Michael Ondaatje Long Fiction Analysis
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has labeled Michael Ondaatje “vital and imaginative,” and American writer Annie Dillard has described Ondaatje’s language as “clean and energetic, with the pop of bullets.” His early works have been aligned with those of modernist poet Wallace Stevens, due to their sharp imagery and lyric voice. The later longer works place Ondaatje, according to critic Douglas Barbour, firmly within the tradition of poet Ezra Pound, with a jostled imagery that some critics have labeled incoherent. Others categorize such “incoherency” as a legitimate postmodern approach to writing, most specifically displayed in Ondaatje’s extension and mixing of genres. This “collage” approach allows him to combine fragmented documentary information with narrative and lyric, as in The Man with Seven Toes and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, permitting a separation from lyric subjectivity through the blending of several points of view. Ondaatje investigates the modernist romantic figure of the artist as self-destructive without becoming self-destructive himself.
Barbour has also mentioned the poet’s move toward postcolonialism with works such as In the Skin of a Lion, even though Ondaatje has declared himself uninterested in public politics. The publication of The English Patient and later of Anil’s Ghost, with its themes of nationalism and political violence, has intensified discussion of postcolonialism in Ondaatje’s work.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje synthesizes fact with legend in a fictional “journey into the mind” of the notorious historical figure William Bonney, known as Billy the Kid. The work’s style may confuse readers accustomed to the traditional linear storytelling approach. A familiarity with the common postmodern use of collage, or a mixing of times and narratives, will aid readers in adjusting to the nontraditional writing. Ondaatje moves in and out of time, leaving gaps in his narrative, revising the traditional Western while rewriting the Old West and Billy’s character. Eventually the work makes obvious the crucial nature of these narrative gaps. William Bonney’s biography is so well known that Ondaatje remains confident of his readers’ capability to fill in any breaks in his particular retelling of the historical “facts.” Whatever readers make of the book, it remains one of the most frequently interpreted Canadian works.
Most critics take a thematic approach to the work, focusing on the opposition between Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett. Seen as dichotomous figures, they may represent life versus death, chaos versus order, creation versus destruction. However, these figures should not be reduced to a simple binary opposition of good and evil, although their contradictory relationship may be seen as the cause of Billy’s self-destructive behavior. Also, the work remains too complicated to be classified in mythic terms of the hero’s—or, in this case, the antihero’s—quest for identity through pursuit of a father figure. While the traditional hero often metaphorically “kills” his father in order to be “born” his own person, in Ondaatje’s (and history’s) ironic twist on that myth, the father figure (Pat Garrett) kills the son, literally shooting Billy dead. Some might see that act as the only manner by which the dichotomy represented by Billy’s life can be resolved. The almost immediate surfacing of a theme of detachment offers readers a focal point for Billy and his bizarre conceptions of violence and the grotesque. To the gunslinger, killing remains a profession; he detaches himself by viewing violence in a poetic manner. According to some, Billy represents the dual aspects of outlaw and artist inherent in Ondaatje himself.
Using a 1926 account by Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid, on which to base the documentary aspects of his book, Ondaatje also adopts Burns’s approach toward Billy as more hero than outlaw. Ondaatje begins with his hero’s death as preliminary to the creating of his life, suggesting an existence resembling a phoenix rising from the ashes for a man whose legend began with the bullet that ended his life. Billy’s narrative voice hints at the difficult task that awaits the reader when he refers early on to his story as a “maze.” The widely varying classifications of the work’s form as poem, docudrama, fiction, and prose poem demonstrate the reader’s implication in the text. Each individual brings an interpretation to a story already well known, an interpretation that revolves more on the manner of the story’s telling than on the matter of the story itself. Thus, Ondaatje involves his audience in the creation of the work.
Readers must pay equal attention to the two storytellers present here—Billy and Ondaatje. Though Billy tells of a relationship with Miss Angela Dickinson of Tucson, no such person exists in historical accounts. However, one of Ondaatje’s favorite actors bears that name. The act of acting may be emphasized simply to keep readers focused on the dramatic license all writers assume. Angela represents the sexual “bad girl” versus the work’s other female figure, Sallie Chisum, a true historical figure, the “good girl” of Ondaatje’s version. In this manner the author supplies the balance to his story that readers desire while he subverts the truth readers may demand from his saga.
The book opens with an empty space that is labeled a photo, suggesting that Billy the Kid cannot be fixed in space and time. That Billy gives an account of himself following his announced death, when he no longer exists as a corporeal reality, suggests the difficulty readers encounter in trying to affix to him a certain identity. As Barbour points out, the character questions the accounts of his life and death, particularly pertaining to the violence in which he engages. When Billy asks the question of his readers, “Was there a source for all this?” his language insists that readers view at least two meanings for the term “source.” First, “source” refers to that within Billy that supports his actions; second, it refers to that account on which the reader depends for the judgments that he or she, and history, will pass on Billy. Billy’s question promotes the postmodern interrogation of history as truth versus storytelling that remains contingent on circumstance and subjectivity. The book’s final scene remains true to the entire account, offering gruesome and gripping imagery of life and death (Billy’s) but no explanation of either. The only...
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