January 24th -- The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

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27 Mar 2012
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ENG252 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid January 24th 2012
Michael Ondaatje
The 1960s: US Violence and Canadian Nationalism
- This book, though taking place in the 19th century, was written in the 1960s
- We can understand, in that context, why this book is so particularly violent
- America was a violent place in the 60s
o Assassination of JFK, Robert Kennedy, MLK Jr.
o Race riots
o Vietnam
o Civil rights movements
- The Western is a story that states that America was founded on violence
- While both Americans and Canadians analyzed the violence of America, at the same time
Canadians reflected on themselves during the 60s
- Context:
o Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize
o Expo 67
- Rise of national pride in Canada, sense that things were different in Canada than in America
- Not only did Canada not participate in Vietnam, up to 100,000 Americans came to Canada to
avoid the draft in Vietnam
The Collected Works as Canadian Literature
- What makes this book Canadian?
- It was written by a non-Canadian, about an American main character, taking place in America
- Thematically Canadian
o Representation of environment, legacy of colonialism, different attitudes towards
The First Page
- This is book interested not just in the history but the historiography of the story
- Immediately we are presented with the matter of recording and collecting (‘specimens’)
- We’re told we’re being given a picture of Billy, but all we get is an empty frame
- Also raises the question of ‘work’
Billy as Multiple
- Page 5 and 6
- Contrast in their approach to death
- Page 5 is orderly, reason
- It could be someone else talking, but it could also be Billy who wants to achieve order and
eliminate chaos
- These two poems create a conflicting image of Billy
- We’re given multiple Billys throughout the book
ENG252 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid January 24th 2012
Michael Ondaatje
Clocks and Criss-crossing
- Page 7 poem
- If we’re thinking about splits and dualities in this book, we’re given one right off the bat in this
poem “Mmmmm” body vs. mind
- Irony in talking about the stomachs of clocks
- Turning away from the biological to the mechanical in order to extract his experience of the
- But not just to the mechanical, but to ‘clocks’
- Turning away from subjective time to an abstracted time
- Subjective human time is mortal time (we’re all ticking down towards death) a thought that Billy
keeps having (who at the very start of the book is already dead)
- Page 8
- We get a description of Charlie Bowdre dying
- Here again we see what happens when Billy confronts a body
- The line break near the end of the stanza (watching… your hands)
- On Page 17 Billy gives us another narrative of Charlie, a passage about their experiences that
suggest something about Billy’s and this book’s narrative
- They talk about criss-crossing the Canadian-US border
- The criss cross mirrors the movement between Billy and Pat Garett in this book, but also the
movement in time
- That whipping criss-cross motion stands in contrast with the motions between Charlie and
someone else when they die, they walk straight towards Pat
- Suggestion of human inevitability of death (have to move straight towards it) but also the
impulse of Billy to avoid it, to move back and forth without confronting it head on
Romanticism, Individualism, and Western Gothic
- Not romantic in the conventional sense
- In the book we get instances of natural, idyllic romanticism
- But there are also aspects of the poem that don’t depict the environment romantically at all
(rats in the barn)
- Gothic as dramatizing the terrors of individualism
- Often depicts the physical and psychological perils of those who end up alone
- (Brian the Stillhunter can be viewed as gothic)
- Tells the story of him internally conflicted and dualled (as well as his contrast with Pat Garrett)
- His horror at the idea of human degradation, the hallucinations that he has as a result of this
horror makes this text seem like a hybrid of gothic and western
ENG252 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid January 24th 2012
Michael Ondaatje
Photography and Film
- Page 9, we get our first actual photograph in the book
- Page 29
- Chiaroscuro: dramatic contrasts of dark and light in a single image
The Collected Works as
o An ethos or disposition distinguished not least by a scepticism about “master
o A set of literary devices
o Six characteristics
1. Suspicious of “master narratives
Historiographic Metafiction