Running in the Family
“I wanted to touch them into words:” Examining the Contrasting Roles of Storytelling in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed
In both Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje and The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, the male protagonist is deeply affected by a problem-drinking father. In The Lesser Blessed, Larry Sole’s father becomes physically and sexually abusive when he is drunk. As a result, Larry ends up killing his father and lives with graphic and traumatic memories of him. In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s father’s alcoholism drives his family away and he eventually ends up killing himself in a drunken spell, which prohibits Michael from ever having a relationship with his father. There is a distinct difference in how the men view their fathers: Michael romanticizes the memory of his father while Larry is horribly traumatized by the memory of his father. Their contrasting memories of their fathers influence how they respectively use their storytelling as a coping strategy. Michael uses the act of storytelling in order to bring himself closer to his father and learn more about him through others’ stories, but Larry uses it to externalize his trauma and distance himself from his father. In Running in the Family and The Lesser Blessed, both Van Camp and Ondaatje show how storytelling can be used in contrasting ways to achieve the same goal of closure in order to cope with their problem-drinking fathers.
Both Larry and Michael have problem-drinking fathers who they remember very differently. Larry’s father was in the residential schools and although “he never talked about what had happened there… he always talked French when he drank” (58). Larry’s father refuses to confront the trauma he experienced in the residential schools and uses alcohol to escape the reality of what happened to him. Only when he is drunk is he able to express his trauma by speaking French, and becomes physically and sexually abusive as a result of this release. Larry recalls watching his father sexually abuse both his mother and his aunt and how afterward, Larry would sniff gas with his cousins. Larry discloses that he “wasn’t too crazy about it at first, but after seeing [his] dad to the bad thing to [his] aunt, it took the shakes away” (58). The intergenerational effects of residential schools is clear as Larry must resort to using drugs so that he can escape the trauma he endures because of his father’s alcoholism and subsequent abuse. Larry also suffers from this sexual abuse, and his father “forcing his penis into his son’s mouth… objectifies the child as a vehicle for sexual release, inscribing in Larry a sense of worthlessness in his father’s eyes” (McKegney 212). With this traumatic event Larry describes “[his] hammer, [his] secret tusk; [him] standing over [his] Dad and bringing it down, slamming it down,” because he “wanted to take it away, the sin and dirt and cum and blood in [his] mouth” (Van Camp 78). Larry kills his father because he fears more abuse and feels worthless; he cannot see any other way to save himself and his mother. He recalls the memory of killing his father after being knocked out at the school dance as he “taste[s] blood in [his] mouth where [he’d] bitten [his tongue… [he] could hear [his] father shiver again as [he] brought the hammer down” (77). Tasting the blood again in his mouth brings back the intensely vivid flashback of killing his father as he slips fluidly into this graphic memory. This traumatic occurrence, as well as the memory of his father, is strong in his mind, which is why he is able to so quickly slip back into the scene of the murder in his thoughts.
In Running in the Family, Michael’s experience with his alcoholic father, Mervyn, is different because he was never physically or sexually abused. However, his father’s drinking does have a major effect on his family’s life. “With the first drink, after which he could almost never stop, the wars [between his parents] would begin again,” (Ondaatje 154) and Michael was “too young, and oblivious” to realize what was happening whenever his “father would lapse into one of his alcoholic states” (152). Michael does not remember what his father was like when he was drunk because he was not old enough to understand at the time. As a result, Michael never saw or felt for himself how frustrating having an alcoholic husband and father was for his mother and siblings. Michael feels his life has been “terribly shaped by what went on before him” (161) and as a result of the alcoholism and subsequent divorce, his father was “always separate until he died, away from” Michael and his siblings (154). Michael feels removed from his family life in Ceylon, being the youngest sibling, and regrets not knowing his father better and being closer to him. He realizes that his “loss was that [he] never spoke to [his father] as an adult,” which shows how Michael laments the fact that he missed out on a relationship with his father (161). Mervyn ends up killing himself while drunk one night, leaving Michael only with stories from others to piece together the man his father was and consequently has very few, if any, personal memories of his father. Larry and Michael have very different memories of their problem-drinking fathers. While Larry’s memories are vivid and overwhelming, Michael’s memories are incomplete and mostly made up of what other people tell him. When juxtaposing their memory, it is clear why Larry and Michael have severely contrasting opinions of their fathers.
As a result of having different experiences and memories, Ondaatje and Larry have contrasting feelings towards their fathers. Ondaatje is able to romanticize who his father was because his memories are vague and took place a long time ago. His memories of the alcoholism starkly contrast the graphic and horrifying images Larry recalls in The Lesser Blessed. Larry does not romanticize his father whatsoever, and “scratch[es] with a knife the word NO a hundred million times on the back of all the mirrors in [his] house, so [his] mother sees that [he] says NO to her, so [his] mother sees that [he] says NO to [his] father… and to the acts unforgivable” (Van Camp 1). Larry cannot forgive his father and incessantly relives the abuse he experienced throughout the novel; he is still so immersed in the trauma that his hatred for his father is very present. Contrastingly, Michael idealizes his father and remembers him for “the invented games with his children… the relearning of old song from the past to delight them…the silliness of lyrics from the thirties which had always moved him… [his] courtesy, [his] modesty… the decent gestures among a small circle of family and friends” (Ondaatje 182-183). These are “stray actions [Michael is] told about by those who loved [his father],” who paint a romanticized picture of Mervyn that Michael adopts as his own (182). As a result, Michael’s view of his father is idealized and he longs to have a relationship with him. According to a scientific study in the Family Science journal, there are four types of relationships that a son can have with his problem-drinking father: “fondness, irritation, melancholy, and hatred” (Pirskanen 396). Michael is representative of the “Narrative of Fondness,” in which “the sons [are] loyal to their fathers, refuse to see them negatively, and defend them against possible criticism” (397). This type of relationship is most common when “after a long period of being distant” from one another, the son feels “in a way in control of the relationship,” which reflects Michael’s relationship with his father (397). Michael does not clearly remember his father’s problem-drinking, therefore he is able to distance himself from that part of Mervyn and have only fond feelings towards him. Larry’s relationship with his father is representative of “Narrative of Hatred.” This narrative is unique because in this case the child’s “earliest memories of the father were already negative, because the father had been physically violent toward the mother, son, siblings, or all of these” (398). Larry’s memories of his father’s problem-drinking and abuse stem from when he was a young child. The psychological, physical, and sexual violence Larry experienced “made it impossible for [him] to feel… positive emotional elements” (398). The “Narrative of Hatred” accurately depicts Larry’s relationship with his father. This study illustrates how sons with problem-drinking fathers can have very different feelings towards them, which is clear in the difference between how Michael and Larry feel about their fathers. The way these two men remember their fathers is extremely different and as a result they both use storytelling in contrasting ways for their healing process.
In both novels, Larry and Michael both use the act of storytelling as a coping mechanism to deal with their relationships with their fathers. Larry’s storytelling is a combination between Western and Indigenous values because he retells Indigenous stories and uses them as a vehicle for healing, which represents a very Westernized idea of therapy and talking out one’s feelings. The first story he tells to another character in the novel is the Indigenous creation story. After Larry finishes the story Johnny says, “You’re a storyteller, man. Your voice even changed when you talked” (Van Camp 52). Larry is “proud of the moment and the revelation. That was the first time [he] had told the story and [he] liked how it felt,” which shows how storytelling provides him with feelings of pride, release, and happiness (52). When Larry recalls the fire he set with his cousins, he remembers how “[they] wept because [they] knew [they] had no one. No one to remember [their] names, no one to cry [them] out… to mourn [them] in death]… [they] wept because [they] did not belong to anyone” (79). Larry does not feel connected to anyone in the world, which is why he lights the fire to kill himself and his cousins. He is made to feel worthless by his father who uses him as a vehicle for sexual release and as a result does not feel like he belongs to anyone or anywhere in the world and tries to kill himself. Storytelling is a way for “people [to] put events in order and comprehend reality… thus creating links between the world, themselves and others” (Bosticco 3). Retelling the Indigenous creation story to Johnny makes Larry feel good because he is using the act of storytelling to connect himself to someone else, and to the larger Indigenous community.
One of Larry’s most difficult insecurities is that he does not belong anywhere, so storytelling is an imperative part of his healing process because it is connecting him to someone and giving him the sense of belonging he needs. As Larry develops his artistry of storytelling throughout the course of the novel, he connects with more and more people. Juliet, the girl he longs for, calls him one night and asks him to tell her a story. Before he begins, Larry thinks to himself “that this [is his] chance to completely give Juliet something that was [his] so much that [he] would be nothing else” (Van Camp 99). He knows that by telling her this story he is giving a part of himself to her and creating a space of belonging for himself in the world. Larry does not just tell stories to feel connected to others, but also as a cathartic release to heal from his trauma because “each time [one] tell[s] [his or her] story it occupies less space and grief in [one’s] soul” (Bosticco 5). Throughout the novel Larry incessantly returns to his moment of trauma and relives it in horrifying detail. At the beginning of the novel, he is unable to tell his therapist about what happened or express to them what he is going through. However, after his development throughout the novel and as he steps into his role as a storyteller he is able to begin to open up to Juliet about what happened to him. Whereas initially after he gets burned he “[doesn’t] want [anyone] to see what [he’s] become” and screams at the sight of “raw hamburger on a human face” (81), at the end of the novel while he is having sex with Juliet he says “Look at me… Look into me, just look at me” (110). Larry invites Juliet to stare at the effects of his trauma in the physical form of his burns. As he experiences his first sexual release, he simultaneously experiences this emotional and cathartic release of his trauma. Juliet looks at him and Larry thinks: “I wasn’t alone I wasn’t forgotten I wasn’t dead There was no small town There was no killing I wasn’t bad I was clean” (110). He completely changes the way he felt before he tried to commit suicide because he feels connected to someone else and is releasing this memory and sharing it with her by allowing her to look at his scars.
In Running in the Family, Michael also uses storytelling in order to cope with the fact that he never really had a relationship with his father. The entire act of writing this novel is an attempt to get to know his father better from the stories people told him to help him write this fictional memoir. Michael’s brother tells him that “[he] must get this book right” because “[he] can only write it once” (183). Michael’s brother is concerned with accuracy and piecing together all of the stories, but this is not Michael’s primary goal. In the Acknowledgments section at the end of the novel, Michael admits that “the book is not a history but a portrait of ‘gesture’… [because] a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts” (Ondaatje 189). Michael is concerned with the process of writing this novel and making sense of all the stories and memories he is told about his father. People often reconstruct or elaborate stories of grief or bereavement, and as a result “stories do not always accurately reflect what actually happened… [therefore] ’to some extent, our stories . . . are all fictions’” (Bosticco 8). This technique of “sensemaking” is exactly what Michael is doing in his novel Running in the Family (4). “This ‘redramatization’ of family stories can give the family members access to the bereavement scripts they carry” and help them cope with their loss in a healthy way (13). Between pages 174 and 180, Michael recounts several different perspectives of Mervyn’s death, but despite all the information and memories he hears Michael acknowledges that “the book again is incomplete. In the end all [of Mervyn’s] children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues” (Ondaatje 183). Michael knows that he is using this book and these stories to cope with the fact that he will never actually know his father. While this is something he laments, the best way he can deal with it is by attempting to create a narrative about his father that he can live with and turn to. Both Larry and Michael use the act of storytelling as a cathartic release of their emotions and as a way of connecting with others. By verbalizing their thoughts and memories, as well as the thoughts and memories of others, they are facing their trauma and loss and are able to cope with their feelings.
While both Larry and Michael use storytelling as their coping mechanism, they use it in very different ways because of their contrasting memories of and feelings towards their fathers. Larry uses the act of storytelling to externalize and distance himself from the trauma and his father, whereas Michael uses it to bring himself closer to the memory of his father. Larry’s externalization of his story and distance from his trauma is illustrated through his clothing. Even though Larry “usually [sleeps] buck to let [his] skin breathe…if [he takes] off [his] clothes, Johnny might see [the] scars, and [Larry] didn’t want that” (Van Camp 86). When Larry is first questioned by Johnny about his burns, Larry “defensively” answers that he was “kissed by the fuckin’ devil” (87). At this point in the novel Larry is clearly very uncomfortable with anyone seeing his scars and refuses to tell anyone how he got them. He uses his clothing as a shield from others that keeps his memories bottled up inside of him. Similarly to how he needs to take off his clothes and lie naked in order to let his burns breathe at night, Larry needs to verbalize his trauma, share it with someone, and be vulnerable in order to heal his mental state, as well. This metaphor is extended after he opens up to Juliet about his trauma. Instead of getting defensive about why he is burned like he does with Johnny, he responds by saying he “was sewn into the belly of an animal” (111). Although it is not the full story, it is the closest he comes to expressing his trauma and sharing it with another person. Just after he tells Juliet this small part of his memory, he stands “naked and free” before her, completely vulnerable (114). After Larry verbalizes and externalizes his story and shows Juliet his burns, he distances himself from the trauma. His story is no longer shielded by his clothing, but is placed outside himself, available to someone else. In this way, Larry is distancing himself from his trauma and his father. Contrastingly, Michael uses storytelling to bring himself closer to his father. Michael returns to Ceylon, Sri Lanka, in an attempt to connect all the memories and stories he hears about his father. He realizes that he “slipped past a childhood [he] had ignored and not understood…[he] would be travelling back to the family [he] had grown from — those relations who [stand] in [his] memory like frozen opera…[he] wanted to touch them into words” (Ondaatje 4). Michael’s goal for this return journey and in writing this novel is to bring the memories he pieces together closer to him. By writing this novel, he is validating and eternalizing all of the stories that strengthen the relationship between him and his father. Running in the Family and The Lesser Blessed show how storytelling is used for healing, yet both do so in contrasting ways. This comparison demonstrates how the same strategy can be used very differently and still result in coping with a problem-drinking father.
Larry Sole and Michael Ondaatje both are trying to find a way to cope with their problem-drinking fathers. While Larry struggles to talk about his trauma and his horrifying experiences, Michael laments the fact that he never had a relationship with his father and feels the loss tremendously. Larry constantly and unwillingly returns to traumatic memories of his father, which breeds feelings of hatred and the desire to distance himself from his past. Contrastingly, Michael seeks out memories of his father and longs to piece together stories so he can learn more about who his father was. Both characters use the same coping mechanism to deal with their contrasting problems and are able to heal through the act of storytelling. As a result of their different memories and subsequent feelings towards their fathers, Larry uses storytelling to distance himself from his father and Michael uses storytelling to bring himself closer to his father. Both Ondaatje and Van Camp show how storytelling is an effective coping mechanism and can be used in contrasting ways to accomplish the same goal of healing from loss or trauma.
The Animal Inside Us: A Close Reading of Running in the Family
Throughout the novel Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, there are many occurrences of humans, mainly men, displaying their animalistic nature over their human nature that sets them apart from other animals, especially with one of the major themes of the whole novel being the comparison between foreigners and native islanders and the difference between civilization and nature on a broad scale. Thus, through the passage of the Visitor’s Book, Ondaatje uses symbols, hyperboles, and imagery in order to demonstrate the fact that every human, no matter how civilized, has an animalistic nature within them.
As he presents the Visitor’s book, Ondaatje employs symbols relating to the visitor’s book in order to demonstrate the fact that there is an animalistic nature within everyone. More specifically, throughout this passage, Ondaatje develops the idea that this whole feud simply represented the evolution of news and media in developed countries, which, in the height of their conflicts, best represented the animalistic nature in people. When the conflict is first introduced, Ondaatje refers to it as his “father wag[ing] war with…a close relative of the eventual Prime Minister of Ceylon” (Ondaatje 151). Not only does he refer to it as so extreme as to be “waging war” but he also makes a key note about the position and rank of Sammy in society at the time as well. Ondaatje uses that symbol of the two rich and high class men waging war with each other to symbolize the press and how there are constant conflicts between significant people, but more importantly to symbolize the animalistic nature in both Sammy and Mervyn after creating a war over a Visitor’s Book. In addition, later in the passage, as the ‘war’ escalates, “pages continued to be torn out, ruining a good archival history of two semi-prominent Ceylon families” (Ondaatje 152). Their literary war goes so far as to ruining a historical relationship between their two families, yet Ondaatje uses this as a symbol for modern media as well. The fact that this simple conflict was enough to separate two families was just Ondaatje’s attempt at symbolizing the horrendous effects of all out warfare over press and media as well, both of which finally end up showing animalistic nature of these two elite men who otherwise seem like completely civilized people. Finally, the fact that the “literary war broke so many codes,” was another attempt by Ondaatje to symbolize the animalistic nature within these two men and the conflict that they were part of (Ondaatje 152). The war between them, at this point, had escalated so much that it was regarded as breaking even the codes of normal wars, symbolizing what Ondaatje though about the nature of humanity in general. Thus, these symbols were used by Ondaatje in order to present the fact that humanity always has an animalistic nature inside that can reveal itself in times like this.
In addition, Ondaatje uses vivid imagery throughout the passage of the Visitor’s Book in order to highlight the point that humans are essentially animalistic in nature. Through the beginning of the conflict highlighted in this passage, the types of things that Sammy and Mervyn were writing in the visitors’ books were just so extreme, starting with “bitch[ing] about everything, from service to badly made drinks…” all the way to “…one and a half pages of vindictive prose, dropping hints of madness and incest” (Ondaatje 151). The imagery used to describe the conflict and actions of the two men is so strong that is seems unreal, and yet it is made specifically like that by Ondaatje in order to illustrate the wildness those two men get into. Thus Ondaatje uses that highly expressive and extreme imagery to illustrate how equally extreme these men were getting because of their inner animalistic natures taking over. Later on in the passage, as the conflict begins to escalate to unsustainable levels, Ondaatje describes the situation involving “pages [having] to be ripped out of visitors’ bools. Eventually one would write about the other even when the other was nowhere near the other” (Ondaatje 152). The vivid language and imagery used by Ondaatje in this excerpt not only emphasized the gravity of the situation with the two men but also the extent to which they had lost their human like aspects and had followed their animalistic nature and instincts completely, leading to such a dangerous situation. Thus not only does Ondaatje use the vivid imagery for presenting the extent to which these men had displayed their animalistic nature over their human nature, but also to communicate how dangerous of a situation it creates when people resort to their animal natures.
Ondaatje, moreover, uses hyperboles throughout the passage of The Visitor’s Book in order to establish the fact that all people have a core animalistic nature within them, which, at a basic level, defines how they act. When Ondaatje introduces the conflict that started the feud, he writes that “it was on his travels by road that my father waged war with a certain Sammy Dias Bandaranaike” (Ondaatje 151). Despite the fact that this whole conflict was simply an issue between the two men themselves, and resulted in each writing bad comments about the other, it is talked about like a war in Ondaatje’s perspective and thus greatly exaggerated for the effect of dramatizing the implications of this conflict. Ondaatje ultimately uses this hyperbole as a method of more significantly presenting the fact that humans, at the core, operate based on an animalistic nature. Later on in the passage, as the conflict was escalating, “Sammy left first, wrote a half-page attach on my father…My father wrote one and a half pages of vindictive prose about the Bandaranaike family” (Ondaatje 151). Both men begin to escalate the conflict to new highs on a much more personal level, which was also completely unwarranted based on the origin of the actual conflict. The true effect that Ondaatje made with that hyperbole, however, was to exemplify the animalistic nature of the decisions and actions done by both Sammy and Mervyn, in order to highlight that despite how civilized of men they were, there was no escape from acting based on their animalistic nature and instinct, which led them to do what they did. Finally, near the end of the passage, when Ondaatje reflects on the effects of the literary warfare that occurred, he comments that “the war petered out when neither Sammy…nor my father was allowed to write their impressions of a stay or a meal…’constructive criticism’ dates from this period” (Ondaatje 152). The effect of the actions of the two men resulted in both effectively being muted in order to prevent the warfare from continuing any more. Ondaatje uses this hyperbole to comment not only on the fact that the men were so animalistic in their actions from their nature, but also that it was so destructive that they had to be completely muted. What Ondaatje is trying to present through the end of this passage is not only that humans are fundamentally animalistic in nature, but also that civilization’s way of dealing with that problem is by completely muting those aspects of people until they effectively disappear.
Thus, through the passage of the Visitors’ book, symbols, imagery, and hyperboles all work together to indicate that not only do all people have a fundamental animalistic nature within them, but that the animalistic nature is also perceived as very dangerous by society and thus muted as much as possible by modern civilizations. This means that in addition to the point that Ondaatje is making about the novel as a whole and the events that occur in Ceylon at the time, he is also making a commentary on the rest of the world, and how modern civilizations across the world have dealt with the perceived problem that Ondaatje highlights by controlling, to some extent, the level of freedom that people have in acting in an animalistic nature exclusively.
The Mirror: Analyzing Running in the Family
In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje uses motifs, syntax, and analogies in order to create a mythic Ceylon and convey his fragmented identity through the fate of history. By employing a sarcastic and ironic tone, he creates an analogy between what people in the past did to Ceylon and what he is doing in the memoir; he is making a “chart” of his father.
Ondaatje first uses the motifs of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and what is lost in translation to highlight that subjective reality precedes objective reality. While thinking about Ceylon during his time in Toronto, he introduces the motif of in-between-ness and hybridity, emphasizing that he is stuck between the two worlds: Ceylon and Canada. He combines the fragmented syntax with “old portraits” (2-3) as a metaphor to “false maps” (2) in order to emphasize these motifs. The motifs of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and what is lost in translation are also highlighted through the paradox of “rumors of topography” (19); the paradox is that since topography is science, how can there be rumors? Ondaatje uses what these maps project to give power to the subjective truth and to undermine facts and objective truth. The motifs of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and what is lost in translation are later combined with the motif of what it means to be a foreigner. Ondaatje uses these aspects of his narrative to show that truth is based on perception, and that the course of history fragments his and his family’s identity. He also combines these motifs with allusions of mythic images to justify his own mythmaking. Using the images of “satyrs” (17) and a “cherub” (9), Ondaatje creates magical realism to juxtapose the Greek mythical creature and Asian images, thus highlighting the hybridity and in-between-ness motifs. Together, these motifs are what allow Ondaatje to create his own mythmaking, and to therefore be able to create his own fiction and ultimately know his father.
Ondaatje also uses syntax to highlight his fragmented and hybrid identity; his authorial devices also fragment time and space in the memoir. By using the fragment sentence “the island seduced all Europe. The Portuguese. The Dutch. The English. And so its name changed…” (22-23), Ondaatje personifies Ceylon as a starkly seductive woman, highlighting the fact that his memoir is a postcolonial commentary. This excerpt also echoes back to the title, “Tabula Asiae” (1), which means blank slate; Ondaatje uses it sarcastically, to criticize the colonizers who only saw what they wanted to see in Ceylon and made what they wanted of the land. The repetition of the fragmented syntax also develops the construction of identity motif. The fragmentary syntax here is used to describe Ceylon. However, when Ondaatje explains the name “Ondaatje. A parody of the ruling language” (34-35), he uses the fragmentary syntax to describe himself and his family. The fragment sentences reflect Ondaatje and his family’s fractured, hybrid identities. He emphasizes that even at the core of his identity, his name is a hybrid. The final sentence of one early passage reads, “here. At the center of the rumor. At this point on the map” (36-37). These final fragment sentences once again reflect Ondaatje and his family’s fractured, hybrid identities. They quickly take us from the distant past to the present, fracturing time and space. All of these fragment sentences set up the analogy that Ondaatje makes regarding the colonizers and himself; Ondaatje is to the European colonizers as his and his family’s fractured, hybrid identities are to Ceylon.
Lastly, Ondaatje uses analogy to compare what people in the past did to Ceylon and what he is doing in the memoir; he is making a “chart” of his father. The list of names that he at one point provides, “Ptolemy, Mercator, Francois Valentyn, Mortier, and Heydt” (5-6), serves as an allusion to important contributors to geography and cartography. Yet Ondaatje believes that he is considering “false maps” (2), since they are illustrations of what the colonizers saw and made of Ceylon. However, false maps “[grew] from the mythic shapes into eventual accuracy” (6-7). Ondaatje uses this analogy to explain that such approximate “mapmaking” is what people of the past have done to Ceylon and what he is doing in the memoir. He is creating his own fiction through disregarding objective truth and giving power to the subjective truth, thus “charting” a map of his father through his family. Through the construction of identity motif developed by the fragmented syntax, Ondaatje creates an analogy between Ceylon and his own fragmented identity, emphasizing that his identity is fractured just like Ceylon due to the fate of history. Using the analogies, Ondaatje justifies his actions of creating his own fiction through the memoir in an attempt to achieve self-integration by knowing his father. Since Ceylon only “pretended to reflect each European power” (29), Ondaatje’s paralleled identity only “pretended” (29) to achieve or to be able to achieve self-integration, thus placing ambiguity on the actions of Ondaatje in attempting to achieve the impossible.
Through motifs, syntax, and analogies, Michael Ondaatje attempts to achieve the impossible task of self-integration by knowing his father. He emphasizes that subjective truth precedes objective truth in mythmaking. By envisioning a mythical Ceylon, he creates his own myth in the memoir. However, the question of whether or not he achieved his goal of fully establishing that myth remains ambiguous and unanswered.
The Necessity of Ambiguity: Comparing ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ and ‘Running in the Family’
Ambiguous text, written in such a way that the wording can be interpreted with multiple meanings, is used regularly in literature as a means of creating deeper significance in the passage. This is demonstrated in the memoirs Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. Ambiguity in memoirs especially enhances the text by offering multiple ways for the reader to understand that which they are reading, as opposed to falling into the author’s own thoughts on their past experiences. The ways in which ambiguity enriches literature in reference to these two memoirs is through allowing the reader to find their own meaning in the text, distinguishing the author through their stylistic choices, and setting memoirs apart from other types of literature.
First of all, ambiguity allows for both symbolic and metaphorical interpretation of the text. If an event is fully explained there is no room left for expression of the reader. For example, in Running in the Family it is questioned whether or not Michael Ondaatje includes a subtle critique of colonialism. The mannerisms and actions of Ondaatje’s grandmother, Lalla, are described as “There was some sense of divine right she felt she and everyone else has, even if she had to beg for it or steal it. This overbearing charmed flower.” (125) There is a possibility that her behavior is written as such because this was how she acted, but the way Ondaatje has chosen to present this also brings up the possibility of greater intention behind his words. The term ‘divine right of conquest’ is often used to describe the way in which the colonizers behaved towards their newly obtained countries. They felt that they were helping the indigenous, which can be interpreted through the line “This overbearing charmed flower.” (125) Ondaatje’s writing of his grandmother in this way has the possibility of being interpreted as a portrayal of how the colonialist attitude has affected his country. Similarly, in Teaching a Stone to Talk’s essay “An Expedition to the Pole” describes her feelings towards organized religion by comparing it to the past expeditions of ship crews to the pole. Towards the end she states,
Many clowns are here; one of them is passing out Girl Scout cookies, all of which are stuck together. […] Sir John Franklin and crew have boarded this floe […] The men, whose antique uniforms are causing envious glances, are hungry. (51)
Interpreted literally, the paragraph is difficult to understand, but in the context of interpretation with the rest of the essay, it is more clear. Earlier in the piece, the ministers of her church give out wafers which are also stuck together. This is the way she views the ministers: as clowns. The crew can be seen as the people of the church, hungry for the understanding of God. In both of these examples, the ambiguity of the writing allows for a deeper meaning for the reader to discover for themselves.
Furthermore, ambiguity also allows for the author to express their stylistic choices. In Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” she states, “We teach out children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up.” (97) When Dillard writes in this way, her work exists as more than just words on a page. It is art. When reading this sentence, what she means is likely not that the only thing we teach our children is to literally wake up. Instead, she uses ‘wake up’ as a metaphor for living, seeing, and experiencing. Dillard uses stylistic choices such as this throughout her writing to help the reader think more deeply about her meaning. Ondaatje makes use of a similar tactic. For example, when he tells about the number of cobras that invaded his father’s second home. He states,
After my father died, a grey cobra came into the house. […] For the next month this snake would often come into the house and each time the gun would misfire or jam, or my stepmother would miss at absurdly short range. The snake attacked no one and had a tendency to follow my younger sister Susan around. (99)
The fact that the explanation of the cobra’s actions are placed directly following “after my father died” shows that there is some deeper meaning behind the story, perhaps that the cobra is their father. Ondaatje’s and Dillard’s choice to use ambiguity in their writing is a stylistic choice to help the reader explore possibilities other than the most obvious.
Finally, ambiguity in these two memoirs is what helps distinguish them from other types of literature such as autobiography. An autobiography is an outline of the author’s entire life, but the memoir is considered to be more personal as it usually addresses a specific aspect of the author’s life and includes a personal evaluation that is meant to draw the reader’s attention to a theme. Ondaatje often addressing his parent’s married life could go to show that this specific theme is his parent’s love, just as with Dillard it can be said that the theme she focuses on is drawing more from your surroundings. However, both can be interpreted in different ways because of the ambiguity in the way they are written. Ondaatje also often explores his father’s madness. When discussing his father’s hold up of the train, Ondaatje says,
He pulled out his army pistol […] and threatened to kill the driver unless he stopped the train. He explained that he expected this trip to be a pleasant one and he wanted his good friend Arthur van Langenberg who had missed the train to enjoy it with him. (148)
This topic is addressed in great depth and could also be taken as the main focus of the book. Similarly, Dillard speaks a great deal about her travels and it could be interpreted that this is what opens the eye to the ways of the world. Such as when in Ecuador she sees a small deer tied up for a meal later and states, “‘Pobrecito’ – ‘poor little thing.’ But I was trying out Spanish. I knew at the time it was a ridiculous thing to say.” (66) which shows that she understands how her views are different from those of the indigenous people. The ambiguity of both texts allows for them to be identified as memoirs as well as interpreted in different ways by their readers, increasing their depth of meaning.
Ambiguity in literature does help to enrich its derived meaning. This is true because it allows the reader to explore what they believe the passage means rather than directly being told the meaning by the author. Not only this, but a specific stylist choice is displayed by the use of ambiguity, which shows that the author intended for the reader to question the meaning behind their work. It even helps memoirs to be defined as such. Ambiguity is part of what is so significant about memoirs. There is a very specific focus on finding meaning in events. However, not everyone finds the same meaning in events, making ambiguity a necessity.
Setting and Theme: ‘This Boy’s Life,’ ‘Running in the Family,’ and the Link Between Place and Characterization
In literature, different settings are often used to explain the production of different types of characters with varied opinions, personalities, and morals. On top of this, the setting is often used to carry a specific idea or emphasize the goal of the characters. The rural locations of each of these books push towards a common theme of escape. In the memoirs This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff and Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje the element of setting is significant in that it aids with the reader’s understanding of the writer’s personal goals both at the time of the events as well as in writing their memoir through acting as a vehicle for theme as well as giving explanation to character’s actions and feelings.
In both of these memoirs, a theme surrounding the idea of escape arises, rooting itself in the isolation that the characters experience in their current settings. Running in the Family takes place on the island of Ceylon and This Boy’s Life in small-town Concrete, Washington. While Ondaatje himself may not have specifically tried to escape the island of Ceylon, he states that he “realized he had slipped past a childhood he had ignored and not understood.” implying that his life in Ceylon has slipped past his fingers (22). It is seen that Ondaatje’s father wants to escape Ceylon through his incessant drinking as well as his attempts to escape his parent’s watchful eye in order to experience his own life after he arrives in England for school, as it is said “It was two and a half years later […] that his parents discovered that he had not even passed the entrance exam and was living off their money in England.” (31) Tobias Wolff describes similar wishes to run away when he states “Eighty dollars seemed a lot of money, more than enough for my purpose, which was to run away to Alaska.” (155) The rural and “trapping” settings of both of these memoirs aids with the reader’s understanding of the discontent that the characters experience and their want to escape. In this sense, the isolation the characters experience through their setting acts as a vehicle for the theme in these two memoirs.
Through the progression of these stories, it becomes more and more clear that each of the writers has used their imagination as a place of refuge from the settings of their homes. Ondaatje uses his imagination to construct the answers to past questions he could not answer himself, and Tobias Wolff uses his to reconstruct himself, for example when he steals his high school’s forms in order to fill out his own grades and letters of recommendations for boarding school applications. In the act of filling them out, he states, “That was what I thought I was writing – the truth. It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the facts arrayed against it.” (213) Tobias is once again trying to escape from the setting in which he lives. Ondaatje similarly constructs “truths” throughout his memoir, such as when he describes the death of his grandmother, Lalla, as “Her last perfect journey.” (128) Although he was not present for Lalla’s death he describes it in great detail, therefore filling a gap in his search through his childhood. He is creating a reality for himself in order to escape from the unknown in his life and to try to piece together his life. Both character’s use of imagination speaks to how the setting acts as a way to explain the behavior of the characters and the author’s writing style as well, which continues to push the theme of escape in the books.
Despite the constant searching for a way out of their childhood places in Running in the Family and This Boy’s Life, in the end, the characters find themselves bound to where they grew up because of the notion of home. While living in Concrete Tobias states, “I was bound to accept my home as a place I did not feel at home in.” (105) and then again after he has gone to live elsewhere and joined the army he says, “I did not know that the word home would forever be filled with this place” (287) Even though Tobias has demonstrated an extreme desire to leave behind his home in Concrete, he is deeply rooted there. This is the paradox in the theme of escape in these two memoirs. Similarly, in Running in the Family, the fact that Ondaatje is revisiting his past at all is a sign that he is holding onto Ceylon. In the first section of the book, he states, “It was a new winter and I was already dreaming of Asia.” (22) Ondaatje wishes to return to his home in order to rediscover his childhood and the truth about his family. The settings in both of these books are described as a home, a very relatable concept, which explains how drawn the authors are to them. Here the setting acts not only as character behavior explanation but also as a factor in allowing the reader to sympathize.
The setting is a significant element in literature in that it boosts the comprehensibility of the book by aiding in the reader’s understanding of the character’s actions and feelings as well as that it acts as a vehicle for the theme. In Running in the Family and This Boy’s Life the rural settings of the island of Ceylon and Concrete, Washington are major players in each of the character’s development and the major inclusion of these settings in the memoirs as a literary element is a tool the authors use to help the reader to understand the events of the book. The theme of escape in both books is also established by the location in which they take place, a theme that without specified setting might be difficult to determine. For these reasons, the setting is an important literary aspect.