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'Divisadero': Where narrative splinters

There's more poetry than plot in the latest from Michael Ondaatje, the author of 'The English Patient.'

Take a piece of paper, fold it over several times, crumple it a little, then take a pair of scissors to it. (Don't be afraid to get messy.) Now glue the whole thing into a three-dimensional object. Throughout his novels, Michael Ondaatje has taken a similar approach to linear storytelling, to great acclaim.

"The English Patient," for which he won the Booker Prize, jumped back and forth among four protagonists living in an Italian villa near the end of World War II, with discussions of mapmaking, condensed milk sandwiches, and Herodotus interspersed throughout. (Oh, and unlike in the movie, the English patient isn't even the main character.)

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His most recent novel, "Anil's Ghost," took what could have been a mystery (why was a corpse buried twice?), and sliced and diced it into a searing, morally outraged tale of Sri Lanka's civil war. By the end, the titular character is beside the point.

Ondaatje's newest novel, Divisadero takes structural experimentation even further and is even more careless of its characters. In it, the story of a California farm boy-turned-gambler, the two sisters who love him, and the violence that separates them is juxtaposed with the tale of a writer born in the 19th century in rural France.

The effect of reading it is like watching a chef on a cooking show who prepares ingredients for a chilled golden beet soup with cucumbers – and then reaches into the oven, and pulls out a cassoulet. It looks delicious, but you have no idea where it came from.

The novel opens on a farm in California in the 1970s, where three children are being raised by an emotionally distant widower. Anna and Claire are the same age; Claire was adopted as an infant after her mother died. Coop, their older "brother," is a foundling taken in after the boy's family was murdered. When the girls are 16, their dad catches Coop and Anna having sex and beats the boy nearly to death. Anna runs away (as, obviously, does Coop).

Then Ondaatje fast-forwards 15 years. Claire works for a public defender; Coop becomes a card sharp and falls into the plot of a B movie (complete with thugs and a gorgeous blond heroin addict). Eventually, Claire finds Coop again. Meanwhile, Anna is a scholar living in France to research a forgotten writer.

"The three of them, [Claire] had always believed, made up a three-paneled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the other," Claire thinks much later on in life. "Those screens made more sense to her than single-framed paintings from the West that existed without context." Ondaatje is going for a similar effect, but in "Divisadero," he pulls a literary fast one that may alienate some of his less ardent fans.

The novel is named after the street Anna lives on in San Francisco, even though none of the action takes place there. "Divisadero, from the Spanish for 'division'…. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning to 'gaze from a distance,' " Anna, who narrates most of the book, helpfully explains. Both definitions work just fine, since Anna is divided irrevocably from everyone she loved and spends a lot of time gazing from a distance at her memories of them.

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I never like to give away too many twists, but I couldn't even if I wanted to with "Divisadero," because the plot dead ends. Midway through, Ondaatje just packs up and abandons his characters. This stylistic sucker punch, for many readers, will feel like a violation of trust. From the time we're 4, bouncing on the bed and asking "what happens next," readers are trained to believe that stories are designed to answer that question. Ondaatje doesn't have any interest in doing so and seems to regard it as terribly middle-brow of us to expect it.

After jettisoning his three protagonists, he leaps back to the early 20th century to tell the story of Lucien Segura, the writer Anna is researching. Provided you can put aside your irritation at being led down the garden path for 165 pages (and for some, that may be too big an if), Segura's story is powerful.

Devotees of Ondaatje's work who just want to read sentences constructed by the Booker Prize winner, rest assured: There are many, and they are lovely. The stories aren't connected by plot (except through Anna), but threaded throughout Segura's family life and experiences in World War I, there are echoes of the farm in California.

Dead parents are recaptured through tape recordings and characters keep mixing up one another's names. "Gotraskhalana is a term in Sanskrit poetics for calling a loved one by a wrong name, and means, literally, 'stumbling on the name.'… What these verbal accidents do is aim a flashlight into the brain, reveal its vast museum of facts and desires." (Did I mention Anna has a PhD?)

For those wondering whether to invest the time and the $25, readers of poetry are likely to have a much better time than are readers of mysteries. (In the interests of disclosure, I am a mystery buff.)

Ultimately, "Divisadero" seems more concerned with echoes and evocations than telling a good story. Fair enough. But it ultimately lacks the wrenching power of "Anil's Ghost," in which real emotion ran like a current alongside the artistic endeavor.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.