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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

In Which I Define Life

In a previous post having to do with a different book, I wrote about What Do You Do When I Can’t See You—that phenomena in fiction of the reader only being given certain particulars about the characters’ lives. Real life is lived moment to moment, a stream of sometimes random experiences that is often so mundane that we don’t pay much attention. Fiction more or less erases much of the mundane, leaving scenes that further the story and the development of the character. It is not random, unless it’s striving to give the illusion of randomness.

How does this phenomena manifest in Lion?

A third of the way into the story, in the section entitled The Searcher, we read about Patrick being with Clara Dickens in Paris, Ontario, and how the couple are joined by Clara’s friend Alice Gull—whom we have encountered before in the story. We know that Patrick met Clara as part of his attempt to find Ambrose Small, the mysterious millionaire who has disappeared. Clara has been Ambrose’s mistress, and Patrick tries to get her to tell him where Ambrose is. They—she and Patrick—become lovers.

How does Lion convey this story or plot?

First, the narrator tells us about Ambrose Small, who was a “real” historic character. We are presented with several newspaper headlines, told some details of Ambrose’s life in third person, past tense prose. We learn that Clara, an actress, became his mistress, and that he disappeared. The family put up a reward, and ordinary people began searching for him.

Then the narrator takes us to the particular: “In 1924, after working for a year at various jobs in Toronto, Patrick Lewis became a searcher.” Patrick is befriended by Ambrose’s sisters who tell him about Clara. He goes to see her. We are told these things in two or three sentences. There are no dramatic enactments of these events.

“Patrick took the train to Paris, Ontario, and met the radio actress Clara Dickens. She stood in the hall beside her mother and said she would not speak about Ambrose Small.”

Well. A lot is omitted here, and rightly so. Somehow Patrick gets from Point A (when he becomes a searcher) to Point B (when he meets Clara). The reader must infer quite a bit about his motivation (He needs money? Something about being a searcher captured his imagination?), about how he befriended the sisters, about how he bought the train ticket to Paris, Ontario. We are not shown his thoughts as he walked up to the front door of Clara’s house, his feelings when she refuses to speak about Ambrose. We must infer his determination—Clara refuses to speak to him, but Patrick presses on to get what he wants (although it’s quite a journey before he actually finds Ambrose—and, at that point, he’s actually seeking Clara).

How much time elapses? We get a start date of 1924; that’s about it. We must infer the amount of time, say maybe two months from Point A to Point B? Could be three months or two weeks. It’s not that important unless you’re horribly concrete in which case you probably shouldn’t be reading a book like Lion. But it is a critical piece of what sets fiction apart from “real” life.

In creating this passage, Ondaatje had to answer a key question that writers of fiction must constantly answer: How do I show the manner in which my character Patrick met my character Clara? It’s a major part of the story. He could just write, Patrick met Clara after being directed to her by Ambrose Small’s sisters. That would compress about six pages of the text into one sentence. What would the consequences be? It would distance the reader from both characters; they can be brought much closer by writing complex dramatic scenes about how the two met, expressed through poetic, erotic language.


Let’s continue. The text shows how Patrick is smitten by Clara. There is flirting. Then: “When he went back the next morning she opened the door…”

Well, that’s interesting. We are not shown Patrick deciding to leave Clara’s, not shown what the heck he does that night, not shown how he decides to return the next morning. Not that it’s a surprise, but it seems likely that more than twelve hours have elapsed. What did Patrick do, think and feel during this time? We may infer he thought about Clara. Perhaps if Patrick were a real person, this is the way he’d remember the time he met Clara—what did I do that night when I left her house? he’d say. I don’t know…went back to my room, I guess. Had dinner. I really don’t remember. What I do remember is that the next day I went back to see her.

I’m not suggesting that Lion should show these more mundane moments of the character’s lives. Actually, if the book did show us Patrick returning to his hotel room and eating a chicken dinner with four bottles of beer, we would conclude this was significant to the story. And it isn’t.

Texts can be distinguished by how much or how little they show less important scenes. On one end, we have stories that show things moment to moment. Umberto Eco said it best when he described pornographic films as being distinguished by this approach. If a character in such a film goes to get a can of Sprite from the refrigerator, the viewer sees the whole thing—walking to the kitchen, opening the door, rummaging within, etc. On the other end of the continuum, we have a text like In the Skin of a Lion, a text that is highly episodic, that presents a story with a lot of space and a lot of hidden-ness. A much more open (open to interpretation) text that the reader must work harder at to comprehend, work harder at and bring more of her/his own intelligence to.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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