The 10,000 Real Lives of Billy the Kid

So, many of you are probably thinking “what the hell is Michael Ondaatje up to in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid“? In fact, the question might be “what the hell is Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid?” Is it a novel, a book of poems, a biography, or what? The obvious answer is that it’s a bit of all of ’em. Like many other postmodern texts, it’s a self-conscious hybrid of many genres.

The question might now be “why?” Why would someone approach a biography in this way? (For a similar but much more entertaining take on the same problem, you might read Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which is a novel but also a very unconventional biography of Gustave Flaubert, and a very different side of Barnes.)

To get you started on this question, I’ll quote from one of the two epigraphs from Ondaatje’s later and excellent novel In the Skin of a Lion (1988)–by far my favourite novel about Toronto. Here is the epigraph: “Never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.” (John Berger).

This takes us back to one of the fundamental issues that this course has been toying with all along: the fact that our lives are not narratives, but the only way we can understand them is through narrative. It follows that each of us will use different narratives depending on our perspectives, our biases and our proximity to the events we recount. Not only that, we’ll each tell different narratives at different times of our own lives, depending on our changing experience base, on our mood this or that day, on the person to whom we tell our story. Given this perspective, how else could you write a fair biography of Billy the Kid?

Once again, we butt up against the problem at the heart of Thinks…: that pesky issue of subjective experience and objective event, which the novel recounted in various ways. How can we tell the story of a life based only on the unambiguous events of the biographee’s life? And that assumes the events are not in question–which, in the case of Billy the Kid, is a pretty unfair assumption. How can a true biography pass over what makes a person feel like who he or she is–largely subjective states, memories, feelings, impressions, etc? This is, as you’ll recall, the problem Virginia Woolf tried to tackle in so many of her essays, in the short story we read, “An Unwritten Novel” and in her manic novel Orlando: A Biography. Would you think a biography about you would be fair if all it narrated were the events and deeds that make up the actions and happenings of your life?

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