So this novel appeared on my course list for a Photography unit I’m doing, here in the winter of ’15. In amongst the Benjamins and the Barthes and the novels who encase their stories in a hall of mirrors- their obsession with the word/image interplay a banal polyp of smugly spreading metaphor- this book seemed a little anomalous. Bold in itself, but a little quizzical towards the kind it was rubbing shoulders with.
Reading it, the phrase “historiographical metafiction” reached out a scrawny-chicken arm and waved from behind a long-drawn arras of thought. It was a phrase I’d come across after taking up the last Ondaatje novel (again a syllabus text, but this as a first year undergrad), In the Skin of a Lion. The marble-mouthful designates a kind of postmodern novel, which complicates the boundaries between metafiction and historical fiction, testing claims to truth by your typical biography, and frequently intercutting its prose with all kinds of material from all kinds of different sources (especially non-fiction), whilst also roping itself to various other texts through the hat-tip/appropriative device of allusion. A theorist called Linda Hutcheon describes it as: “those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages.”
Reading another from the Ondaatje oeuvre confirmed to me the Canadian author’s penchant for this kind of writing-by-assemblage. His shtick is to crack open historical uncertainties- give invented light to the liminal- and experimentally assort the chaos in a kind of justice-and-curiosity-driven poetic. Whereas Skin of a Lion stitched together stories from the forgotten lives of immigrant workers- those anonymous gangs hoisting up bridges and towers in Toronto in the early 1900’s and growing polychromatically mottled and animal-fat rank within the city’s monstrous tanneries- Coming Through Slaughter chooses as its personage of inquiry and epicenter of bricolage a real-life New Orleans ragtime musician called Buddy Bolden, who blew hard, loud and wheeling on his clarinet during the forties, and at the age of 31, went mad.
This is the baseline we work from. But the novel- mimicking Buddy in his improvisational jazz style- breaks with plot and most conventions in all manner of crazy ways. The novel begins by setting loose no less than four detectives, each on the hunt for the elusive, speechless (coz he dead) Bolden, whose music was never recorded- his legacy never pressed into wax (a terrifying thought for the all-shall-be-archived-and-I-shall-live-forever generation of today). First detective in the crew is the author, Ondaatje, the architect of the quest, girded by his own, unknown motives. Then there’s the narrator (set somewhere in the future) hunting Buddy’s ghost on the streets he used to live, not only as muso, but barber, pamphleteer, father and philanderer too. There is the cop character of Webb- Buddy’s old-time friend, playing sleuth because it turns out Buddy went missing, left his wife and kids, and left a friend called Pinckett with his face in red-laced ribbons after taking a Sweeney turn at the barbers one night, for reasons no one can surely explain. And finally, last on the scene (and in my case, most flat-footed), there is the reader, who is always cast in the role of detective when it comes to a text; actively thunking their way through the narratives clues and mashing it against their own knowledge to juice meaning out of the various signs and “evidence” therein. Each of these various “sleuths” are driven by different objectives, have access to different stores of knowledge, and are very likely reach their own separate conclusions about who Bolden is, and what the hell was his story.
It is an odd, unruly and piercingly evocative book. It seems I only read odd, unruly and piercingly evocative books nowadays. But that’s all right- I got most of my Shakespeare and Dickens out of the way when I was in highschool. Playing hermit in the library at lunch. What a sickly bower, what a sad time. Isn’t it awful that everything we live, we can’t get out of our bones? Setting looped railtracks in ourselves. Even when we go past the station, don’t even shift in our seats, the past signals us still, winks its soggy blood-shot eye. Nothing to do but keep shoveling though. Anyway.
Upon the novel’s release, critics enveloped it in a glowing orb of reception, their comments giddy with superlatives. Waxes Time Out: ‘the downtown world of bars, whores, streetlife bursting with music is evoked so vividly, so pungently you seem to breathe in the atmosphere…I haven’t been so excited by a a new writer for a long time’. Chimes in The Musician: ‘Not only the best jazz novel ever written, but one of the best novels of any kind published in English in the last ten years. Ondaatje builds up his portrait of Bolden’s black New Orleans through an accumulation of small, sometimes infinitesimal details.’
I found it a quick set of octane-loaded breaths, with coily poetics and a deadly spring in its heart. A daring, slippery slip of a thing. Even in its layout, it’s unique; aping its page structure and narrative logic on the kind of improvisation-driven riffs that chivvied Bolden and worked his blood (to hopeful synaesthetic effect). It’s set so words rarely trickle to the bottom of the page, so (a visual metaphor?) we never really get to ‘the bottom of things’.
In the dearth of hard facts about Buddy, Ondaatje “presents Bolden’s life as a bricolage of heterogenous discourses and voices…mingling history with fiction and document and narrative, yet offers no authoritative synthesis of them”. His body (which decayed into death over the last thirty years of his life he spent in an asylum) is neither resurrected nor reconstructed, but instead”re-storied.” Some accounts, Bolden’s (first person) and Webb’s (third) are fabricated. Others are lifted right out of interviews and books- a monologue from Martin Williams’ Jazz Masters of New Orleans, interview extracts from Jazz Archive tapes, a passage about the East Louisiana State Hospital from a institutional dossier.
This abutment of different sources is pretty unusual. It performs a kind of “unpicking”- between the conventional relationships of reader to text, text to history. It reminds us that history is always a piecemeal affair, a scraping together of existing evidence. A “making do” with whatever detritus is available to us, and that is commensurable and reconcilable to whatever purposes or mandates the writer is subscribed or subordinate to. It reminds us also that history and its transmission is purely the business of semiotics (in fact, this separation between History and Literature, and the former’s claims to absolute objectivity, occurred only with Enlightenment, at the dawn of the 18th century).
To elaborate: what happened “back then” (whenever then was) is an inarticulable event. Yet through partly serendipitous, partly ideological discursive processes, this event becomes recuperated/distorted/calcified into “fact” by way of necessity, and under the auspices of “knowledge”. Yet despite our efforts and good intentions, history remains a shifting, rattling skeleton, whose bones are made-up, and which tells us nothing of the living flesh of things that disintegrated as soon as it moved- as soon as the whole impossible organism flowed through time.
Oh and hey, I mentioned at the top, didn’t I, that this is a book I’m supposed to studying around the theme of the image. Well, the most obvious case of this is in the character of Bollocq. A man also drawn from real-life, Bellocq was a short and crippled French-man who solicited the prostitutes in the Burlesque Quarter of New Orleans, not for sex, but for their image from the eye of his camera. His secret stash of photographs (numbering in their hundreds) was discovered after his death, and the aesthetics, composition, and respect to his subjects (whom he rarely made salacious, tawdry) recognized. Although the gentle, tortured pervert never laid a finger on their actual bodies, many of the pictures, however, were discovered to be in some way “mutilated”- their faces scratched out, their throats garroted by neat incision of a blade. Although he probably never crossed paths with Bolden in reality, in the book the characters form an unexpected companionship. But Bellocq’s contempt for Buddy’s spontaneous approach to creation, and his own morbid fascination, corrupts the musician. It is this contrast between their two attitudes towards art that turns Bolden’s creative fervour inward, makes it destructive, ultimately paralyzing and destroying him. Every artist’s nightmare.
Manina Jones suggests in the novel Bellocq “takes the role of the private eye to violent voyeuristic extremes…His actions suggesting the brutal frustration that results from his position as outsider, as documentary photographer who perceives himself unable to engage — either sexually or aesthetically — with the subjects of his art: “The cuts add a three-dimensional quality to each work. Not just physically, though you can almost see the depth of the knife slashes, but also because you think of Bellocq wanting to enter the photographs, to leave his trace on the bodies”.
I guess we too, as detective- that snoop, that agitator of sleeping dogs, that mutilator of the once-forgotten- also enact a kind of violence on that which we seek to understand. Awful thought, isn’t it- that thought is a kind of violence. That our minds disfigure and corrupt everything they touch. I can hardly bear to think of it.
It was Bolden who had jumped up, who had swallowed everything Webb was. Webb left with the roots of Bolden’s character, the old addresses they passed through. A month after Bolden had moved Webb went to the city and, unseen, tracked Buddy for several days. Till the Saturday when he watched his nervous friend walk jauntily out of the crowed into the path of a parade and begin to play. So hard and so beautifully that Webb didn’t have to wait for the reactions of the people, he simply turned and walked till he no longer heard the music or the roar he imagined crowding round to suck that joy. That power. (31)
But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot- see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right, accidental notes. (32)
Horror of noise. And then the break when he cannot breathe calm and he vomits out smoke and throws himself against the red furniture, against the chairs on fire and he crashes finally into the wall, only there is no wall any more only a fire curtain and he disappears into and through it as if diving through a wave and emerging red on the other side. In an incredible angle. He has expected the wall to be there and his body has prepared itself so his shape is constricted against an imaginary force looking as if he has come up against an invisible structure in the air’. (64)
And then finding home in the warm gust of soup smells that cam through pavement grids from the subterranean kitchens which kept him in their heart, so he traveled from one to another and slept over them at night drunk with the smell of vegetables, saved from the storms that came purple over the lake while he sat in the rain. Warm as a greenhouse over the grid, the heat waves warping, disintegrating his body. (36)
He called Cornish. Everybody’s ear. Made him drink and listen to him. LISTEN! Drinking so much the rhetoric of fury at everyone disintegrated into repetition and lies and fantasies. Dreamt up morning encounters between Nora and the whole band. Towards 4 o clock in the morning both of them were frozen with drinks in their hands, unable to move. Bolden was lying across three chairs muttering up to the ceiling…He lay there crucified and drunk. Brought his left wrist to his teeth and bit hard and harder for several seconds then lost his nerve. Flopped it back outstretched. Going to sleep while feeling his vein tingling at the near chance it had of almost going free. Ecstasy before death. It marched through him while he slept. (76)
You don’t think much of this music, do you? Not yet, he said. Him watching me waste myself and wanting me to step back into my body as if into a black room and stumble against whatever was there. (88)
The right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of. (92)
Cricket noises and Cricket music for that is what we are when watched by people bigger than us. (112)
And my brain atrophied and soaked in the music I avoid, like milk traveling over the border into cheese. (117)
Who could not talk just strained his body and head against the wall behind him as if he were trying to escape the smell of her words as if the air from her talking came into his mouth and filled it puffed it up with poison so the brain was put to sleep and he could do nothing with it only react in his flesh. (153)