Co-Winner of the 1976 Books in Canada First Novel Award
Michael Ondaatje is without a doubt one of Canada’s leading writers. He is tied for the record for the most Governor-General Awards with five, two for poetry and three for fiction, a Giller Prize, and countless others. Most notably Ondaatje’s The English Patient was the first Canadian book awarded the Man Booker Prize. This book was later adapted into the Oscar Winning film of the same name. Michael Ondaatje is, in my opinion, the leader of the powerful movement of immigrant Canadian literature. His first book, The Dainty Monsters, was released in 1967; 30 years later other New Canadian voices started to emerge, most notably M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry. Michael Ondaatje led this wave.
For about the first ten years of his career, Michael Ondaatje was known primarily as a poet. He won the 1970 GG for his ground breaking collection The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In 1976 he released his first novel, another ground breaking book, Coming Through Slaughter. This book falls into two general categories: it is both a jazz novel and piece of historiographic metafiction. Coming Through Slaughter is a fictionalized account of the last few years of the legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden in New Orleans during the years between the turn of the century and shortly before World War II. Bolden was known as one of the best cornet players of his time but there is very little record of his life. Towards the end of his time he went mad, disappeared, and was eventually institutionalized. This narrative pieces together the story through a variety of vignettes from different characters and different times.
You cannot discuss this novel without discussing the style that it is written in. In 1976 post-modernism was in full swing, the bar being set in 1963 with Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, and many of Canada’s leading writers were putting their own stamp on this movement. The narration is done is a sharp and staccato style of prose. With every line you see Ondaatje’s prowess as a poet coming through; every word is deliberately chosen and every sentence is intricately weaved within each paragraph. Now that being said, this book is sometimes difficult to follow. The narrator and point-of-view changes frequently and sometimes does so mid-chapter. You often have to reread a page or paragraph once you realize who the narrator is. Dialog is often incorporated right into paragraphs without any indication that someone is speaking. Occasionally a poem or brief interview or song is thrown in to add to the story. Ultimately the style is very beautiful; you just need to be patient and read slowly.
The writer’s skill as a poet again is evident when you are looking at the character development and physical settings. You get a sense that you are right in downtown New Orleans, in the brothels, in the gambling houses, in a night club listening to this new sensation they call jazz. The web of characters that is weaved is as diverse as it is entertaining. For the bulk of the story, the central character is a police officer named Webb who is on the hunt for the missing Bolden. Through the natural course of the narration we meet Bolden’s wife, lover, children, a photographer who took a picture of him, and various prostitutes, gamblers, and musicians. The snippets of Buddy Bolden are just a preview of the true character that is revealed once Webb finally finds his man.
Michael Ondaatje has done a masterful job on his apprentice novel. He has blended fact and fiction using a style that is completely his own. Every one of his novels has won at least one major Canadian literary award; Coming Through Slaughter won the inaugural Books in Canada First Novel Award. Ondaatje has never released another novel written in this same style. I would group this with books of his like Running in the Family and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid instead of his better known novels like The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, or In the Skin of a Lion. This novel breaks down the walls between the real and the story; this novel breaks down genres. This is a short novel well worth reading.