

What wouldn't you give to learn from either one? And then to forge your own sound, your own meter.


Liviania said...

They are both tremendous writers. And who better to write about with such rhythm than a jazz musician?

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