The Cat’s Table

Reading Michael Ondaatje always gives me the feeling that there’s something I am not quite getting, maybe because he won’t let me. His latest novel, The Cat’s Table, is no exception.

This story about an 11-year-old boy traveling from Sri Lanka to England by ocean liner in 1954 seems to have been written without the reader in mind. There’s more than a whiff of self-indulgence here.

Too often, I feel like Ondaatje is writing for Ondaatje. It seems as though things like plot and discrete characters are concessions he grudgingly makes to his publisher. If he had is way, I feel like he’d by happy to commit a stream-of-consciousness slurry of memories and pretty scenes to the page and call it a day.

To me, Ondaatje’s novels have the quality of someone trying to tell you about a dream they had a week ago; some things stand out in sharp in contrast and the rest is a blurry miasma of images and scenarios of limited impact. Maybe it all means something to the person telling the story, but for any observer there isn’t as much to be gained.

It’s not that I object to eccentric or mysterious characters, but why do they all have to be that way? Can’t anyone be realistic? And for all their hard-to-read charm, the exotic ports-of-call where Ondaatje’s ship, The Oronsay, docks start to lose their allure once the next starts sounding too much like the last. And in the end, there is no real plot; sure, there’s a picaresque coming-of-age element here, but that’s not strong enough to stand on its own.

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