Improvisation as Narrative: Some Thoughts on Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter

comingthroughslaughter

Coming Through Slaugher
Michael Ondaatje
House of Anansi
ISBN: 0-88784-051-5
156 pgs

As a poet and a trained fiction writer, I generally greatly enjoy where lyricism and narrative meet and illustrate the world to us. Not to mention, I am a large fan of jazz from it’s origins a long the shadier streets of New Orleans through to the free form work of men like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. When I discovered that Ondaatje had written a book that had all three elements (jazz, lyricism, and narrative) I placed it on my must read list.

Coming Through Slaughter is a novel set in the early years of the 1900s in the Big Easy, exploring the life of trumpet player Buddy Bolden. It is a fictionalized exploration of his life, his art, and his descent into mental illness. The structure of the book is far from the run of the mill in terms of novel structures. It operates in glimmers or riffs that explore the world around Bolden and his experiences in tight highly focused moments. These moments are not always through his viewpoint and offer a continually evolving sense of story from the multiple viewpoints or instruments as the narrative unfolds.

As such the novel operates as a jazz improvisation would. It switches leads, hands off rhythms, changes tempos. The story is interesting enough in Coming Through Slaughter. But the manner in which that story is related to the reader is the single strongest attribute of the book. We’ve seen a great many fictionalized biographic novels about musicians over the years and many damned fine ones. But Ondaatje as poet pulls in the feeling, sound, and structure of what it means to be an artist like Bolden. By using the principles by which the protagonist constructs his art we see the type of picture that an artist like Bolden would have crafted his world from. In short, we see a more accurate and heartfelt representation of the subject manner than a simple and conservative novel structure would use.

Ondaatje’s novel explores the connection between creativity and self-destruction of the artist and does it from such a personal level that the audience connects in ways that makes the entire enterprise of reading the book more heartfelt. Rather than being an observer to the events, the reader is immersed in them, experiences what the manner in which these lives are lived. There is no need long explanations as to what the characters think or feel. Ondaatje shows us these moments. There is much here to show poets how to write fine poetry. In short, writers (both poets and fictioneers) should know about and explore this work. There is something true and pure and strong in this work that shows us an alternative to the bland “telling” nature of many below average novelists and poets. Experience lies at the heart of this work and I strongly encourage those with a passion for writing and/or reading to see where the intersections of lyricism and narrative can take us.

Wonder what Buddy Bolden sounded like? Above is a sample of Wynton Marsalis performing some of the legends work.

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