Friday, May 27, 2011

Short-a-Day: Michael Ondaatje's "The Cat's Table"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 65.

Either I'm getting better at identifying excerpts passing as short stories or The New Yorker is getting less obvious about these fictional teases. I'm going with the latter for this one: the situation's inventive enough such that with a little trimming and focus, Ondaatje could have had a real winner on our hands. Instead, he seems unsure as to which story he wants to tell: so it is that we begin with a cryptic third-person present tense section and end with a first-person narrator remembering the funeral-at-sea of a rich stranger. What's working is the sense of openness that Ondaatje gives to a story that's stuck, for the most part, on a large six-hundred-plus-person boat, and which is predominantly about the coming-of-age of an eleven-year-old-boy. What's lacking is a singular perspective with which to filter all that raw data.

In no time at all, really, our protagonist finds himself abandoned (and abandoning) his poor relatives (he's never slept beneath a blanket), seeing and climbing aboard a ship for the first time, and setting out from Ceylon to England, where he will now live with the mother he never really knew. Though he describes himself as isolated, he strikes up friendships with boys who would have hated him back on the mainland -- "the quiet Ramadhin and the exuberant Cassius" -- as well as a tender and tenuous crush/connection with his distant female cousin, Emily de Saram, who is conveniently on the same boat. Though he is relegated to the worst table in the banquet hall, known by the eccentrics and poor as "the Cat's Table," he makes the most of his time, and the shift into the first person can be taken as the way in which he lays claim to his own life/destiny. Would that Ondaatje stuck with our hero, too: instead, he ends with the funeral of Hector de Silva; those wishing to know how this affected the boy -- who accidentally had a hand in the death, helping, as he did, to smuggle on board the dog that bit the cursed rich man's throat -- will have to tune in to the full novel.

The story works well when it's centered around this sneaky, cat-like kid, a scrappy yet wide-eyed boy struggling to find his place. His extra-early morning excursions into the first-class swimming pool with his unlikely mates "the quiet Ramadhin and the exuberant Cassius" are thrilling and the observations he makes about the psychic performer the Hyderabad Mind are interesting ("I had witnessed for the first time what took place behind the thin curtain of art, and it gave me some protection the next time I saw him on stage, decked out in full costume"). But the story can't decide if it wants to be about privilege and class, or even, really, which of its secondary and tertiary characters it wants to focus on ("[M]inor characters, there to witness how those with real power progressed or failed in the world"). It's well-written, nicely paced, but not entirely a short story . . . or at least, too much to be merely a short.


lyryk said...

Has an extract been published somewhere? I'd love to read it.

Aaron Riccio said...

Sorry, I'm usually better about placing the date of the New Yorker issue at the top; this is from the May 16th, 2011 issue. It is *not* being offered on their website, unless you're already a subscriber.

X9999 said...

That's great story book on bestselling in 2011. I recommend. Thanks by Black Friday Book 2011

Cath Brookes said...

This is a book I've recommended to friends. The story captivated me from the start. Interesting story line, original, a fun read.
Top Alaska Fishing Lodge, recommended