"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje (2011)
"One wave hit the Assistant Purser, and the force of it washed out his glass eye. All this while our heads were stretched back to try to see how deep the bow would go on its next descent. Our screams unheard, even to each other, even to ourselves, even if the next day our throats were raw from yelling into that hallway of the sea."
Michael Ondaatje is best known as the author of "The English Patient," a novel which was published in 1992, and later adapted into a film of the same name. He is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet.
"The Cat's Table," his most recent novel, is a coming of age tale, featuring a group of Sri Lankan youths who embark on a boat trip from Sri Lanka to England. The narrator and his friends are immigrating to London, and during their trip he meets an array of characters, each with a story to tell.
In many ways this book resembles the oft-celebrated "Life of Pi," which I also read not long ago. But where "Pi" rambles, "The Cat's Table" is comparatively concise. "Life of Pi" is of course a story of survival, where "The Cat's Table" is a coming of age narrative, but the two novels share many characteristics.
Books like "The Cat's Table" or "Life of Pi" showcase a saddening trend within modern fiction: the abandonment of literature's descriptive function. I'm not exactly sure where or when this trend began, but it seems to me that within the last few years we've seen a whole slew of books in which characters are never adequately described, and in which environments are never adequately mapped out for the reader.
Yes, we could explain away "The Cat's Table" as a symptom of modernity, but in my opinion it's just lazy writing. In leaving out so many details, the author has failed to give us a compelling work. I'd like to think that the meaning of any great novel comes from the reality established through its characters, its plot, and its setting, and if the reality of these things has not been established, we are left with a "hollow" book, lacking the kind of depth one finds elsewhere.
This is not to say that there aren't writers who do minimalism well. Authors like Philip K. Dick or James Ellroy are able to lay out a story in its barest outline, but they are dealing with much weightier themes, that easily lend themselves to such a minimalistic approach. In "The Cat's Table" we are confronted by a reminiscence that doesn't feel real, by a set of memories that feel as if they've happened to someone else. And why is this the case? Because we are missing all the innumerable bits of "trivia" that would have made this book feel so much more real, and so much more vital.
The devil, as they say, is in the details.