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Entries in alexandria symonds (4)

Thursday
Sep272012

In Which It Was A Good Party

painting by tiffany chung

What C Said

by ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS
 
I wake up at the dream’s most vivid moment: the socialite pushes orange-lensed sunglasses down her nose, plucks the tip of a daisy stem from between her teeth, and tells me, in a serious, wistful way: “I think the apocalypse will drive us outdoors.” 
 
I have no idea whether the socialite thinks this, whether she’s ever thought about the apocalypse. She is the chic, waifish great-granddaughter of a famous man who committed suicide. Although we’ve been in the same room plenty of times, we’ve only ever talked long enough for her to tell me some fact she knows is cute enough to survive an editor’s cuts, like: “I demand my own pumpkin pie at family Thanksgivings.”  
 
I don’t know why she’s popped up in my sleep to deliver this message — the apocalypse will drive us outdoors — but it haunts me all day long.  
 
She is right, I decide. At the end of the world, we’ll gather in open areas and tip our chins toward the sky together. It will feel abhorrent and unnatural to be in a building. It will be to miss the point. 
 
What I’d like best is for everyone to be there. Gathered next to the river, maybe, like for Fourth of July fireworks, or on one of the bridges. I have had anxiety in crowds for the last few years, starting I don’t know when and getting I don’t know how much better or worse since. I think it would melt away like butter, if I could be hedged in on every side by the people I have chosen to love and who have chosen to love me. 


I think of H., automatically, standing there with me: she is first. I may not be first to her anymore, but that’s okay; that’s why we are going someplace where there is room. In the best version, I am standing on one side of her and M. is on the other, and M.’s closest friends are all standing around him, and their closest friends are all standing around them, in these concentric circles that spiral outward and outward until everyone is accounted for. Because mostly the people who are important to you are the people to whom you are important, and isn’t it lucky that it worked out that way? Doesn’t it make this part easier — this last part? 
 
R. will come here, rather than staying in North Carolina, I hope; so many of her boyfriend’s friends live here, too. X. will be here too, having coaxed her own boyfriend to just put the trip on a fucking credit card, Jesus. (Whether you use your credit cards with abandon in those last few days, or finally get around to paying them off, will say a lot about who you were.) They will come, and he will bring a significant amount of smoked meat. 
 
N. will show up late, running a hand through his hair: “Hey, guys.” His smile will say, Is it good? What’d I miss?  
 
Where are you going after? 
 
J. and C. go without saying. And J.’s mom will be there, and the dog, but my own parents won’t. My mother, determined to survive, will have retreated into her bunker. She and I will have had a desperate fight about it, in the mode our fights always take. She will say it hurts her feelings that I don’t want to come into the bunker; I will interpret this, half-correctly, as a challenge to my independence and insult her, half by mistake. 
 
I will say, grandly, idiotically, “This is the difference between your generation and mine: we have no fight. When someone tells us there’s no hope, we believe it, we adjust to it, we just try to make something tender out of whatever’s left to us.” 
 
She will say she doesn’t understand not even trying. I will repeat, in a tone unintentionally condescending, that if I think there’s no chance of surviving, then it seems pointless to spend the last few hours of Earth crouched in a basement, eating Wheat Thins. 


Eventually we will come to an impasse and we will cry and reassure one another that all we want is to see the other one happy, all she wants is me to be safe, all I want is to make her proud, etc. 
 
We will feel pretty good about making some progress
 
Later, I’ll ask my father, who privately agrees with me about the bunker but who will be climbing into it with her anyway, why he’s doing it. He will sigh and say he’s so tired: too tired to argue about it. Besides, what would he do with the time if he did? 
 
No amount of notice will be enough to prepare, and that is sort of a sweet thing anyway. The world will end and there will still be a dead bug in the Tupperware on top of the fridge. There will still be a dozen half-finished or barely-started Word documents on your computer—admit it. 
 
As the moment approaches, the verb tense will be complicated, hard to wrangle. I will never have gotten around to buying a new comforter, you will never have gotten around to losing that last ten pounds, she will never have gotten around to breaking his heart, even though all of us knew for ages that they’d have been happier if she did. 
 
We’ll all have the idea that we’ll buy something new to wear, something special for the occasion, but mostly we won’t. The only people who will buy new dresses are the kind of people who buy new dresses for things. (My mom might wear one, in the bunker.) 
 
The rest of us will wear our favorite things, and H. and I will stand in front of her closet and touch all of the soft things in it and debate, because that’s what we do, even if we both sort of know she’ll wear that one red dress and those shoes. She’ll debate heels but ultimately decide that flats are who she is, and isn’t that the idea? Not to be someone else, when it’s your very last chance to be who you are? 


We will have gotten dressed in self-parody, in a defiant scramble to find the most representative thing, figure out exactly who we’ve been, just in time to be it. I will be running late and making jokes over my shoulder, and my eyeliner will end up smudged like it always does, and R. will wear a jersey dress and tights and shiny earrings, one of which will dangle close enough to twinkle a little light on the tiny tattoo behind her ear. N. will wear a pastel shirt and that jacket, and D. will wear loafers with brand-new pennies in them, and J. will wear something that doesn’t intellectually make sense but that looks stunning on her. She’ll have gotten it at Century 21, she’ll hasten to tell us. 
 
When we’ve all gotten there, in our favorite dresses, and I brought a lot of wine and H. made brownies and R. has armfuls of bright sweet fruit, it will finally make sense to all of us at once, that the point of the social networks that grew up as we did, that we spent so much time typing and tagging to build, was to prepare us for this moment: everyone, sprawling, together, connected. Bumping shoulders and starting to apologize and exclaiming oh my God, hi! instead. 
 
Someone will remember to bring Lunch Poems. 
 
We will trade compliments knowing that what we’re really saying, over and over, in different words, is: “I’m so glad for the choices you made that built you. I am so grateful I got to know that person.” When I tell A. that I love a kooky and not altogether flattering accessory he’s picked for the occasion, some silk ascot or bright coat, I will be telling A. that I love him.  
 
Everyone will be fresh from their showers, and I will look around at their faces and think that even though it is so deeply unfair that it should happen now, that I don’t get decades more with these people, at least it is happening when we are all so beautiful. 
 
I will, of course, forget my keys. When I realize this is the first and last time it doesn’t matter, my breath will catch in my throat like a tiny bird trapped in a flue, and the only way to release it will be to laugh. 
 
Just as we will be more ourselves that we have ever been, our social ties will be bright and stark and undeniable, too. W. won’t be anywhere nearby when we all assemble, and if he is, it won’t be on purpose, it won’t be for me. When that first tentative flurry of texts goes out, once we know it’s for real — 
 
so what should we do?  
 
where will you be? 
 
— W. won’t text me, and I won’t text A., and A. won’t text the girl, somewhere, who didn’t get a fair shake from him. That’s how things will go, and maybe a lot of us will have deep little aches when it happens; but that’s okay, too, because the thing about a little ache is that it isn’t final, even if the end of the world is. When it happens, we can all still hold onto our beliefs that unlikely things happen all the time, that maybe he’ll call at the last minute. 

I will hold onto the idea that I might end up somewhere near M., after all these years, and that he might have something funny to say. I honestly, truly believe there’s no way I won’t find myself next to B., again, without even trying. 


I know there is no perfect way to organize people, and a meaningful place to me is not a meaningful place to you, and there will be separations. (It does seem certain that we’ll all flock to bodies of water — to watch the event from two directions at once, falling from the sky and in its own reflection, rushing to meet itself.) But L. will be in her favorite dress on the shore of Lake Michigan, doing the same thing I am doing on the shore of the East River or Hudson, with all the people who have come to matter to her there. O. will be on the banks of the Charles. G. may show up and disappear again, quietly, before anyone notices she’s gone, and cite some mysterious prior engagement when someone sends her a quizzical text.  
 
Lesser H.s and M.s and R.s and E.s in the city will be elsewhere in the crowd or in other crowds entirely. With all of these people we will trade heartfelt text messages, phones lighting up over and over, and all of the crowds will look, from above, from the perspective of whatever’s coming, like a luminescent organism, bigger and more complicated than a pair of eyes can process after one look—even a long one. 
 
Even without L. and O., there will be enough of us that I or you can turn a full circle and see nothing but people I or you love, be pressed in on all sides by them. We will feel safe, because the world, before it ends, will get small again, will be reduced again to how it was when we were first born and the only people we knew were the people directly in our line of vision. Or the world centuries ago, when every door on every house that held someone important to you was within knocking distance, before our lives got geographically complicated and long before anyone ever had the audacity to do something like move to L.A

We will be giddy at first, but we’ll start to feel calm, more so the closer it gets, passing around baggies of grapes and crackers and drugs and bottles of wine, making jokes, all of us the most ourselves we have ever been. We will be okay about what happens next, because once something so perfect has happened, how can you possibly go on living? 
 
Alexandria Symonds is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about Friends with Kids. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here. She tweets and tumbls


“Drone On” – Physical Therapy feat. Jamie Krasner (mp3
 
“Ritual” – Blood Diamonds (mp3)  

Monday
Dec122011

In Which We Examine The Static Physicality of Jennifer Westfeldt

Leading Role

by ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS

Friends with Kids
dir. Jennifer Westfeldt
114 minutes

At college orientations across the nation, wizened sophomores tell freshmen the same thing: “School, sleep, or a social life: choose two.” Watching Friends with Kids, the new film from writer/director/actress Jennifer Westfeldt, I found myself wishing she’d applied the same principle to filmmaking. The film stars Westfeldt and Adam Scott (of Party Down, Parks and Recreation, and your friends’ sex dreams) as two longtime friends who decide to have a child together, rather than with romantic partners, in order to avoid the chaos they’ve seen visited upon their married-couple friends who have children. It’s a good movie that’s frustrating to watch because of how easily it could have been a great one: if only Westfeldt had realized she couldn’t do her own lead role justice.

Westfeldt is better known as an actress than as a writer or a director, actually: she’s had film roles here and there, along with decent stints in a number of television shows, including Notes from the Underbelly, 24, and Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Friends with Kids is her directorial debut and the third feature she’s written, along with 2006's Ira & Abby and her breakout film, now a decade old, Kissing Jessica Stein (she also starred in both of those).

Friends with Kids has a funny, heartbreaking, smart script — and a perfectly serviceable director, not a stylish or showy one. Westfeldt is, unfortunately, not especially compelling onscreen, with a tendency to swallow her lines and to maintain a static physicality. They are simple problems that a director could pretty easily have corrected — except, of course, that the director was Westfeldt herself.

Friends with Kids is not like Friends with Money, the peculiar, sweet Nicole Holofcenter film, in which the title is meant to invite contrast (the protagonist’s friends have money, while the protagonist does not), though it starts out that way. Julie Keller (Westfeldt) and Jason Fryman (Scott) are professionally successful, attractive pals in their mid-thirties who have a dozen-plus years of friendship under their belts and who even live in the same building. They are single and childless, while the two couples who constitute their best friends are just starting families.

Given the configuration of the supporting cast, it’s fun to imagine Friends with Kids as a sequel to Bridesmaids in which Maya Rudolph steals sweet Chris O’Dowd away from Kristen Wiig, who’s forced to settle for dickish Jon Hamm again. All four supporting players are excellent: Rudolph and O’Dowd as the harried, disorganized parents who are still, ultimately, pretty happy; and Hamm and Wiig as the sort of couple who can’t keep their hands off one another until having kids reveals that they never had anything in common.

The movie is a romantic comedy, so it’s pretty easy to guess what will happen to Jason and Julie after they hatch their scheme to bypass romance and marriage and head straight into split custody. They fall into an easy routine together —Jason wears a gray American Apparel hoodie in one scene; Julie has it on in the next— and then Julie finds to her surprise, upon hearing about a new girl Jason’s dating, that she’s actually jealous. (Mary Jane, for what it’s worth, is played by Megan Fox. Who wouldn’t be jealous?) Though she doesn’t have much trouble attracting suitors — most notably Kurt, played by Edward Burns, the kind of man who has strong values, a handsome face, and Mark Kurlansky histories on his bookshelf — Julie realizes she can’t help pining for Jason.

It is difficult to ever be completely invested in Julie, because of the constant distraction of knowing Westfeldt wrote these lines for herself. Replying to a compliment from Kurt, Julie says, “I mean, I can put myself together, you know, but — I just have good hair. I can put myself together, and good hair.” Westfeldt does have good hair, but I wish she’d left that kind of navel-gazey revelation out of her movie.

Friends with Kids is saved, though, thankfully, from fully falling victim to Westfeldtian myopia — because, although Julie has the most screen time, I don’t think she is actually her film’s protagonist. Adam Scott is the standout here, and Jason’s is the journey we are most interested in watching. He starts off as the kind of thirtysomething cad who can actually, earnestly list “huge tits” as a requirement for girlfriends (of Mary Jane, he revels: “She’s a skinny, flexible dancer with a big rack. What are the odds?”), and ends up as a man who honestly deserves Julie’s adoration. Given Westfeldt’s own investment in this film, you can bet she isn’t going to shortchange Julie romantically — she deserves to have everything, doesn’t she?

Alexandria Symonds is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about Michael Ondaatje. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her website here and she tumbls here.

"Sous Les Etoiles" - Émilie Simon (mp3)

"Les Amants de Meme Jour" - Émilie Simon (mp3)

"Bel Amour" - Émilie Simon (mp3)

Thursday
Oct132011

In Which Michael Ondaatje Relives Almost Everything

Knife Wound

by ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS

The Cat's Table
by Michael Ondaatje
288 pp

If I ever get Michael Ondaatje alone in a room, I'm going to inspect him for oddly shaped scars.

Should he have them, I am sure he wears them with pride: here is a man for whom a stabbing is a non-negotiable plot device. These quick, painful but nonlethal acts of violence appear again and again in his work, and always bound up with sex. In his novel Anil's Ghost, a woman takes an avocado knife to her ex's arm; in Divisadero, a girl stabs her father in the back with a shard of glass to prevent him from killing her lover. In Coming Through Slaughter, the stabbing is symbolic — the photographer E.J. Bollocq slashes his own photographs — but its purpose is the same, to get at some primal, anxious connection. "You think of Bellocq wanting to enter the photographs, to leave his trace on the bodies," Ondaatje writes.

And in The English Patient, violence in the relationship between Katharine and Almásy is apparently so pervasive that a stabbing warrants nothing more than an entry in a catalogue:

A list of wounds.
The various colours of the bruise — bright russet leading to brown. The plate she walked across the room with, flinging its contents aside, and broke across his head, the blood rising into the straw hair. The fork that entered the back of his shoulder, leaving its bite marks the doctor suspected were caused by a fox.

You can imagine the unspoken subtitle for Ondaatje's 1979 book of poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: "Stab you with it."

The enthusiastic reader of Ondaatje, then, might wonder how a crime-of-passion stabbing could possibly work its way into his newest novel, The Cat's Table, released this month. It isn't the sort of novel, on its surface, that should seem to have one: it is the story of an 11 year-old boy, nicknamed Mynah, on a passage from southeast Asia to London aboard a gigantic 1950s ocean liner called the Oronsay. He quickly makes two friends, the impetuous Cassius and the sweet, fragile Ramadhin, and the three set out to learn all they can in the three weeks they are together.

At first, it seems like The Cat's Table should be the novel in which Ondaatje finally leaves the erotic stabbings out. But to think so is to give him both too much credit (he can't resist!) and too little (when he does find a way to push the knife in, so to speak, it's well deserved). But to come back to Ondaatje's own scars: why should I care if he has them? Isn't it unfair to assume that his favorite motif is based in personal experience? Didn't Barthes teach us not to care anyway? Isn't it, you know, fiction?

Yes and no, I think, when it comes to this one. Thankfully, we're not beholden to Barthes anymore, so we can indulge in the delicious speculation that The Cat's Table might be, in part, a memoir. As a boy, Ondaatje took the same journey his protagonist did, from southeast Asia to London. When we flash forward to his protagonist's future, the character lives in Canada just as the author does. They end up at the same school. And Mynah, that echoing bird, is a nickname for Michael.

Ondaatje hasn't made any secret of any of this; there is no clumsy disguise at play here. He makes his intentions clear in an author's note:

Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat's Table is fictional — from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator. And while there was a ship named the Oronsay (there were in fact several Oronsays), the ship in the novel is an imagined rendering.

It is worth recognizing that this note appears at the end of the novel, though, not the beginning; it's a coda once the story has been told. By this point, we will have learned not to care — because one final way in which the author and his protagonist are similar is that they are both at their best when they observe others. The most beautiful sections of The Cat's Table aren't on the ship at all; they are portraits of the passengers Mynah comes to know, deeply embedded in the past and the future.

"A novel is a mirror walking down a road," Ondaatje wrote in The English Patient. That isn't true for every writer, but it is true for him, and it's what makes the question of whether his claim — that The Cat's Table is not autobiography — is a lie, essentially uninteresting. A mirror can't walk down a road on its own; it has to be held by someone who won't be reflected in it. On second thought, if I ever get Ondaatje alone in a room, I don't want to know a thing about whatever scars he might have.

Ondaatje is not read as widely among literary-fiction snobs as he should be; I know plenty of people who clamored for galleys of The Marriage Plot but neither knew nor cared that Ondaatje, too, had a novel coming out this month. It isn't so hard to figure out why. I think many more people have seen the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine hates the film version of The English Patient than have actually seen the film, and many more people saw the film than read the novel it was based on.

I actually thought the film was pretty good — Ralph Fiennes still gives me a little frisson, even now, even when he's playing Voldemort — but I do sort of understand. I first read Ondaatje my senior year of high school, when The English Patient was on the syllabus for my English class. We read it near the end of the year, and we had all been dreading it since the beginning. Being warned against something, even by someone you don't trust, makes it hard to embrace that thing. Nothing ruins the pleasure you can get from art like being exposed to someone else's distaste for it. We were all primed to think the novel would be long and slow: because if the movie was, the book must be even worse. In retrospect, maybe we ought to have been more discerning in whose criticism we trusted.

Further, the fans of the movie alienated us. We wondered: How could this book, which had been turned into the kind of movie that moms loved, possibly resonate with us young, sexy teenagers? It did, to an outstanding degree, maybe because our expectations were so low. My classmates liked it more than Beowulf, Macbeth, and infinitely more than Beloved (can't win 'em all). I remember a kid named Travis, talking about the book in study hall, stunned at how moved he was.

In college, too, I knew lots of people who should have been Ondaatje's target audience: young, desperate to prove their literary worth, going through novels almost as fast as cigarette packs. Here, the film adaptation of The English Patient struck another fatal blow. It was an unapologetic prestige film, with a big budget, distributed by Miramax. It won all the Oscars, and it won them in a really good year for independent film. An unnecessary binary opposition fell into place: the Coen brothers are us; Minghella is them. The English Patient — and with it, Ondaatje — became The Man.

It's a shame, because others of Ondaatje's novels really would make excellent films. Anil's Ghost is a beautiful story of loss, hiding inside the kind of grisly mystery that American audiences love to buy tickets for. Any filmmaker who is obsessive about light and interested in a kind of pastoral brutalism — okay, any filmmaker who is Terrence Malick — would do well with Divisadero. But of all his novels, The Cat's Table is the one I would most like to see committed to screen. It is more linear than a lot of the author's work, for one thing. And because the novel's main setting is so rigid — a three-week span, a single ocean liner — the temporal and geographic divergences are easy to swallow.

It would be such a gift to actors, too, to offer them these roles: Mynah, Cassius, Ramadhin, and their companions at the Cat's Table ("the least privileged place," furthest from the Captain's Table, where passengers are "constantly toasting one another's significance"). There's gregarious Mr. Mazappa, who tells the boys dirty jokes and whose presence is mourned after he departs; Mr. Nevil, who dismantles ships; Miss Lasqueti, who keeps dozens of pigeons in a coat with special pockets.

And further on the ship, there is Michael's 17-year-old cousin, Emily, who has her own growing-up to do and of whose own bildungsroman we are allowed glimpses from time to time. There is an Australian girl on roller skates; a villainous captain; a sophisticated thief; a cursed millionaire beset by rabies; a prisoner rumored to have killed a judge. Would that Robert Altman were still alive! One of the novel's best qualities is its constant acknowledgment that every character we meet has his or her own life, with its own complications, and any one of them could be enough to write a book about. It is something Michael and his friends learn: "We came to understand that small but important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement."

Ondaatje himself is interested in film, and there is a lovely scene in the novel in which The Four Feathers is shown onboard the ship. It is a little jarring, too, when the grown-up narrator Michael opens a chapter with the sentence, "Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne." One of the best things that did come out of The English Patient's film adaptation is Ondaatje's relationship with Walter Murch, who edited the film. Ondaatje turned a series of interviews he did with Murch into a book, titled The Conversations. (The title's a little cheeky; Murch was an Oscar nominee for sound editing Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.)

Ondaatje directed a couple of films himself, little-seen things in the 1970s, but it is clear in The Conversations that what really fascinates him in film production is editing. It's not surprising; those who love Ondaatje praise the lyrical nature of his writing, and no one is a film's poet more than its editor. As Murch explains in the book: "There's an incredible richness that comes from the unanticipated collisions of things."

Ondaatje is not a subtle writer — those stabbings! — but he is a subtle storyteller, and a complicated one. It's hard to summarize the plot of The Cat's Table because the plot is so sneaky: you don't realize the events of the novel are building toward a climax until you've already reached it. The first two hundred pages of the novel feel simply like a series of stolen moments that aren't necessarily getting at anything larger — and if you are the kind of person who can tolerate that kind of thing, you'll happily float along for the ride, simply because the musings are so beautiful.

Take this example: Mynah falls a little in love with his cousin Emily, as is apt to happen to young boys who have older, beautiful cousins. He writes, "When I left Emily's room… I knew I would always be linked to her, by some underground river or a seam of coal or silver." Or this, in a flash-forward to many years later, when Mynah is reunited by a funeral with a girl with whom he had formative romantic experiences as a teenager: "Our desires were fed by an earlier time, from that very early morning in our youth when she seemed painted by those shifting green branches. We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie."

Even during a harrowing scene, when Mynah and his friend Cassius impulsively (and idiotically) decide to lash themselves to the upper deck during a powerful storm, Ondaatje finds some poetry: "During those few hours when we believed we had given up any chance of our lives, everything coalesced. I was something orderless in a jar, unable to escape what was happening… All I held on to was that I was not alone. Cassius was with me. Now and then our heads turned simultaneously in the lightning and we each saw the blunt, washed-out face of the other."

With language like that, who needs a plot?, I found myself rationalizing, before I figured out what Ondaatje was up to with The Cat's Table. This is where that memoir fallback comes in handy: if Ondaatje is simply recalling what happened to him, then he can be forgiven for the book's events not falling into a neat narrative arc, because when does real life work that way?

The last fifty pages of the novel, though, make clear that there was always a plan for these characters — and because of that, we should probably take Ondaatje at face value when he says he created them. Having finished the novel, as I thought back through its turns, I realized it spirals outward. The adventures Mynah shares with Ramadhin and Cassius start as harmless, typical kids' fare: they swipe extra breakfast from an upper deck, causing the captain to search for a stowaway; they dismantle a cane chair and smoke its twigs; they steal away to spy on the prisoner's midnight walks.

As the novel goes on, though, the stakes get higher, with real repercussions: when Cassius and Mynah lash themselves to the deck during the storm, it nearly kills them; and the dog they pick up during a port stop in Aden really does kill the cursed millionaire. (It bites his throat, which I suppose is about as close to stabbing as a dog can get.) The last scene on the ship gathers nearly all the novel's characters and lets them participate in, or at least bear witness to, a desperate, dramatic event that the author has spent the rest of the text earning. And as a final, perfect stroke, it's an event the narrator himself spends much of his life misunderstanding. He doesn't get the whole truth until years later, when that older cousin Emily volunteers some information that corrects Mynah's version of the history of the Oronsay. I am jealous, at last, of Ondaatje's little Mynah: how wonderful would it be not only to remember your adolescence in such detail, but to be able to fact check it?

For a grown-up reader, one of the most comforting aspects of The Cat's Table is that, although it is at heart a coming-of-age novel, it doesn't present adulthood as a teleological endpoint. Mynah does not arrive in London having learned everything he needs to know, not even about what's just happened in his three weeks aboard the Oronsay, some of which will take decades to unpack. It's more a novel about sailing away from something, I think, than sailing toward something: as Mynah's knowledge of life grows with each new experience aboard the ship, the point of its origin (and the person he was there) becomes more and more unknowable. "A boy goes out the door in the morning and will continue to be busy in the evolving map of his world," Ondaatje writes.

Maybe what The Cat's Table represents to its author is simply a chance to be that kind of busy once again. Near the end of a lengthy Guardian profile published in August, Ondaatje pulls a Robert Frost quotation out of his wallet and reads it aloud to his interviewer: "What we do when we write represents the last of our childhood. We may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly."

Putting aside how charming it is that Ondaatje is the sort of person who carries quotations in his wallet — he figuratively, as well as literally, comes from a place that no longer exists — the self-awareness of this gesture is remarkable. Certainly, whether The Cat's Table is steeped in autobiography or not, it represents the author coming to terms with all the aspects of childhood, including its ending. Ondaatje is 68 years old; he has been an adult for half a century. But there will always be a quality of youth to his work, or more specifically of adolescence, the protracted "last of childhood." This is what I like best about him: the sense that his characters, of all ages, live in a world stuffed with possibility; the desperate immediacy of their actions; their sometimes foolish ardor. A lot of the pleasure of reading Ondaatje comes from visiting this sort of mindset, which most of us experience only in glimpses. Ondaatje, it would seem, is fortunate enough to live in it permanently.

And as for Frost's permission for the writer to be irresponsible, I think the keyword is "somewhat." When Ondaatje's characters are stabbed, as in all the instances mentioned above, it is almost always in a meaty place — an arm, a shoulder. The act won't kill the victim, or even seriously damage him; it just changes him, adds the mark of a passionately lived life. And while Ondaatje's characters do die sometimes, it is never because their author has been reckless with them.

When reflecting on his own journey from Ceylon to London, Ondaatje muses, "I would not send an 11-year-old child on a three-hour train ride, let alone a three-week boat trip." A cranky reader might point out that the author does exactly this to his own protagonist: he creates the child Mynah, only to loose him on a journey for which he is probably not adequately prepared. But I have learned not to doubt Ondaatje's compassion. I don't think he would have put his protagonist on the boat unless he knew Mynah would emerge safely on the other side, in a different world, a different person.

Alexandria Symonds is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here and she tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about authentrification.

"Pau Hafa Sloppið Undan Punga Myrkursins" - Olafur Arnalds (mp3)

"Wildfires" - Josh Ritter (mp3)

"Kids on the Run" - Tallest Man on Earth (mp3)