Last night our book club discussed Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje. I finished the book a few weeks ago and spent the time since anticipating the discussion. I had high hopes—I needed to figure out what to think about the book and I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own.
Although I won’t give story spoilers, the following might spoil some of what-all there is to talk about regarding this book, so proceed with caution.
As you well know, novels usually have a plot. I don’t know if the term as applied to stories is in any way related to the term as applied to charting data, but we do often talk about both types of plot using similar descriptors: We have plot lines, we have story arcs, we describe a plot as circular.
The unsettling feature of Divisadero is that the plot might best be described in charting terms as a step function. It’s not technically an apt description, but it’ll do. There’s a small amount of continuity between the otherwise fairly unrelated stories. Also, “unrelated” isn’t a good word, but I couldn’t put my finger on a better one; the stories are related to varying extents.
Divisadero begins with the story of a cobbled-together family on a California farm in the mid-20th century, and although the three siblings do figure—sometimes prominently, often not—throughout the rest of the book, the novel moves without plot-driven break from one nearly self-contained vignette to another, non-linearly spanning decades and continents. Divisadero is almost like a set of short stories; it’s almost like an arc-driven novel but with major plot points missing; it’s almost like hang-on-every-word poetry.
The progression of the novel is measured not in the growth of its characters, nor the unveiling of secrets, nor in the illumination of greater truths, but in the reader’s own experience of the stories, the characters, and the settings. I keep thinking about the book because my mind keeps filling in holes, or wondering how the holes might be filled in. Or I remember a scene. Or I think about how Ondaatje managed to convey so much richness by leaving so much unsaid.
Because of this unusual framework, all of us at book club had a tough time figuring out what we thought about the book. And so we had an excellent discussion. Nobody had started out severely disliking it, but by the end of our gathering I do think most of our opinions of the book improved. I know mine did.
It’s the poetic aspect of the storytelling that I think is the book’s major draw. The language is beautiful, and each story evokes vivid imagery, whether it’s of the California working-farmer life, the seediness of gambling life, or the life of a writer in the French countryside.
Even now, after weeks of pondering and an evening of insightful conversation, I’m unable to put more words to my non-linguistic impressions of this book. I’ll sum up as such: I highly recommend you read Divisadero. And I highly recommend you find someone or a group of people to talk about it with once you’ve finished. It’s a slow burn, both during the reading and in the weeks that ensue, which, if nothing else, signifies to me that in my struggle to decide whether I think the book was mediocre or genius, genius wins.