Defining the “Transitory Condition” in Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’ and ‘Running in the Family’
By Noah Klein
When discussing Michael Ondaatje’s texts, ‘Running in the Family’  and ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’ , the reader must recognise recurring themes and stylistic elements present in both works. First, and most important, among these shared themes is the presence of liquid. The presence of liquid (water, alcohol, etc…) throughout both of these novels acts as a catalyst for change within Ondaatje’s character construction. Water, liquid itself, can exist in multiple states dependent upon the conditions of its immediate environment. Liquid contributes to the “transitory condition”, a coined term which seeks to encapsulate Ondaatje’s approach to constructing characters — rendering them definable. Characters from both pieces are shown constantly in motion, changing, and searching for identity. Any attempt at traditional syntax construction is lost, and subsequently altered, as the words themselves become reflections of the character’s mindset. Similar to liquid, character identity in Ondaatje’s pieces can exist in multiple states according to their immediate environment. When characters encounter liquid in ‘RIF’ and ‘BTK’, character identity breaks down becoming loose, fluid, and changeable.
Part one: Transitory Condition in ‘Running in the Family’
“Leaving the car door open like a white broken wing on the lawn, he moved towards the porch, a case of liquor under his arm. Moonless. The absence of even an edge of the moon. Into the bedroom, the bottle top already unscrewed. Tooby, Tooby, you should see your friend now. The bottle top in my mouth as I sit on the bed like a lost ship on a white sea.” (188)
Liquid, in the form of “a case of liquor” (188) is present at the beginning of the paragraph. Liquid, in the form of beer is present at the beginning of the section “drinking beers, which he ordered ice cold” (185) and the “day’s alcohol was still in him” (187). Liquid, the constant, influences the character during this scene. Subsequently, the prose shifts and becomes fragmented as the character — influenced by the “beers” (185) and “liquor” (188) — loses his sense of self: “Into the bedroom, the bottle top already unscrewed. Tooby, Tooby, you should see your friend now. The bottle top in my mouth as I sit on the bed like a lost ship on a white sea.” (188). The prose adopts the fluid characteristics of water as the fragmented construction reflects the words literally being poured like liquor from a bottle into a open mouth, the “open mouth” metaphor in this case being the reader’s conceptualisation of the scene. Ondaatje’s “father” posits a hypothetical to his friend Tooby, “you should see your friend now” (188). However, counter to the narrative perspective of “him/the father” that has been offered so far in this section, Ondaatje writes “the bottle top in my mouth” (188, emphasis added). This perspective shift from third person “him/the father” to first person “my/ Ondaatje” reflects the shifting conception of the reader. The question that becomes asked by the reader is who exactly is “your friend” (188). Is it him/the father who knew Tooby, or is it Ondaatje with the bottle top in “my mouth” (188).
Janet Giltrow and David Stouck in their article ‘Mute Dialogues: Micheal Ondaatje’s ‘Running in the Family’ and the language of the Postmodern Pastoral‘ offers an interesting take on defining character identity by offering binaries:
“In the present scene, we have the fictitious character of the father (Now, and here, this). He is drinking, and in his drinking he enters a transitory state toggling between 3rd person narrations to 1st person narration and indeed toggling between past and present. The character asks Tooby to see him now (188). Tooby is part of the past (then & there). Tooby acts as an identifier to both the character and the reader. The character says “you should see your friend now” (188). The phrasing of this statement seems to indicate that Tooby would not recognise “the friend” (the character within this scene). The character’s past identity, as well as the character’s current identity as Ondaatje’s father is slipping away, and fading in the presence of alcohol.” 
Point-of-view, character identity, and basic syntax are broken down in the presence of liquid: “beers” (185), “a case of liquor” (188). These three elements in fact become fluid and water-like. Ondaatje writes, as the first person narrator, “I sit on the bed like a lost ship on a white sea” (188). The third person narrative voice, which has guided this section so far, is lost amidst a “sea” (188). The liquid imagery is heavily employed within the scene even though the presence of the “sea” is not meant to be taken literally; however, figuratively it complements the release of inhibition that follows after imbibing alcohol. The character feels a release of identity, as “he” the third person narrator, becomes the first person narrator asking Tooby to see him/I now (188). In other words, the character needs someone to recognise him/I, because the character is unable to maintain a solid identity in the presence of liquid.
Giltrow and Stouck discuss syntactical fragmentation, and subsequent loss of narrator identity, during this scene as well:
“deixis is speaker-centered: by means of deictic markers the world is rendered from the speaker’s point of view… so the speaker is the narrator, perhaps borrowing from the familiar vocative from his father’s speech. Or is this the father speaking, referring to himself in the third person, swiveling the deictic centre in bitter playfulness?” (175) 
They, too, question the identity of “the speaker” — who I termed “the character” — in this section. Deixis is the tool used by the reader to establish point of view within the narrative. Deixis is in fact lost amidst the sea (188) of syntactical disintegration. Ondaatje plays with deixis making point of view and character identity fluid and changeable.
The constant battle for point of view and character identity in Ondaatje’s writing is evidenced further when the character him/the father is in the bathroom :“The bathroom ants had attacked the novel thrown on the floor by the commode. A whole battalion was carrying one page away from its source… It was page 189.” (Ondaatje, 189)
The careful reader observes that “page 189” (emphasis added) is carried away on page 189. This once again calls in to question who exactly is speaking and doing in the scene.
The third person pronouns “he” and “him” are used eleven times in the closing paragraph in the section “Thankiyama”. However “he” is in the presence of a “commode” (189) a device that functions with water (liquid). It is an object that flushes away refuse — in other words pieces of the self — that are no longer wanted, or useful. Thus, the commode serves the same purpose as the alcohol, which the character “him” uses to flush away his awareness of “self” as defined in traditional literary settings. Character identity is shown in motion, as throughout the last paragraph, the reader is left to gauge whether the speaker/character is the father, suggested by eleven third person pronouns, or the authorial voice of Ondaatje, suggested by the direct metaphysical reference of “page 189” (189).
Character Identity once again becomes a changeable, fluid concept during Lalla’s death scene in which the character Lalla seems to become one with the flood waters that kill her:
“The new river in the street moved her right across the race course and park towards the bus station. As the light came up slowly she was being swirled fast, “floating” (as ever confident of surviving this too) alongside branches and leaves, the dawn starting to hit flamboyant trees as she slipped past them like a dark log, shoes lost, false breast lost. She was free as a fish, travelling faster than she had in years, fast as Vere’s motorcycle, only now there was this roar around her. She overtook Jesus lizards that swam and ran in bursts over the water, she was surrounded by tired, half-drowned fly-catchers screaming tack tack tack tack… what was moving was the rushing flood.” (128)
As “the new river” takes Lalla the body, the character Lalla becomes lost and is associated with natural objects: “She was being swirled fast, “floating”… alongside branches and leaves… she slipped past them like a dark log” (128). The reader sees Lalla becoming one with the natural world, her identity as a land-based human — complete with her own life and thoughts — is now swept into the tidal current. Markers of this old existence are swept away by the rushing liquid “shoes lost, false breast lost” (128). The character Lalla is even compared to “a fish” (128), water based creature, as though the freedom, which the water provides her, allows her to become as innocuous as an unspecified species of fish.
The reader has known only the human character up to this point, the Lalla of family myth and legend, and the Lalla whom Ondaatje embellishes with stories aggrandising her existence: “She was full of “passions”, whether drunk or not… she was free to move wherever she wished, to do whatever she wanted… She took thorough advantage of everybody and had bases all over the country” (122). Having such a developed identity on land, the reader was able to identify with Lalla. Yes, she was crazy and is the legendary passionate (122) figure of Ondaatje’s past. However, her land-locked life was filled with drink, sex, love, and loss. These are all similarities of the human condition.
Giltrow and Stouck comment on time and indeed we see the present character Lalla lost amidst the “new river” (128), new being an indication of the “now, and here, this”, in direct opposition to the old character Lalla—associated with land, and memories of land (then & there) . Lalla being “as free as a fish” (128) now travels faster than she had in years (Now, and here, this), “fast a Vere’s motorcycle” (128) (then, there). The reader cannot identify which version of the character Lalla to hold onto as the water washes away the “then & there” (Giltrow and Stouck) that the character was, and affixing a fast, swirling, “floating”, changing “now & this” (Giltow and Stouck). Lalla’s state, as any liquid, is the midst of change (the transitory condition) as she transitions from life to death, and she takes the reader with her.