seinfeld vs ondaatje vs wofford


An unhappy Elaine sits at the counter as the waitress pours her coffee.

WAITRESS: Rough night?

ELAINE: Ugh. You wouldn’t believe it. My boyfriend dumped me. My friends, who
I don’t even like, they won’t talk to me. (face-pulling) All because I don’t
like that stupid English Patient movie.

WAITRESS: Really? I thought it was pretty good.

ELAINE: Oh, come on. Good? What was good about it? (scoffs) Those sex scenes!
I mean, please! Gimme something I can use!

WAITRESS: (sour) Well, I liked it.

The waitress takes the coffee pot and walks away into the back.

ELAINE: (calling after) Hey. You forgot about my piece of pie. Hello?
(irritated) You know, sex in a tub. That doesn’t work!

Okay, so I’d never seen the Seinfeld “The English Patient” episode. I know, I know. And you thought I was cultured. I caught it by accident last week, and it just cracked me up to no end. Because, while I loved Michael Ondaatje‘s novel when it first came out, I got seriously sick of everyone swanning on and on about the frickin’ movie a few years down the line. It almost ruined the book for me.

The movie was okay. Ralph Fiennes smoldered (no pun intended) and restrained his passion, repressed men everywhere identified with him. Kristen Scott Thomas got in a bath tub: people found a skinny naked blond chick strangely compelling, for the first time ever in cinema. Willem Dafoe was all-thumbs, no-thumbs. It was heartbreaking. Epic. Heroic. Lovely. Crispy. Cave-y. Etc. Etc.

The movie wasn’t particularly hateful, I mostly just got sick of people lauding it. And I think I also just resented the fact that I of course had to go see it, too, even though I knew better. (Lemming. Dope.) And while Ondaatje’s basic story did lend itself easily to cinematic storytelling, his language was infinitely more intimate, tender and complex than the blunt romantic narrative a 2 hour mainstream feature film could synopsize. The quiet, interior space that the book had provided me with was tagged over by the melodramatic visuals I got stuck with after the movie. Something very private and ambiguous became something aggravatingly public and explicit. My bad.

I went on to read In The Skin of A Lion(1987) and Anil’s Ghost (2000) after TEP(1992), and loved them both, as well. Different novels, but still imbued with that spareness, subtle faceting, and visual curiosity that Ondaatje’s got such a line in on. I have a habit of mini-dog-earing any page in a book with a good sentence or phrase in it: with his books, I might as well fold every page, at times. But after Anil’s Ghost in 2000, Home-slice didn’t publish another book of fiction until just now. I moved on to other writers, and less and less fiction.

Something’s shifting now, though. I’m having one of those delicious returns to reading fiction that often seem to coincide with autumn. What is it: does the cooling weather calm the brain down enough to let language saturate better, more slowly? Ondaatje’s finally got around to writing a new novel, just in time for my mushy, battered, theory-abused, post-grad-school brain to be really grateful for. Divisadero is giving me much to find delicious. I’d forgotten, or maybe I never realized, just how artfully, willfully abstract Ondaatje’s narratives are (and why this might be so compelling to me as an artist). How, even in a straightforward scene, he pulls some visual moment, some quiet stunt of imagination, that just gets me every time. And how even as a male writer, there’s something almost gender-neutral, in the way he shifts between characters’ voices so carefully and respectfully.

I hesitate to wander into the territory of literary criticism here, since I’m a hack: I can only assert that his writing has been food for me, is probably nutritious for other artists, too. Lots of other civilians, too, in fact. In this weird way, just remembering/reflecting on how his writing has informally, unconsciously affected me over the years, is reminding me that some of the narrative experiments I’ve been working on with the various nurse projects I’ve been working on for some time now, are much more deeply influenced by poetry and nonlinear narrative fiction than I’d been conscious of. Duh.

I’m just past half way, so maybe Divisadero will still turn around and be awful, but that’s looking doubtful. I’ll let you know. (Incidentally, the book is set primarily in Northern California, and also France. It’s just like the English Patient, but with poker, crack addicts, public defendants, and Petaluma!) In the meantime, if anyone’s got any other good contemporary fiction recommendations, I think I’m about to go on a fall reading binge…

[Movie Theatre]

Peterman and Elaine are still in front of The English Patient. Peterman
stares, enraptured, at the screen. Elaine is totally frantic with boredom.

PETERMAN: Elaine, I hope you’re watching the clothes, because I can’t take my
eyes off the passion.

ELAINE: (quiet vehemence) Oh. No. I can’t do this any more. I can’t. It’s too
long. (to the screen) Quit telling your stupid story, about the stupid
desert, and just die already! (louder) Die!!

The other movie patrons turn and shush Elaine, who sits back in her seat.

PETERMAN: (surprised) Elaine. You don’t like the movie?

ELAINE: (shouts) I hate it!!

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