Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Cat's Table

I tend not to get terribly excited about short stories. Indeed, I've bought only two collections of short stories in the past two years, the outstanding Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro and, almost equally good, The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes. Neither of these is simply a collection of unrelated short stories. The stories in The Lemon Table are each about old age and death, and the suffering that accompany them. The stories in Nocturnes relate to each other in a manner similar to that of individual pieces of a musical cycle. Though moods and tempos shift from story to story, motifs and themes are woven throughout, connecting them into a greater whole.

So, when it comes to one-off short stories, you see where I am coming from.

Nevertheless, I will sometimes be flipping through my New Yorker and see a new (or previously unread) piece by a favorite novelist. In this week's issue, it was "The Cat's Table," by Michael Ondaatje. So, last night I took a detour from my current novel to read this.

My overall reaction? Meh. A young boy boards a cruise ship to travel alone from Ceylon to England. While not a particularly original setup, it has potential. But an initial shift from the third person to the first person serves no discernible purpose. The ship's stopover in the port of Aden is too-quickly glossed over, and the narrator lingers overlong on the (often unbelievable) activities of his 17-year-old cousin, Emily. Throughout, the language is missing the luminosity of, say, The English Patient.

The New Yorker doesn't say so, but those who follow such things will note that "The Cat's Table" is an excerpt from a full length novel by Ondaatje (titled The Cat's Table), to be published this fall. Fine. But if you are going to publish a short piece, it needs to work as a short piece. I am hopeful that Ondaatje (or his editors, or his agent) simply chose the wrong section to excerpt. At the moment, I am not excited enough to put it on my list of upcoming books to watch for. Maybe when it comes out in paperback...

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