Divided lives

Saul Bellow once wrote that “a novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life.” Judging by his work, Booker Prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje believes a novel can be balanced on impressions alone—like a series of notes rung just close enough together to touch.

His breakthrough 1992 book, The English Patient, and its 2000 follow-up, Anil’s Ghost, moved laterally, backward and very occasionally forward through a story on a gust of moods and atmospheres. Pointillism might be long dead in art, but Ondaatje has kept it alive in fiction.

Divisadero, Ondaatje’s long-awaited third novel, is his most evocatively unstructured yet. The novel begins in the 1970s in the California Sierra, skips ahead a few years, then flows backward through time, winding up in France, where it concludes with a story about a long-dead writer, whose life and work has resonance with what comes before.

At the mouth of this unusual narrative’s river is an explosive event. In California, a widowed farmer discovers that his daughter, Anna, has been having an affair with Coop, a young man he has adopted and given work as a laborer. In a fit of rage, he nearly murders the 20-year-old man, and Anna runs off forever. Here is the division alluded to in the title.

Rather than close the gap between these two lives, Ondaatje simply follows them as they unravel from this episode. Coop recovers and winds up in Tahoe, where he becomes a devilishly proficient card sharp. The story of this evolution is briskly, entertainingly told.

In one memorable sequence, Coop retreats to the desert to learn from a master and comes back heartbroken. (He had a chance to win the man’s lover in a hand and didn’t.) His poise is terrific. “He can now deal a pack of cards to the Supreme Court and get away with it,” Ondaatje writes.

While Coop’s sections are told with a clipped, almost card-dealer-like flick of words, Anna’s unfold in a languorous, memory-drenched register. It’s clear she is more haunted by the past than Coop, and she has funneled this instinct into scholarship.

While she is on assignment to research the life of French novelist Lucien Segura, Anna begins “filling a notebook with fragments and even drawings. … If there was a sound of a bird through the open door by her table, she would try to articulate it phonetically on the page.” Accidentally, she becomes a writer.

Finally, there is Claire, the other sister, who runs like a line between Coop and Anna.

As an adult, Claire winds up in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, officiating and helping people in court cases, which create formal divisions, the likes of which her family handles by simply agreeing not to speak of them ever again. With this story alone, Divisadero has plenty of material to chew on, churn, and wrench into a plot, but instead, the novel fractures into many other pieces. Books appear in the hands or at the bedsides of almost every character, like talismans, clues.

“Whenever there is thunder I think of Claire,” says Anna at one point. “There is a poem of Henry Vaughan’s that describes the way ‘care moves in disguise.’ I don’t know if this is what I am doing, from this distance, imagining the life of my sister.”

Here is the other buried treasure in the title. Divisadero comes from the San Francisco street on which Anna used to live. From it, one could derive the Spanish word divisar, or to gaze from a distance.

All the characters regard each other across time, across space. They invent each other as they go along. This division—between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it—is what gives our lives such poignancy, Ondaatje seems to say. It’s why the visible world can feel so close to us and yet so intangible.

This is a beautiful idea, the kind often best tackled by a lyric poem, or, as Anna points out once, a villanelle. But with this elegant, singular book, Michael Ondaatje proves that it is not too brilliant a lodestar to shove straight into the heart of a novel, so long as that novel respects the way time is alone in its determined march forward. Often it leaves most of us behind.