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.
Part 2: Transitory Condition in ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’
When the character Billy stops by a river to rest, Ondaatje uses free verse poetry, with alternating stanzas consisting of three lines-two lines-three lines-two lines. In this section, Billy is presented not as an animal or as a man, but something in between:
A river you could get lost in
and the sun a flashy hawk
on the edge of it
a mile away you see the white path
of an animal moving through water
you can turn a hundred yard circle
and the horse bends dribbles his face
you step off and lie in it propping your head
till dusk and cold and the horse shift you
and you look up and moon a frozen’s bird’s eye (23)
The reader is presented with narrative structure crafted to appear like the river mentioned in the first line: “A river you could get lost in” (23). There are no periods, or punctuation of any kind. The whole section reads like one, long run on sentence. Ondaatje, playing with the metaphysical here, crafts a section where the poetic syntax is river-like. The conjunction “and” is used seven times creating a cadence when read aloud similar to a river’s natural ebb and flow. Billy identifies a place where “you” (23), indicative of “you the reader”, can get lost (23). The reader certainly does “get lost in” (23) this section, similar to how the reader was lost amidst a sea (188) of syntactical fragmentation in Ondaatje’s RIF. In the physical presence of the “river”, the character Billy, his first person narrative, and the reader, are swept away.
Billy, or “you”, observes, “a mile away you see the white path/of an animal moving through water” (23). Using the word “mile” indicates that the character has a human conception of distance — animals do not assign the signified “6,076 feet” with the signifier “mile”. Also the word “you” is employed, directly addressing the reader and inviting them to be a participant within the text. “You the reader” (emphasis added) and the character Billy are one in the same — distinctly human. However, as the character identity of Billy/the reader is “lost in” the tidal current of “river”-like poetic syntax, the human side of the character Billy, and “you the reader”, is lost as well.
you can turn a hundred yard circle
and the horse bends dribbles his face
you step off and lie in it propping your head (23)
Associating with the “horse [that] bends and dribbles his face” (23) the character Billy/You also seeks the river and “lies in it” (23). Billy physically puts himself on the level of the horse that bends to drink from the river (23). Because Billy must bend in order to “lie in it [the river]” (23), Billy reduces himself to the animal state. It becomes more difficult to distinguish between the human Billy, and the animal Billy, the closer he gets to the water.
Interestingly in ‘Savage Fields: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology’ Dennis Lee seeks to highlight what he deems the “internal division” (Lee, 172) of Billy the Kid . He argues that the character Billy exists in a World vs Earth dynamic in which he, as “an instrument of murder, a citizen of the world” (170) is engaged with a constant struggle against the instinctual manifestations of earth, i.e. Billy’s massacre of the crazed rats (Ondaatje, 18 & Lee, 169). He calls Billy’s own “internal division” — being a representative of the world but at the same time existing and attempting to dominate Earth — a “manifestation of the whole world’s schizophrenia” (Lee, 172). What Lee proves is that Billy exists between states, never fully accepting being part of the World and never fully accepting his role as mechanical dominator over Earth.
Lee associates mechanical objects, and operation of, with the World: i.e. Billy’s gun. He associates Earth with sensory perception and animals. What we see present in the transitory condition is an explanation to Lee’s character analysis of Billy’s “schizophrenia” (emphasis added, not literal schizophrenia). Billy is man in some parts of the book, animal in others, and when he encounters liquid the lines blur and a new Billy emerges: one that can be said to be both World and Earth, animal and human.
This pattern continues when the character Billy is riding on his horse and, in the presence of sweat, the reader is unable to distinguish where Billy ends and the horse beings:
sad billys body glancing out
body going as sweating horses go
reeling off me wet
scuffing down my arms
wet horse white
streaming wet sweat round the house
sad billys out
floating barracuda in the brain (37)
In the opening line the reader is presented with Billy’s body “Glancing out” (37) and then “going as sweating horses do” (37). To glance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), means to move rapidly, esp. in an oblique or transverse direction; to dart, shoot; to spring aside (OED). Though the verb “glance” is reminiscent of animal like movement, it is also reflective of the fluid quality of “the sweat” (37) described in the next line. The reader sees here that Billy is associated with a human, by way of the narrative addressed by his human signifier “Billy”, and also with an animal, by way of his bodily movement. He is neither animal nor man, instead he begins his transition to the ambiguous between state.
The next line states: “Reeling off me wet” (37). The “me” described here initiates a sudden switch to 1st person narration, instead of clarifying the speaker, actually works to disassociate the reader. The reader can only assume that the “me” riding the horse is the same character mentioned two lines previously, Billy. However, this construct of Me vs Billy works to create two forms of the same character struggling to emerge within the piece. Horses, during the first two lines, are presented as “sweating” creatures. Now the character “me” seems to be sweating like the horse, while the human character Billy is simply a “sad… body” (37).
The character “me” has sweat “reeling off me wet/scuffing down my arms” (37) onto the “wet white horse” (37). The character “me’s” sweat joins the animal as their characters become one and the same. Their bodily fluids ooze over each other and create shelter for the transitioning Billy/me. The imagery is similar to a mother pregnant with her child, and indeed the wetness even encircles the horse similar to a womb: “streaming wet sweat round the house” (37). The character is sweating around a “house” (37) as opposed to a “horse” (37), same amount of letters, same starting consonant—actually, there is only one letter of difference. This indicates that the character associates “horse” with the human conceptualisation of “house” or “shelter”. The character’s physical body has combined with the horse by liquid sweat, though the character’s mindset appears to still have human conceptualisations. The reader is trapped between acknowledging the fully animal side of Billy, or the fully human, and is instead left with the undefined, ambiguous Billy.
When characters in Ondaatje’s RIF and BTK encounter liquids in the narrative, character identity becomes fluid and changeable. Perhaps because of Ondaatje’s background as a Third Culture Individual, the characters of his worlds are crafted to fit the transitory condition. The main character in RIF travels throughout Sri Lanka collecting stories about a past made up of memories and stories — both of which constantly change. Like the journey, the novel takes the reader into a world where characters are torn from the ledger and the annals of family history and given a new life. The reader joins the main character on this journey, throughout all the difficult navigation of untraditional syntax, to the climaxes where Lalla and Ondaatje’s father lose their identity to the greater family story: Lalla becomes part of a mythical flood, Ondaatje’s father becomes a fictitious character that Ondaatje can only speculate about meeting until they become indistinguishable from each other in the alcohol fuelled pages of “Thanikama”. Billy the Kid — the mythical, western gunslinger — is shown by Ondaatje a various points in his life. The reader is constantly moving with Billy trying to affix time and circumstance to the cinema of his life. Ondaatje gives the reader a new perspective on Billy, one where he isn’t only the murdering, western gunslinger but also a traveler, a lover, and a sensitive being — attuned to his animal side as well as his human side. In this sense, in Ondaatje’s character identity is a necessary variable, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to craft stories that draw the reader so close, and refuse to let go.
Noah Klein is a Pushcart-nominated poet and prosaist whose primary focus is self-discovery and community engagement through writing. His interests lie in building new and innovative ways for poetry and prose (fiction and non-fiction) to reach — as well as to bridge the gap between — grassroots and popular audiences.
 Ondaatje, Michael, ‘Running in the Family’. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
 Ondaatje, Michael, ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’, New York: Norton, 1974.
 Giltrow, Janet, and David Stouck, “Mute Dialogues’: Micheal Ondaatje’s ‘Running in the Family’ and the Language of the Postmodern Pastoral”, ‘Postmodern Fiction in Canada’, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992. 161-79.
 Lee, Dennis, ‘Savage Fields: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology’, House of Anansi Pr, 1977.