At the Movies with David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

July 16, 2010 | 5 books mentioned 11 4 min read

Our household is in the middle of a paradigm shift—new city, new occupations.  The timing of this transition worked so that I should have had approximately one month to do nothing but read novels, eat sardines on toast, and fan myself.  Predictably, various things popped up.  Having repressed the memories of past moves, I had forgotten that moving is never a two-day affair, but rather a weeks-long nightmare represented by a massive Venn diagram showing the things you need to do and the things you did, the middle part of which is very small.  Add to these obligations the things that invariably happen when one has some free time (getting rashes, waiting for the bus, vacuuming the underside of rugs, panicking about money, breaking things that turn out to be important, misunderstanding the labels on cleaning products, accidentally working, having houseguests), and I realize that I do not actually have anything like the time I thought I had.

coverThat’s life and I’m not complaining.  I tell you all this so you will understand the circumstances in which I read David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I had half-open boxes all about me, a room full of upside-down rugs, two sneezing cats, and lots and lots to do.  But I was yearning to read this book, so I left the apartment wild-eyed, dust-streaked, and sweat-soaked, and handed over a shocking twenty-eight dollars.  Then I marched home with my long-anticipated booty, sat down amid boxes, and read until night.  In the morning I woke up, put on my dirty clothes, and read until it was finished.  And then I cried, and picked up my vacuum and went to work feeling sort of elevated and melancholy for the rest of the day.

It’s hard to imagine a better reading experience.

I read Wyatt Mason’s profile of David Mitchell in the New York Times, in which the journalist catalogued the bewildering list of authors to whom Mitchell has been compared.  Basically, it’s a litany of the canonical writers, and it’s absurd.  Mitchell is a phenomenal writer and a master mimic when he wants to be, and comparisons are the bread and butter of readers and reviewers.  I think, though, that throwing out names like Nabokov, Melville, Twain, Sterne, Joyce, Tolstoy, shows a poverty of something, effort, maybe, though I don’t wish to impugn the various august readers who have weighed in on Mitchell’s work.  But it’s hard for me not to imagine a reviewer in a nightcap with a hot cocoa and a Mitchell novel.  He wiggles his toes at the pleasure of good fiction and thinks to himself, “This is a wow.  You know who else was a wow?”  I’m saying I think many of the comparisons have to do with the relative enthusiasm of the reader, rather than similarities in the authors’ respective styles.  Because Mitchell is not like any of those writers, who are not like one another, except in that they are all artists, and much beloved.

At any rate, in this new work, Mitchell owes much to film and television.  I am not the only reviewer to note (cf. James Wood) that this novel is highly cinematic.  For one, it takes place (jarringly, I thought, until I got used to it) in the present tense, like a screenplay.  Some scenes end almost with an audible “Dum dum dum . . . ” timpany flourish.  Some scenes are pure visual slapstick.  The gross scenes are excruciatingly gross, the kind where everyone in the theater groans.  The first scene in which the titular De Zoet makes an appearance (Chapter 2, the trial of the waggish Snitker) is so camera-ready I pictured Russell Crowe in his Master and Commander outfit, or Leonardo DiCaprio reprising his accent from Blood Diamond.

Lest you think I bring up screen hunks to mitigate the power and style of Mitchell’s novel, I should say that this cinematic quality is one of the things I so enjoyed about the book, and why, I think, I read the thing almost in one sitting.  You don’t watch a movie over days and days, no matter how long.  Obviously books, like movies, can be absolutely vivid and transporting, but it’s rare to find a transporting book that doesn’t manage to embarrass you at some point with its prose.  It’s rare also to find one that creates so much so well within a largely unplumbed historical context.

The historical context here is the closed Japanese Empire, circa 1799, specifically, a Dutch trading post off of Nagasaki, and the novel addresses the fortunes of the men and woman thereon and around.  The novel is about a lot of things—love, of course, and trade, and medicine, and language, and religion, and country, and lost children.  I didn’t realize until I finished the book, but there are so, so many lost children.  I don’t wish to exhaust you with my rendering of the novel’s plot, which has been rendered elsewhere, better.  It’s a lot of great storytelling, is what it is, set in a moment I imagine few people know much about.

In addition to enjoying his prodigious stylistic gifts, I find David Mitchell’s novels refreshing  because they are in their way morally unambiguous.  It’s usually not clear right away who the good guys are, and there are lots of bad guys disguised as good ones and good guys doing bad deeds.  Nonetheless, Right and Wrong are things in Mitchell’s universe(s), and his work seems to have a lot invested in righting wrongs.  I’ve read all of his novels but one (Number9Dream), and in each I have been surprised and touched by the author’s care for people.

This novel is no different; by the end, you know just who to root for.  I don’t look for morality in my books, but it’s nice to read something outside of the young adult section that reminds us, just to be on the safe side, what’s what.  It’s kind of retro, actually, considering the decades of post-war literature that told us there isn’t right or wrong, just our own confused, fucked-up feelings (man).  Maybe I’m the victim of some haute post-modern joke, but Mitchell seems very earnest to me.  To throw my own potentially bizarre comparison into the mix, David Mitchell is a little bit like Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars), writ large and writ for grownups.

Despite that fact that I’ve basically (I realize now) presented The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as a made-for-TV movie for a juvenile audience (starring Russell Crowe), I loved this book.  It’s the best thing I read on what was supposed to be my summer vacation.  If you have free time or can fashion some, you should read it too.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at