There’s a certain type of literary fiction that I really struggle to read – both in the sense that actually physically sitting there turning the pages makes me want to fall asleep, and that I never know what to make of it when I close the book. It’s usually written by men, usually in slight, sparse prose; usually artfully inconclusive (as opposed to artfully unfinished, which is a fun if hackneyed postmodernist trick); usually with a protagonist who never seems to relate to anyone around him (and it’s usually a him).
I’m an SFF reader. I’m used to trying to work out what this book about spaceships is saying about today’s culture. I’m used to side-eyeing traditional story structures for their nostalgic and regressive values. Most of what I read is about big social ideas; I favour sprawling novels with rough edges and hidden depths.
So when I’m presented with something like Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, all realism and thinly-veiled autobiography and unadorned prose, I feel a bit flummoxed.
The novel follows Michael, an 11-year-old boy on a sea voyage from Colombo, Sri Lanka to England, to join his mother there. As an unaccompanied minor travelling third class, he’s assigned to sit at the “cat’s table” – the table furthest from the captain’s – at mealtimes; so the novel charts the adventures he has with the motley group of people also assigned to this undesirable position, and especially with two other unaccompanied children, Ramadhin and Cassius. Ondaatje apparently went on a similar voyage in his own childhood, which gives you a good idea of the kind of novel this is.
I suppose what I mainly got out of it was the idea of transition. The ship – the Oronsay – is a world of its own; we know from the glimpses of future-Michael’s life we get throughout the novel that he never sees most of the characters of the novel again after he reaches England, though they’re so important to him on board ship. So the ship is this enclosed, transitional space in which the rules of one world – Sri Lanka – are broken down, dissolved, to make room for the rules of another: England. The Oronsay becomes a place where Michael can try on a number of roles: he accidentally becomes an accomplice to a thief; he lashes himself to the deck in a storm, causing a great deal of trouble for the ship’s officers; he spies on a prisoner being taken for exercise out on deck at night. All manner of strange things are possible in this carnivalesque space; it’s significant that the novel takes place at sea, that fickle and changeable element which washes all things clean. Michael’s voyage is a voyage of change, an irreversible process which marks (perhaps only retrospectively, given that it’s narrated from the perspective of future-Michael) the boundary between one way of life and another.
This is a nice idea, but I’m not sure what the point of it is; what it’s trying to say about the human condition. I thought, perhaps, that it might be a look at immigrant experience; I don’t want to say definitively that it’s not (because who am I to judge that, as a white Westerner who’s lived in England all her life?), but it wasn’t particularly a theme I picked up on. And it feels too specific and too realistic to be a story about memory, or nostalgia.
In fact, specificity is its problem, to me. It’s so focused on this episode in its protagonist’s life that it’s unable to say anything that’s not about him. It cultivates no sense of place or time; only what’s going on in Michael’s head at any one point. In short, it navel-gazes. And Ondaatje’s prose style and technical skill isn’t good enough to carry this profound introversion off.
This may be a case of wrong reader, wrong book, as the critics seemed to have liked it. (I nearly always disagree with the critics, though.) But it also illustrates why I shy away from literary fiction that isn’t tinged with the fantastic or the speculative: I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it.