Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

Coming through Slaughter, book review by Ruth LivingstoneThis is an interesting book, first published in 1976. It has a weird structure and, initially, I was completely bemused by it.

The subject of the story is Buddy Bolden, a black American musician living in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Buddy was famous for his cornet playing and for being one of the early pioneers of jazz music. Sadly there are no recordings of his work as Buddy played in an era before recordings became commonplace. The cover shows a rare photo of Buddy Bolden and his band.

The book is slim – a novella, not a novel. In this edition the pages are strangely laid out, looking cramped with narrow margins and text starting unusually close to the top of each page. I have no idea if this was deliberate or not. There are no conventional chapters; instead the book consists of segments of narrative divided into sections, with each new section starting on a new page. Some segments are lines of dialogue – written without speech marks. Some sections simply contain the lyrics to a song. Some segments are written in third person, some in first person.

The book opens with a 3rd person narrator who is, I think, a man called Webb – a police detective and an old friend who searches for Buddy after his disappearance. Within the first few pages, the narrative slips into 1st person (Buddy’s voice) and then alternates between various points of view. Some sections have a heading indicating the narrator or the topic, e.g. Parade (5th morning) or Frank Lewis or Train Song. But this labeling is inconsistent and some sections simply start with a flow of text and you have to work out where you are and whose voice you are listening to.

I was unsettled by the odd layout, the fluctuating point of view and the way the narrative skips from one section to the other with little signposting and no linking text. Eventually, I decided to approach the text as if I was reading from a reporter’s notebook and I found this helped me to get into it.

The book is divided into three parts.

  1. The first part starts with a section entitled ‘His geography‘ and covers the background to Buddy’s life.
  2. The second part relates the circumstances around Buddy’s mysterious disappearance.
  3. The final part talks about his return and his subsequent illness.

The ‘through Slaughter‘ in the title refers to the town of Slaughter through which the train passed when Buddy made his final return home.

What I liked about this book

  • I enjoyed the different stories told by the varied voices and characters. It took me a little while to find my bearings in the book but, after I got used to the style, the writing seemed very authentic and I got a real three-dimensional picture of Buddy – a rounded view of a complex man.
  • The description of everyday life in New Orleans was very vivid: the barber shop, the drinking, the jazz parades. I was particularly struck by a brief, terrible description of the ‘mattress prostitutes’, women who literally carried a mattress on their backs as they went out soliciting their clients.
  • I liked the bold, experimental structure of the book. It was intriguing.

What I didn’t like about this book

  • I wasn’t sure how much of the book was real and how much was imaginary. I assume, for example, that the song lyrics represent real songs of the era, but this wasn’t clear. It is possible that some of the recollections were genuine reportage of people’s memories, but this wasn’t clear either. The purist in me felt frustrated by this ambiguity.
  • I later learnt that the strange structure of the book is intended to replicate the syncopated and disjointed rhythms of jazz music. I have to say, not being a jazz lover, I failed to appreciate this at the time.
  • Although the dialogue is written as naturalistic speech and is clearly not standard English, I struggled to hear what I would consider to be the authentic tone of the American deep south. The author, Michael Ondaatje, was born in Sri Lanka and spent a few years in Britain before moving to Canada. I did wonder if it was his own multicultural background that prevented an accurate rendition of New Orleans speech. Another explanation is that I simply didn’t ‘get’ the accent.
  • I would have preferred more signage to help me navigate the book. This could easily have been achieved by consistently providing a heading for each new section.

What I learned from this book

After I overcame my initial confusion, I really enjoyed the unconventional way in which this book is written. It made me think about how these techniques could be applied to my own writing projects. For example, I think it would be particularly effective when writing a biography to intersperse the text with transcripts of real letters, extracts from diaries, reconstructed conversations, third-party recollections, etc. The possibilities are endless. I might give it a go…..

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