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Read This One: C Pam Zhang on Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero

by Colin Winnette
March 6th, 2020

“Reading Ondaatje is like taking a road trip with your oddest but most trustworthy and intelligent friend. You can’t predict where you’re going, but you can relax into being a passenger. Authority draws me to a piece of writing above all else; it rises above style or genre.”

Three of C Pam Zhang’s Recommended Accompaniments for Divisadero:
A long walk
Dappled light
Very large sunglasses (for the light, and also for hiding tears)

For this series, I ask writers I admire to recommend a book. I read it, then we talk about it. For this installment, C Pam Zhang recommended Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje.

C Pam Zhang’s debut novel How Much of These Hills is Gold is a shredder of a western about two Chinese orphans trying to bury their father in the waning days of the American gold rush. It’s a beautifully written novel about greed, the rotting corpse of history, and some of the blinding flaws of American self-mythologizing. Somehow both prickly and tender, it refuses to sit still, showing us so much of what we might have missed, and just how much there is to see.

Divisadero is in good company with Zhang’s novel, as it steps into and chops up the past, in a different way. On a prose level, it’s some of the most compelling writing I’ve read in the past year, and structure-wise it follows a trajectory unlike any novel I’ve read before. We leapfrog through time and place, drifting in and out of characters’ heads, both side and main, which makes for a reading experience I can only describe as pure Ondaatje.

—Colin Winnette

THE BELIEVER: To anyone unfamiliar with the book, what would be your quick description of Divisadero?

C PAM ZHANG: A lyrical collage of a book about identity and family and fracture. The thing I usually say to explain—or, perhaps, to excuse Divisadero—is that I heard a rumor that Michael Ondaatje deliberately wrote this book to be non-chronological, and thus un-adaptable, after The English Patient was turned into a movie.

BLVR: Excuse is an interesting word. Do you think there’s something unacceptable about this book? Or something that most readers would find objectionable?

CPZ: Ha. I can be quite the book bully/pedant. There have been a few instances, maybe, of my insisting that a loved one read a book I know is challenging, is perpendicular to their tastes, is downright dense or thorny. Several of those adjectives fit Divisadero, which quietly explodes notions of what a book is supposed to be. I keep hoping that I can expand my loved ones’ boundaries, and that somewhere past exasperation is the bliss of a new world rushing in. Or something like that. (I also recommend books I know people will enjoy, I’m not completely awful.)

BLVR: How did this book come into your life?

CPZ: I don’t remember how it came to me. Only that I read it late into the night, growing sleepier as I grew more invested. Late at night is the right state of mind for receiving this book, I think—that liminal state when logic begins to leak away anyhow and you care less about plot. I stopped caring about plot. I sobbed through the last sections, and when I woke up the next day I knew this book was was a work of genius, though I wasn’t sure how it worked.

BLVR: Chapter-to-chapter, the novel is mutable—changing focus, style, tense, etc., as it goes—increasingly so toward the end of the book. How do you read those changes? Are they jarring to you? Smooth?

CPZ: Oh the book absolutely makes no sense chapter to chapter by the end. You’re being very tactful. There is no chronology. The lesson I take from Divisadero is that without plot, without logic, you can have a novel follow a purely emotional arc—the reading experience for me was like tunneling deeper and deeper into someone’s heart. Whose heart, it doesn’t matter.

The first couple of section changes are smoother since they at least follow previously introduced characters. It’s like Ondaatje is craftily leading us by the hand, wading into the shallow end of the pool. Then he dunks us.

BLVR: In that sense, it’s not so different from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a much shorter Ondaatje book that’s also a real shapeshifter. The effect is different, though, because that book has a grounding historical figure at its center, and the leaps are so wide as to include poetry, photography, diary entries, third person prose, etc. This book almost tricks you into thinking it’s a more traditional novel, as you say, before it starts zigging and zagging.

As I was reading Divisadero, I did start to wonder who, or what, I was following. As you say, the associations are much tighter toward the beginning, following family members and characters we’ve already spent time with. But those associations become broader as we go, until it almost seems beside the point to try and connect them. In your reading, what are we following as the novel progresses, if anything?

CPZ: I didn’t get this on my first reading, or even my second, but my current theory is that we are following the consciousness of a grown-up Anna after the traumatic events of the book’s first section. Adult Anna has learned to be the ultimate watcher. She’s an archivist, by profession inhabiting and reconstructing the lives of others. She can’t bear to reconcile with her family in the flesh, yet she still has a primal need for them—one that she satisfies by imagining their lives in great detail, with texture and shadow, with such authority it reads like a scene. It’s the same way that she imagines, in the book’s last section, the life of the writer she’s been researching. In this reading, Divisadero bears some spiritual kinship with Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, in which the reader is invited to consider the meta-narrative, the truth or fiction of a story told by a fictional character.

Of course that’s just a crude attempt to make the book coherent. There are probably sections that break this rule of Anna the Watcher. I’m in awe of this, as I’m in awe of the way—if you noticed—Ondaatje changes tense and point of view three times in the first several pages. An intimate first person present with Anna the adult, then a distant third person present on Claire the child alone in a field, then a plural first person past for Anna and Claire together. Ondaatje breaks rules and that’s where the magic comes in—through the cracks and bends. I admire this so deeply. I often feel, in my own writing, that I’m struggling to break past trope and the expected shape of a narrative, to go beyond the story I think I should be writing and find the rawer shape beneath. Do you feel that too? Your work is—and I say this as the utmost compliment—very weird.

BLVR: Ha! Actually, in the past, I’ve felt I had to go back in and add things to help a story or a novel make more “sense,” or be more familiar and accessible. Almost the opposite of what you’re saying, I think. If my novels are weird, it’s because I’m pretty weird. That’s part of what attracted me to genre—you can get away with a lot more if people have been pre-trained to trust your structure. But I think I’m bad at talking about my own novels, and I feel drawn to the old David Lynch line, “The film is the talking.” I think a lot about my novels before I write them, and a lot of thought goes into them, but imagine the kinds of thoughts one must have to write such weird things, then imagine being asked to express those thoughts in any way other than the book itself. As you prepare for your novel’s release, do you feel yourself chaffing against demands to discuss it, or is it a more productive enterprise for you?

CPZ: The first time I was asked to summarize my own novel in a few sentences, I basically broke out in hives. Distilling down my eighty thousand words seemed not only repugnant but morally wrong, somehow. The longer I sit with the extremity of my first reaction, though, the more I think it’s a bit naïve, a bit indulgent, and quite a bit privileged.

I remind myself that I’m lucky to get to wear two hats: writer and author. The writer is private and takes eighty thousand words to convey a delicate, nuanced, sensitive point; the author is public and leads people to the writer’s work. It’s an interesting intellectual challenge to be an author, a second job. (A difficult job with a steep learning curve—I understand why some writers reject the position altogether.)

BLVR: You’re absolutely right. We’re both lucky. Truth is, anytime I get an invitation to talk about my work I feel immediately thrilled and excited, then about two seconds later: absolutely terrified. After that, there’s a kind of, “Time to get to work,” internal rally I have to do. But I do love writing, and I love talking about writing, and how great is it to get these opportunities to do both? It’s weird—I don’t know if this is true in your case—but I studied writing for close to seven years, in college, and in my MFA program, but almost none of that time was spent studying how to be an author. I kind of left school feeling like I’d be a student forever, which is useful at times, but can also lead me to think and say super naïve things. You’re absolutely right to make the distinction here, and to point out the necessity of both sides of our coin.

On to Divisadero! As a San Fransisco resident, does this book hold any particular significance to your relationship to the city?

CPZ: Not the city, but California, yes. Ondaatje has a way of writing about the landscape and its small, insignificant details—the varieties of tree, a gradient of temperature, the way a sheet of tin must be nailed down—that is so absolutely loving. Attention is love, I think. He may be the greatest writer of California.

BLVR: This might be part of the reward of a slippery book like this. Wherever he goes, he pays such close, careful attention to the next subject, it’s hard not to be on the ride with him. In the hands of a lesser writer, we might feel frustrated, wanting to get back to characters or storylines we liked more. With this book, I was right there with him, having no idea where we were headed, but happy to read each new line.

CPZ: Yes! It’s Ondaatje’s aura of absolute authority. A lesser writer might tackle the same topics and scenes but suffer from telltale signs of indecision, of wavering. A lesser writer might simply write pretty sentences because, well, doesn’t a book need pretty sentences?—but I think readers can sense when a sentence is merely ornamental, when it doesn’t inevitably tumble into the next sentence, and the next. To riff off your ride metaphor, reading Ondaatje is like taking a road trip with your oddest but most trustworthy and intelligent friend. You can’t predict where you’re going, but you can relax into being a passenger. Authority draws me to a piece of writing above all else; it rises above style or genre.

BLVR: Speaking of genre, would you categorize this book as a romance?

CPZ: The last section is most definitely a romance, perhaps even a melodrama, perhaps even cheesy and excessive—if the last section had come first. To circle back to your question of structure, in a way the novel is about how Anna’s heart was closed by certain events in her childhood, then slowly reopened. Hence the emotional arc being privileged over the plot. The last section is soppingly romantic because it has earned it.

BLVR: What did you make of Coop’s attraction to gambling, his mastery of it? It came as a surprise to me, and felt so far from what I imagined was possible for that character when I met him.

CPZ: I’ll fess up: I’ve read this book a dozen times. The first time I was piqued by Coop’s section, the second and third times impatient, and the last times I skipped reading it altogether. And yet I think this is a perfect book. I’m still interrogating how I believe both can be true—that the book is perfect, and that I can skip a whole chunk of it.

BLVR: What is it about Coop’s section that draws you out? I’ll admit, of all the various sections in here, this one feels the most like a totally separate book. Almost a thriller or something.

CPZ: Hm. Maybe it’s that Coop is never emotionally porous to us. Even in the opening section that depicts him as a young person, his interior life is an enigma. When we reencounter Anna and Claire as adults, it moved me to see how they’d closed themselves off—the contrast was where the interest lay. Coop doesn’t get the benefit of the contrast, perhaps. I drift away from him. There is nothing to tether me.

Also—I was younger when I first read the book, I was different, the world was different too. Nowadays, I’m impatient with straight white cis male characters who brood. I’m quite happy to skip them and read about complex, talented, twisted, brilliant, beautiful, ugly women and LGBTQ+ and non-binary and racially diverse characters. The bar is set pretty high for me to pay attention to someone like Coop.

BLVR: I just want to say I love this. The idea that one can love a book as much as you love this one, but still set aside the parts that are unhelpful or unproductive, or that don’t speak to you. I think you’re the first author to recommend a book they only read in parts. Are there other books you return to in this way?

CPZ: The Corrections can so deftly beat through the thicket of metaphor that it rattles me, but I never need to read its poop hallucination scenes again. I mentioned the brilliant Trust Exercise earlier; I’ll probably skim the first section on my reread because I have less to learn from it, stylistically. I pick and choose from John Cheever’s and Angela Carter’s collections. Woolf’s sentences are magic, but—

I recently lurked on a Twitter conversation between Namwali Serpell and Ingrid Rojas Contreras about Woolf’s wearing blackface. It was an ugly jolt, though far from the first of its kind. So many writers experience this jolting, which makes us reevaluate heroes we once held up as unimpeachable, who were our early teachers in style in beauty. It would be dishonest to say I can scrub my mind completely of these problematic writers’ influence. I’d like to think there’s a way to both accept their undeniable influence on me, and also condemn their failings. Put another way: can I plunder only the best from writers that came before me, can I ravage and ransack and their style for my own benefit, as callously as a colonizer myself? I read books in parts because that’s a natural product of pruning my personal canon to reflect stylistic and political growth. I don’t want to grow stagnant.

BLVR: When we were setting this up, you asked which cover I got, and it made me wonder, what does the book cover mean to you? How significant is a book cover in your mind, and what was the nature of your interest?

CPZ: I am obsessive about book covers. My first book-loves were borrowed from the children’s sections of public libraries, which meant they came in that ugly monochrome library binding without fancy cover art. This gave me the freedom to imagine each character exactly to my liking. I was horrified when I came across shinier, newer editions of those same books that depicted the characters’ faces—they were inevitably cruder, more simplistic, than in my imagination.

It’s possible that I’m an intensely judgmental person and far too susceptible to having my reading experience colored by an image. (But I think most of us are secretly judgmental). Honestly, wouldn’t it be great if all books, forever, had simple monochrome covers with the title in a simple font, the end?

My favorite copy of Divisadero, the one on my nightstand, is cropped so closely into the faces of the two girls that you can’t tell what they look like. Of all the copies I’ve owned and given away, this is one I kept.

BLVR: One final, tangentially related question. Claire is a central character—Anna’s sister. Seeing the name here, it reminded me that, when I was in college, I was obsessed with naming characters Claire. I have no idea why. Since then, I’ve met other writers who had the same attraction to the name, especially in college. It could just be a generational thing, but I wondered if Claire was ever a character name you used, and if so, what do you think is it about that name that draws us in?

CPZ: I can see the attraction! To me the art in naming a character lies in finding a name that is at once familiar enough and a little bit odd. If the name is too overtly weird, it warps the story around it, it’s distracting; if it’s too boring, it doesn’t pluck at the imagination. Claire has wonderful permutations: Clair, Claire, Clare. More elegant, more girl-next-door, more nondescript, more oddball.

My own embarrassing name obsession that I will divulge now, for the purposes of exorcising it from my work forever, was Oriel. I know.

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