The madness at the heart of Michael Ondaatje’s prose poetry novel, Coming Through Slaughter, is the trio of literary devices the novelist uses to propel the story. It is amazing to watch Ondaatje’s style mirror the mad descent of famous jazz cornet player Buddy Bolden in turn of the century New Orleans. The impact of writing prose poetry lines as if coming straight from Bolden’s addled brain is brilliant in and of itself. Then Ondaatje has the audacity to mimic the cadence of jazz and blues and going further, attempts to recreate how a sketchy persona can be reclaimed through various, discursive, sources.
Does he pull it off entirely? Almost. These are times when Ondaatje’s writing is oh, so sublime. His style was so infectious it drove me to try to imitate it. I realized by doing it, that, it was much harder than it seemed and was not something I felt entirely comfortable trying out myself. The result: Overwritten, obtuse prose; that’s exactly what I had been trying to get away from for years. There are times when you can tell Ondaatje is having too much fun with what he is creating and that’s where a reader can drift. What the novelist has done here is taken the narration found on film reels, archival photographs, snatches of conversations, imagined dreams and nightmares, jazz songs and the geography of New Orleans circa 1900 and tried to weave it all together. (Talk about madness.) Ondaatje does this to fill in the blanks left by the mysterious downward spiral of Buddy Bolden.
The structure of the novel is hectic and sparse, admittedly in homage to Bolden who was frenzied and mysterious. After all, Ondaatje does say from the start this is “his geography.” We are entering his world, a world of a brilliant musician driven to madness.
Cleverly, Ondaatje uses the lone known photograph of Bolden and his band as a launching pad. He underscores the photograph with a quote from an archival interview with jazzman Louis Jones who summarily defines Bolden a jazz prodigy. That is followed, bizarrely, with a picture of three sonographs illustrating the sounds dolphins make and how no one can understand how the dolphin can make two sounds simultaneously.
These two seemingly unrelated chunks of information go to the very mad heart of Coming Through Slaughter. No one really knew Bolden well, knew him well enough to say how he went mad, and how he could enrapture a jazz audience like nobody else. How can a man with such beauty, be such a beast in the end?
Throughout the prose poetry novel, the writer has laid various points of view over the thoughts, songs and actions of Bolden. It is a brave attempt to paint his picture, to sing his song. Everything is unbalanced, non-linear; chronologically the novel reads like improvised jazz: there’s an entry point and all this razzle-dazzle in the middle, before the inevitable end. Single lines from a Bolden song appear on the page, alone. “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky.” Then the line reappears as the part of a whole song pages and pages after its solitary expression on the page, and later still that one line appears in Bolden’s thoughts, near the end. Incredible; it allows me to deconstruct my own prose and gives me permission to play around with it.
Ondaatje begins to show us how Bolden began his descent, by stuttering lines early on in the novel. “There were his dreams of his children dying. There were his dreams of his children dying.” It’s as if we are within Bolden’s paranoia. We are witnesses to his obsession. He dreams of “cutting off his hands,” to his fear or neurotic desire to disappear into “mad dignity.”
To illustrate the duality or struggle for Bolden’s soul, Ondaatje does what all novice writers are told to do: He describes his character through the reactions of others. In one scene to show how Bolden was dueling with madness and sanity and at the same time performing brilliant music, Ondaatje has a character watching Bolden play. “I’m sort of scared because I know the Lord don’t like that mixing the Devil’s music with His music. But I still listen because the music sounds so strange and I guess I’m hypnotized.” I remember that dolphins can make two sounds simultaneously and no one knows why.
To get inside Bolden’s mad mind, Ondaatje does not just have him see lizards with umbrellas, but instead gives the madness a disjointed syntax: “My neck. Is coming for me I’m dead I can’t. Move.” And when the jazzman runs out of things to say, when he reaches the final note of his sad life the author enters for clarity, but uses a clever way to offset the prognosis. Ondaatje has the last shred of sanity separated by white space, several returns on the keyboard, the line is by itself at the bottom of the page: “That last moment happens forever and ever in his memory.” It represents a bottoming-out.
I want so badly to write a novel like this, but I feel I have not yet mastered my own writing to send it off into acrobatics. Coming Through Slaughter, feels like Ondaatje took a notebook wherever he went, researching the life of Bolden, and simply wrote down the most interesting, quirky and poetic information and lines he could find. “Bolden always played in B-Flat.” “The diamond had to love the earth it passed along the way, every speck and angle of the other’s history, for the diamond had been earth too.” “Dragging his bone over town. Dragging his bone over town.” He then took that information and imposed structures on it: here a dream, there a song; over there a conversation, there a voice from a film.
It is funny because a friend of Bolden’s said in this novel: “We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order.” Perhaps that’s what Ondaatje was doing? Poetic lines on their own.
How much did Michael Ondaatje care about historical accuracy? During the course of this novel, Buddy Bolden listens to the radio, talks on the phone, and drives a car – activities I doubt the cornetist had much opportunity to pursue, circa 1905.