Ondaatje – Coming Through Slaughter

Coming Through SlaughterA Poetic Puzzle

Ondaatje, Michael (1996/1976). Coming Through Slaughter. New York: Vintage.

This is an experimental historical novel based loosely on the true story of Jazz musician Buddy Bolden, a giant of early New Orleans music. He flourished at the beginning of the 20th century, and was one of the inventors of jazz. Hardly anything is known of his life. He rose to fame, disappeared for two years, returned briefly to glory, then went insane. The novel transmits the flavor of that time and place, but there is only one passage (a good one) that actually describes the music.  Instead, Ondaatje’s poetic language and the novel’s fragmented structure convey the sense of that early music and those times in an artistic way.

Short descriptions, dialogs, and narratives make up a pointillistic picture of Bolden’s life and  the Big Easy at that time. Documents and photographs are included to fill in the overall picture.  It’s a snapshot of a time, a place, and a man.  Bolden’s descent into madness is horrifying, believable, and realistic.

Nominally, this is a detective story. Bolden’s best friend, Webb, is searching for Buddy after he disappeared one night. The POV shifts from Webb to Bolden, and often to other characters, without flags, so sometimes it takes a few sentences to understand whose head you’re in. The narration changes unexpectedly among first-person, third-close, and epistolary.

Many scenes are haunting long after the book is finished. The story line is interesting, especially since it is roughly biographical, the writing is lyrical, like prose poetry, and the structure is original. Many pages have only one paragraph on them. Some have song lyrics, lists, hospital forms, or poems. Instead of describing events, Ondaatje lets all these elements form an impression of what happened.

It’s not a mass-market novel. It’s only for people interested in something different. It was written well before The English Patient, when Ondaatje was close to his poetic roots.  It still stands as a masterpiece.

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