Houses built of brick may withstand a wolf’s breath, but their walls can be altered forever by the forces of gentrification. In London, such forces are changing the landscape — and the people — at a nearly unprecedented rate. A recent article in The Independent reports that “London’s share of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England has almost halved in the past decade” as residents of those places find themselves increasingly unable to pay rent and forced to relocate to the suburbs. In their absence, cheap flats become lavish hotels; local hangouts are converted into upscale hair salons.
The effects of gentrification on the lives and well-being of those who struggle to hang on to their homes have been explored in several recent book-length accounts, including DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century. In a 2015 interview, Gibson explains why oral histories, more than, say, academic treatises, move readers to seriously consider the topic: “I think the way you get people to care about gentrification is to write about human beings.” If oral histories help us to better understand the social realities of gentrification by allowing communities to speak about their own experiences, novels lend unique insight by telling us the things that aren’t always spoken aloud.
In her first novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, Kate Tempest examines the thoughts and feelings — spoken and hidden — of a group of 20-somethings from two interconnected, lower-middle-class families in South East London, one of the fastest gentrifying areas of the city. As their neighborhood changes, so do the laws of “making it” that their parents believed in. Working hard, going to college, saving money — in the old days, before the arrival of the moneyed class, these things were believed to guarantee a secure future. Now, they might not even lead to secure employment. So what to do when life’s familiar scripts are remodeled as thoroughly as the local pub? How to get ahead?
Tempest’s millennial protagonists are not the destitute tramps that George Orwell described in Down and Out in Paris and London. They are well-educated and beautiful, the products of parents who aren’t rich but who managed to sock away enough earnings to feed and clothe their children when saving-up was still possible. Race often forms a component of gentrification. But in this novel, Tempest doesn’t dwell on the subject — the characters are racially and ethnically ambiguous in a way that feels intentional. The three main characters’ lives weave together in complicated ways. Pete went to college, but couldn’t find work afterward. He lives with his parents and spends his days hunting for temp work. He falls in love with Becky, a beautiful dancer estranged from her “born-again” mother. Becky doesn’t know her father, a political radical jailed for sexually assaulting under-age girls. What she does know is that she’s always wanted to be a dancer, but classes are expensive. She earns money by giving massages, the kind with happy endings. Learning about her work nearly breaks Pete apart. But what he doesn’t understand, says Becky, is that her clients — mostly depressed, wealthy Londoners — look at her with a respect and gratitude that she rarely sees in the eyes of casting directors. As her relationship with Pete grows increasingly tense, Becky finds solace in Harry, Pete’s sister, who is gay. Harry makes her living selling drugs, cocaine mostly, to CEOs and entrepreneurs, rich folks who can afford to spend the occasional evening giving London’s seedy underbelly a tickle. Like Becky, Harry knows her line of work is not without risks, but it pays well, and she needs the money to achieve her own dream of opening a bar.
Tempest’s novel is remarkable not only for its timely commentary on the financial difficulties faced by many millennials, but for its meticulous examination of parents’ inability to understand their children’s struggles. In a series of flashbacks, we witness Pete and Harry’s mother, Miriam, fall in love with husband one and then husband two, the latter who was able to give her the middle-class lifestyle she had always dreamed of. That Miriam managed to marry up colors her perception of her boyish-looking daughter: if she could do it, why can’t Harry? (Miriam is also convinced that women can’t be gay.) Pete and Harry’s step-father, David, talked his way into an entry-level position at an optician’s, eventually saving enough money to buy the shop outright. If he could do it, why not Pete, with his college degree?
From Miriam and David, Harry and Pete inherit feelings of perpetual failure. As for Becky, we watch her mother give up a promising career in photography to cater to her husband, only to be left with nothing when he goes to prison. She passes on to Becky her shame, self-loathing, and wariness of intimacy. Tempest gets at foundations: If families are houses, then each family member is a cracked brick, the damage growing wider and less structurally sound the farther it travels from its origin point.
The novel spans several months, but opens with the moment that those months lead up to — the friends are in a car, getting the hell out of town. We don’t know why they’re running until the climax, but finding out the plot specifics isn’t necessarily the point. This isn’t a mystery novel, or a thriller, really. It’s a study of economics and generational differences, of how a parent’s success can become a child’s anxieties and vice versa.
It’s also a character study. Drug-fueled and facing terrible decisions, Tempest’s protagonists share traits with those in the more rural-set works of John Brandon’s Citrus County and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. But there is no one quite like Pete, Becky, and Harry. The richness of their inner lives develops largely from Tempest’s startling use of metaphor. Here she describes Becky’s exasperation as she listens to a pompous music-video director wax on endlessly about a shoot in Indonesia: “Becky’s heart punches itself out of her chest and runs screaming through the room, smearing blood all over the walls. She looks down, bemused and studies the new hole in her chest.” The passage exemplifies the tendency toward exaggeration the millennial generation is so often accused of demonstrating, while also capturing exactly the feeling of wanting to flee a deadening conversation.
Tempest’s skillful eye for description extends, perhaps, from a well-trained ear for the spoken word. Until recently, she has published as a poet and playwright and has toured as a rapper. On paper, her prose often slips into streams of consciousness that brim with internal rhyme schemes. Consonants resonate through neighboring vowels, as if she’s making song. Her longer descriptions are interspersed with staccato-like phrases, echoing the frantic stop-and-go movement of thoughts through a coke-addled brain. This might be Tempest’s first novel, but it’s also poetry.
Writers taking on gentrification are nothing new, of course. In his 1836 Sketches of Boz, Charles Dickens laments that the “old tottering public house” has been “converted into spacious and lofty wine-vaults.” One hundred seventy years later, David Mitchell captures Worcestershire’s vivid class contrasts in the semiautobiographical Black Swan Green. But The Bricks That Built the Houses offers a particularly elegiac take by revealing the strength of the ties between a city and its people, no matter how strained those ties have become. “It gets into your bones,” reads the novel’s first line, a reference to the hostile but familiar London the friends are leaving behind. By artfully intertwining the stories of people who are broken by the city they love, The Bricks That Built the Houses creates a complex narrative that rarely falters and eventually coheres into a strong and lyrical whole.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike talk about how it feels when your favorite authors let you down.
Discussed in this episode: Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, denial, grief, bargaining, the Rabbit Angstrom books, Roger’s Version and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike, Radio On: A Listener’s Diary by Sarah Vowell, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Not discussed in this episode: Alice Munro’s disappointing short story collection, The Cottage by, I Don’t Know, Let’s Say, the Pond or Something.
Well-heeled critics take a kind of offense when writers of David Mitchell’s caliber experiment with genre fiction. Nonetheless, the release of 2014’s The Bone Clocks, with its body-jumping Horologists and systematic references to most of his previous novels, proved that Mitchell has embarked on more than an experiment; he is on a Yeatsian search for unity. Late in his life, W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, published A Vision, a collection of cultish metaphysical writings that cast the whole of history as a cycle between order and chaos, the barbaric and the civilized. His poetry of the period also represented the world this way: his famous piece “The Second Coming” culminates with the image of a “rough beast…slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born,” a kind of un-Christ who represents the beginning of a barbaric period in history, the inversion of the Christian era.
The purpose of all Yeats’s late writing, as the scholar Richard Ellmann pointed out in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was to offer a “unified personality,” to give his readers a sense of cohesion that everyday life lacks by using a consistent set of symbols to discuss, praise, mourn, and process a disjointed reality. For Yeats, symbols like beasts, roses, and winding staircases were touchstones: no matter where his writing wandered, these landmarks offered a sense of direction — they brought him back to A Vision’s unified historical scheme. The poems he made with those images are beautiful and timeless. But A Vision is another story. Supposedly sourced from automatic writings Yeats’s wife received from the spirit world, it reads like an acid trip in a Catholic church, or — appropriately enough — like a scene from David Mitchell’s Slade House: a horror novel set in a dark corner of the newly-minted meta-world that unites all of Mitchell’s books.
Mitchell told fans at 2014’s Edinburgh Book festival that his writing has become “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” With the lengthy and ambitions Bone Clocks, he revealed the extent of that exercise by referencing characters from all of his work, back to his 1999 debut Ghostwritten. Though it would be difficult to gage the extent to which his megaverse was planned, Mitchell has made it clear that a single plot overarches everything, down even to his most quotidian Black Swan Green. Lovers of Cloud Atlas are familiar with Mitchell’s tendency to write novels as a series of interlacing plots, where a young character in one segment might be an old man in another. But what Bone Clocks introduced was design on an altogether different scale: a set of death-defying interlopers engaged in a cosmic war across time, whose antics, it turns out, have been crashing through the scenery of each successive novel.
When he announced that a new, shorter book was set to debut only a year after The Bone Clocks, fans correctly anticipated that Slade House would deepen Mitchell’s investment in that larger scheme. Released just in time for Halloween, Slade House has quickly sparked comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw — a literature critic’s ghost story, a haunted-house yarn the glamor of which was underpinned by plot and language that could bear up under the stuffiest academic scrutiny.
Mitchell has been upfront about his exasperation with critics who pit realism against everything else, as if the sort of writing where souls can be eaten and bodies shed like cicada shells needed to earn special literary stripes in order to be taken seriously. He told the Edinburgh Book Festival he likes “to use genre as a tool, like style, structure or a character. Where does it say a book has to remain within a single genre?” and The Paris Review that “When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew.” Mitchell has proved himself a master of the improbable brew, but the question is whether the books that have resulted are freshening agents, or just a cheap attempt to spike the punch.
Slade House cooks up its mixture with euphoric technical complexity and flourish. Set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, it is composed of five interlocking narratives centered around a mysterious “small black iron door,” and the magnificent, trippy, horrifying mansion to which it leads. A succession of sympathetic loners are lured into Slade House by its malevolent occupants, treated to a disorienting phantasmagoria that mixes their deepest fantasies of popularity and inclusion with their worst fears, and finally tricked into bringing about their own demise.
We hear the story through their voices, and each is masterfully rendered, deeply human. The 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose autism makes him insensitive to the subtle difference between a quirky hostess and a murderous schemer, the oafish lonelyheart policeman whose subtle racism he would blame on hard experiences on the beat, and the self-conscious college student Sally Timms are each cohesive and distinct.
For every character, Slade House morphs into a tailor-made nightmare. I found Sally’s haunting at a raucous party the most alarming and immediate, perhaps because I grew up listening to some of the same music. But more likely the sting came from her voice’s mixture of devastating self-examination and quippy humor: “Slade Alley can’t be more than three feet across,” she observes on approach to the house, “A properly fat person — fatter than me, I mean — couldn’t get past someone coming the other way.” And when she snuffs a proposition from an attractive partygoer: “Off he goes, and screw you, Isolde Delahunty at Great Malvern Beacon School for Girls and your platoon of body-fascist Barbies…screw all of you, wherever you are this evening, because I…just turned down a bronzed Australian surfer demigod…”
Yet the culmination of each story contains an obligatory nod the meta-world of Bone Clocks, and it is there that Mitchell’s ambition starts to make a messy feast of his talent. Examining Slade House’s grandfather clock, whose face bears no hands but only the words “Time is, Time Was, Time is Not,” Sally Timms quips that the clock is “Highly metaphysical; deeply useless.” At worst, this epithet could be applied to Mitchell’s language just at the passages when Slade House reaches its highest emotional pitch. At key moments in each character’s adventures there are debilitating pauses for exposition, linking Slade House’s dark little nightmare world to the wider one we heard all too much about in Bone Clocks.
Words like “lacuna,” “orison,” and worst of all, “psychovoltage” diffuse the physical terror of Mitchell’s best scenes with obtuse, jargony pinpricks. That the term “lacuna” is lifted from medieval metaphysics and “orison” from Hamlet’s banter with Ophelia in Act III scene i makes them no more interesting: pedigree adds little when species are awkwardly crossed, and there is nothing of Hamlet’s earthy nightmare in the clinical use to which Mitchell puts his meta-world’s argot, explaining away the wonderful ghost stories he’s taken such care to weave in each successive chapter.
At best, “highly metaphysical; deeply useless” might still be said of the interlaced world Mitchell is making. Metaphysical and useless, yes, but nothing is as essential as the inessential, and a little willful suspension of distaste allows us to luxuriate in Mitchell’s superfluities. The Yeats-like unifying project he’s taken on is initially thrilling in its apparent scope. And though his machinations are luxurious, underneath the heavy-handed codswallop is the pungent flavor of raw voices, coming from characters we recognize from the street. As long as his books are populated by such real people, Mitchell will deserve his following, but he is in danger of a fatal shark-jumping accident.
In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell allowed himself to suggest the unknown, and the scenes where Orito explores Enomoto’s caves are therefore riper with terror than any of Slade House’s “lacuna” scenes. Narrow paths curve into darkness, statues drip with blood, and Orito takes away only her fear and a growing list of questions about the people who built the tunnels. But Mitchell’s ambition to weave a meta-narrative has forced his newer books to reveal what is best left hinted. With their many external references, The Bone Clocks and Slade House are artsier novels than those that came before, but far less artful. In them Mitchell reads like a remodeler who stubbornly insists that the gaudy corridors he’s built between his mansions are the real architectural triumph.
Admirably, he has left nothing sacred in his conquest of genre-fiction territories, explicitly comparing his work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien, the master world-architect himself. Mitchell even included a character called Bombadil in Slade House’s final chapter, as if to assure us he knows what he’s doing, that no shrines to Tolkien will be left to gather dust during his incursion into hallowed ground. But to throw down that gauntlet is to invite comparison with a man who was a consummate novelist first, and mythology-spinner second. According to accounts from his friends, it took Tolkien 12 years to write and revise The Lord of the Rings, and obsessed with background as he was, most of that time was not spent tightening up a meta-scheme of cohesive self-references (otherwise why would there be so many Unfinished Tales, so many loose ends in The Silmarillion?), but making sure the characters and language were rich, authentic, and human. By contrast, Mitchell looks like a hobbit-sized challenger talking through a tall hat.
Above all, Tolkien knew what to leave unsaid. To name a specific example, the “Watcher in the Water” that guards the entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring is horrible precisely because we know neither what it is nor how it came to be there, apart from some scrawled suggestions in an abandoned journal. The entry reads: “The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.” More terror is crammed into those two lines then into the whole of Slade House, because Tolkien has left space for our imaginations to populate the darkness. But Mitchell is addicted to ripping back the veil. His evil Grayer twins become less frightening the more we know about them, and their soliloquizing at each chapter’s climax makes them something worse than poorly-written antagonists: they become well-written antagonists too well explained. Their nightmare mansion ultimately disappoints, like a haunted house with all the lights turned on.
With each successive, elaborately explained novel, there is a paradoxical sense that Mitchell’s world is shrinking, because the rigging he’s so intent on fastening between storylines is clogging up the gaps that should be occupied by the unknown. Nothing can swoop down on us without getting caught in the wires. Titles like Cloud Atlas hint that Mitchell is undertaking a quest to map the changeable world, to search for suggestions of coherence among what is cloudy, turbulent, and disordered. But just as the psychedelic gobbledygook of Yeats’s A Vision added nothing to the power of his poetry (it only gave theorists the opportunity to point to some prose passage that was supposedly the origin of a poem, as if that proved anything), Mitchell’s Horologist wonderland seems like an escape from the literary into the clever. Discovering one of his linked plots gives you a Sudoku-solver’s thrill, but this pleasure would be hard to call artistic. Billed as a suggestion about the interconnectedness between us all, such moments register instead as self-satisfied technical flourishes, easter eggs.
As Mitchell gains power and the volume of his work expands, we have to hope he exercises a proportionately large restraint. Tolkien’s world-creating mechanism began with people and with language: He and C.S. Lewis used to play Scrabble in Elvish, a cultural artifact which grew organically alongside Tolkien’s lands and characters, instead of being thrust upon them in literary retrospect in the manner of Mitchell’s Horology. In terms of creative impetus, this retrograde fiddling with Mitchell’s own world could prove to be, as Sally Timms puts it, “a fatal mistake, like Orpheus looking back…”
To demand that Mitchell walk the same road as even his greatest predecessors would be inane when his explicit desire is to innovate, but as he said himself, the watchword of the world-builder, even as he mixes improbable elements, must be a plausibility that outwrestles the improbable. Plausibility means a sense of rightness to experience, and Slade House, in spite of its pristine characterization, forgets that the experience of horror starts with the unknown. Instead of dark shadows, he gives us exposition, and as tempting as it must be to forget, Mitchell should have remembered that readers will always prefer to wander the maze’s edges than to sit down for a lecture at its center.
There are precious few things David Mitchell’s latest opus The Bone Clocks isn’t about. Across centuries and continents, Mitchell works the literary magic that has earned him a unique place in contemporary fiction—an author unbound by genre or expectation. The Bone Clocks was birthed onto bookshelves already longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, a daunting pedigree for a novel to embrace on its publication date, but Mitchell is already thinking two books ahead. Like the Horologists that feature in his new book, he can’t be bound by the constraints of time. Mitchell has authored six novels, and each one is a puzzle of narratives, characters, and plot. These elements leap between texts, taking minor roles in one novel and major turns in the next. The world of David Mitchell’s prose is immense. Speaking with him in person before a stop on his recent book tour, I decided to play Royal Geographic Society explorer and map out the vast expanses of his latest fictional universe.
The Millions: Do you see a book like The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas in part as an exercise in story architecture—dovetailing narratives, time jumps, callbacks, and so forth. How many blueprints do you need to draft before you build the final versions of your novels?
David Mitchell: An exploratory blueprint is to the finished book what a doodle might be to an oil painting, but you need somewhere to start. A vague, rough, approximate, sprawling, first something. From that you get an idea of how many parts there’s going to be—you’ve got to break it down into parts—six, in this one. Then once you know what the parts are, I draw a herringbone diagram, a horizontal line with limbs coming off it, and each limb is where I write ideas down. Each limb is essentially a scene, so you get to see all the scenes in the part and in the right order. More lines can come off the subspines—it gets quite hairy—and then a column of dialogue goes off in one direction and then another one underneath because there’s more space down there and then I might draw the face of a character because I’m stuck for a bit. That is the blueprint for what I write. What I end up writing may conform to that blueprint, or it may vary from it, but at least you are not dealing with a void. The blank screen is the enemy. You can’t improve on nothing. You have to improve on something, however bad, and patchy, and incomplete it is. Once you have something, you begin to work.
TM: The Bone Clocks deals with Atemporals, who are beings that either reincarnate or never truly die. In creating the Atemporals, you either appropriated or invented words like “scansion” and “psychosoterica”. What is the etymology of this vocabulary?
DM: Some Jung. Some what I imagine might be Greek, but I don’t speak any, so it’s only an imagined Greek. Some 21st century West Coast computer talk—some IT terms. “Redact” is probably a mid-20th century term. I see it in the Cold War sense: the redacting of documents.
TM: It immediately conjures an image of thick black lines on legal papers.
DM: Exactly. “Psychosoterica” I thought about long and hard. It is a relatively modern version of an old occult practice in the cosmology of the book. The Anchorites have fallen into a branch of the occult called The Shaded Way and the Horologists have followed a less predatory version called The Deep Stream. I made those terms up. I suppose there are echoes of how western Buddhism names the various branches of Buddhism, of which there are many. It is not a religion of the text, or a single book, that lays down the rules. It has morphed in many parts of the world into contradictory sets of beliefs in many areas, such as what happens to us after we die. A Sri Lankan Buddhist would give a very different answer then a Zen Buddhist. The thing I like about it is…that’s ok. No one has a real problem with it; they don’t go to war with each other about it.
TM: Your book features five narrators across six distinct novellas, with each section leaping forward a decade or so from the last. How did you decide what not to include from the missing years between each section?
DM: What would have skewed the novel. That’s what I left out. What would have stopped the novel taking off. I omitted what would have bent it out of shape. Watching what you’re making is what informs you about what you can and can’t include.
TM: A novelist, Crispin Hershey, narrates the third section of The Bone Clocks. In writing the character, did you gift him any of your creative leftovers like rejected book titles or abandoned story ideas?
DM: No, I think made everything up just for him, because he isn’t me. Well,he is me in terms of where the raw material comes from, but he’s a slave to his vanity in a way I try not to be. And that’s what generates, say, book titles I wouldn’t choose for my own. He’s a fictional creation and his oeuvre is tailored for him. It’s a bespoke oeuvre with him in mind.
TM: Holly Sykes is the heroine of your book, appearing in some form in each of its six segments, beginning in 1984, and stretching to 2034. How do you keep a character’s voice consistent across that time span while still allowing it to evolve with age?
DM: You are right in identifying a technical challenge. You do have to do that. The nature of the challenge changes a little big depending on what decade of her life she’s in, and what decade of the world’s life she’s in as well. First in the 1980s, you have to include a few 80s-isms and make sure that no recent developments in English slip into what Holly is saying. For example, “that’s so not what I’m going to do Mum.” We didn’t say that in the 80s. “So” was not an adjectival modifier in that sense. You make it decade appropriate. And you do that for all of the characters, of course. I factored in that at some point Holly got an education—a degree in Psychology—that would’ve upped her register away from demotic and more towards the hieratic. She learns to speak posher. That gives her a greater eloquence later in life. I needed her to be a writer, or at least a memoirist. I needed to enrich her relationship with language from the 1980s Holly. Alongside her own story, and in parallel to it, is the story of her relationship with language, which gets a bit richer the older she gets. She’s still using “sort of” to the very end; those are the last words of the book. I think it’s there in the first sentence as well. There are a few of those verbal tics, no matter how acrobatic with language we become, that stay with us. It’s hard to get it right, but it’s my job to get it right. If I got it wrong, it would endanger the fictional credibility of Holly, and then I’d have a broken book. So you think about it.
TM: The sixth and final portion of The Bone Clocks imagines a frighteningly possible near future in which an Endarkment has, in so many words, reset the world into barbaric times. Did any specific sources inspire your vision of how the world may look in twenty years?
DM: Any copy of a relatively highbrow newspaper will do it. I can’t remember exactly which news stories—it’s been a lousy summer for news, with Palestine and ISIS and Ukraine—just monstrous this year, but I’m sure there were equivalents last year too that bled into it. Actually, I read a really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass, where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans, as they do in many contemporary stories, but it gets the crops we eat. That’s more interesting to me. Wholesale zombie apocalypses in six days makes for a few good scenes in movies, but we’ve seen those films already. But when food becomes scarcer and scarcer, and it’s moving closer and closer to your part of the world, and first rice goes, but it’s ok, because we’ve still got wheat, and then wheat turns into a brown mush in the fields, and then barley, and then oats, and then everything? Christ, what are you going to eat? What are you going to feed the animals? It gets very serious very quickly, but not so quickly that you can’t have interesting metaphysical discourse along the way. Another book, the one that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section, is The Eagle of the Ninth series by Rosemary Sutcliff. She was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section. What do you think, am I too gloomy, or might it happen?
TM: What scared me most was how possible it seemed to me, especially the idea of everyone trusting their devices to digitally store the history of their lives: their writing, their photographs, their memories. Everything that we think is safely stored on servers and drives is gone in an instant.
DM: It’s like a cyberstroke. And what about scientific research? What about the Hadron Collider stuff? Is anyone printing that out onto pieces of paper? I rather doubt it. Our grandchildrens’ lives are going to be a whole lot rougher then ours if I’m right. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
TM: Does the book on your bedside table often influence your works in progress?
DM: Yeah, usually, because I’ve chosen it to do just that. I read a book called The World Without Us about what would happen if humanity ceased to exist, and how long it would take to recover itself. Not long! I learned all sorts of things, like there is still a river flowing right through New York—there always was—but now it gets pumped out, except when it rains. But it just takes those pumps being stopped for 48 hours and there would be a river running down Fifth Avenue. I find that strangely comforting. The only problem is our plutonium dumps and deposits of radioactive material. We’ve damned ourselves to needing power grids to keep those cool and safe. When those go, you get what’s happening in Japan, in Fukushima. That would be the only disaster for nature if humans stopped existing. What a legacy to leave to our kids. How dare we. How dare we. Just so we can have our air conditioning and patio heaters. How dare we.
TM: So is it fair to say you choose reading material that vibes with what you’re writing at the moment? Some authors prescribe the opposite approach.
DM: Well I do sometimes go the opposite, because you find stuff there as well, serendipitously. And sometimes you just read great fiction to remind yourself of how high the bar needs to be. Halldór Laxness’s Independent People is a book I devoured. No tricks, just an old-school, somewhat intergenerational novel. It’s set in the poorest possible zone in the world, novelistically: Iceland. But it’s not Reykjavik. It’s Northeast Iceland. And it’s not in a town in Northeast Iceland, it’s in a valley where a farmer is trying to bring an abandoned farmhouse back to life. I was trying to work this out: what’s the most impossible thing to write about and make it interesting? There’s this particular section set in a boy’s head, a half-hour in real time, where he wakes before everyone else, in winter, and nothing could possibly happen. It’s the purest nothing I’ve ever seen encased in prose. But it’s a brilliant, fascinating scene. Laxness is a magician. That’s another reason why I sometimes choose to read something with no connection to what I’m working on. Although, it is Iceland, and Iceland makes two appearances in The Bone Clocks: Crispin Hershey goes there, and it appears not in the last section, but past the last section. That’s my one real moment of self-indulgence in the book. I hacked it down from six pages to about three, but it’s a three page essay on not thinking about Iceland. My editor said, “are you sure?” and I said “yeah, I want one place where Crispin isn’t being a jerk.” This is what he does, this is how he thinks. It lends him some credibility.
TM: The cultural phenomenon of Easter eggs—hidden references inside of books, films, etc.—permeates The Bone Clocks in the form of appearances from characters from your past novels and references to their worlds. What inspired their inclusion?
DM: They’re just the right people for the job. It’s not really inspiration—it’s that they fit and can bring good stuff with them. Hugo’s cool. He’s in a thirteenth of Black Swan Green as Jason Taylor’s obnoxious, precocious cousin. When I wrote that, and I’m sure when readers read it, you don’t think you’re ever going to see him again. He’ll just stay in that book and he’s done. But then here he is in The Bone Clocks as the joint second major character with Marinus. If anything inspires me, it might be that moment when a reader encounters a character they were sure they would never hear from again.
TM: Can readers hope to see any of the characters that were in The Bone Clocks in your future works?
DM: Yes. I’m going to do a book mostly about Marinus in the future, about what happens once she gets to Iceland, and to link that to Meronym, who’s a character at the center of Cloud Atlas. They call themselves the Prescients. That’s how she introduces herself when she arrives in a fusion-powered ship to the post-apocalyptic times and the think tank the surviving Horologists have set-up in Iceland. I’m going to do Hershey’s father as well, the filmmaker. I’m doing something short now, but my next major book, I’ll start that next year.
TM: Short like your recent Twitter story?
DM: Five Twitter stories. They won’t be on Twitter, but five stories of that length. And they’re linked. The first one is the Twitter story. That’s part one, and then two, three, four, five. Really short book. Marinus will appear in the fifth story, in her Iris Marinus form.
TM: You don’t define the title of your book until late into the story. Was this choice an exercise in delayed gratification?
DM: It’s cool, when you’ve forgotten that the title is a puzzle, to then have it explained. Delayed gratification. Ambushed gratification really.
TM: At the point where it is defined, in the fifth section I believe, there’s so much else going on that the last thing you’re worried about is the title, and then you gift it to readers right in the middle of a major action scene.
DM: That inspires me to utter an evil villain type “mwahahaha!”
TM: The Bone Clocks also has more then a few history lessons embedded in its pages. Did you opt to place Marinus and other Atemporals in areas of history that particularly appealed to you, or was the where and when secondary to the character development those scenes afforded the story?
DM: I chose them with thought. I needed Esther Little to be more ancient then the Horologists. Archeological evidence points back—I think the last time I looked it was 80,000 years—to indigenous Australians being the first inhabitants. There are few places as unaltered as Australia, so for deep time, it was good to give her that neck of the woods to call home. The Horologists that can’t chose their hosts, the ones that get reborn according to the laws of demographic probability, are most of the time Chinese. The Chinese population has always been a high fraction of the Earth’s population. Marinus is Chinese in the incarnation before she is Iris, when she’s the doctor who happens to be in England in time to treat Holly. It was almost a process of elimination, that one.
TM: Horology is defined as the art or science of measuring time, and is the name adopted by the group of Atemporals that Holly Sykes encounters early on in her life as well. Do you consider The Bone Clocks to be an extended definition of horology—an examination of an abstract concept that toes the line between science and art?
DM: There’s certainly an academic in Los Angeles who thinks that, Paul Harris, a member of the International Society of Time. Inadvertently, yes. That isn’t where I started though. Character development and narrative. Start there, and then the ideas will appear, like spores turning into mushrooms. I think time is a default theme of all novels. As is memory, as is character, as is identity. You can spot this when editors don’t know what to put on the jacket copy, so they put “a mesmerizing mediation on time and identity”. How can you write a novel that isn’t about those things? Maybe that’s a notch too high, because I needed to show time passing by, on the large-scale temporal arcs that plot the novel.
TM: Your novel reminded me in a small way of Richard Linklater’s newest film, Boyhood, where in the course of three hours, the audience watches a single actor go from adolescence to adulthood. Like Holly in your novel, you see this person at the end of their journey, and you know they’re the same character from before, but they’re nothing alike, not even physically.
DM: Realism, when done well, is more fantastical than fantasy. And you can’t dismiss it, because its happening in your own cells, in your own lives, in your own families. Reality is the ultimate trip.
Back in January, Casey N. Cep published a delightful essay at Page-Turner, The New Yorker’s book blog. The piece was about maps–particularly, the obvious affection so many writers feel for them. She mentioned, of course, the big-book fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin; but also, the map Sherwood Anderson commissioned of Winesburg, Ohio; the survey done of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau; and the hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County signed by William Faulkner (as “sole owner and proprietor”). “Every map tells a story,” Cep wrote, “and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them.”
I was surprised Cep didn’t mention David Mitchell, though. In his Paris Review interview from 2010, Mitchell told this wonderful, on-point story from his childhood, as a way to account for his own beginnings as a storyteller.
[My] parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there?
In his sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has taken this fascination with the characters at the edge of the action and built a book around them. With one very important exception (which I’ll get to shortly), the six novellas that make up The Bone Clocks take place on the margins of a grand, cosmic struggle, and explore the lives of the people who reside there.
In fact, the least interesting and least moving part of the book is the one that doesn’t occupy a point of some distance from the central action. The next-to-last novella, called “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” is set in 2024, and features the climax of a mysterious battle between good and evil, the dimensions of which have only been hinted at in previous chapters.
On the one side of this struggle stand the Horologists, an order of reincarnated immortals who have banded together to oppose the Anchorites. The Anchorites, envious of the Horologists’ natural immortality, have discovered a grisly method of obtaining their own version of everlasting life, one involving “soul-decantation,” and the murder of innocent humans.
Throughout the first four novellas, both Anchorites and Horologists beam in and out of the narrative, never taking up much time or attention (in a detail you might remember from the Men in Black movies, witnesses to horological or anchoritic phenomena find their memories curiously erased).
This fifth section, however, belongs entirely to the immortals, and the novel frankly suffers for it, particularly because Mitchell plants a stylistic belly-flop into one of the more egregious cases of Sci-Fi technobabble you are likely to witness this side of a Star Trek fan-fiction site. The immortals’ speech is full of these little idiosyncrasies and special meanings that don’t serve to make the story any more vivid–they’re more like the lumps left in a salad dressing after you’ve gotten too fancy with the spices.
“As I ingress, I hiatus her,” goes one sentence. “You could’ve suasioned me, if you cared so much,” goes another. “I’ve eaten trays of dim sum with more psychosoteric potential than you”–that’s Horology shit-talk, I suppose. And all terms of telepathic communication–the immortals can communicate telepathically, of course–for some reason are prefixed “sub.” All of them. You’ll see “subask,” “subvoice,” “subreply,” “suborder,” “substate.” “Subremark,” for Christ’s sake.
This is uncharacteristically bad, and actually pretty strange, when you consider how world-beatingly good Mitchell usually is at this sort of thing. Mitchell’s talent at using dialogue to flesh out invented worlds is unsurpassed by anyone writing today–compare the stiltedness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” with the science fiction portions of Cloud Atlas. And consider The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where Mitchell had to pull off the same basic stunt, while also worrying about historical (semi-)accuracy.
What he’s done here, I think, is failed to avoid a problem he solved while writing The Thousand Autumns, of leaving off that “(semi-)” part. Mitchell has told the story in public several times, of how at first he strove for, and achieved, a truly accurate rendering of late 18th century dialogue. He showed it to his wife, who said, “It sounds like Blackadder!” (And apologies to Rowan Atkinson, but she didn’t mean this to be complimentary.) Mitchell went back in, and contrived a new version of the dialogue, written in a vernacular he nicknamed “Bygonese”–close enough that the spell is cast, not so close that it’s broken.
To put it another way, Mitchell’s failure with these telepathic immortals and their “subs” and “scansions” and “suasions” is actually just a kind of over-success. He renders the Horologists’ language too completely, and strips the threads. Perhaps if this “Horologese” had been dialed down a little, it wouldn’t be a problem; or, if the war of the immortals had taken over a larger part of the book, there’d have been more time to develop the concepts that undergird this techno-dialect.
Of course that would have been to abandon the novel’s organizational subtext, this attention to what happens “in the edges of the maps.” And Mitchell certainly didn’t want to do that. In fact, he found this subtext so important that at one point, he brings it right into the novel, through the voice of one of his characters.
That character is Crispin Hershey, a novelist, who narrates the fourth section of the book, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”; and while you might roll your eyes at a novelist writing a novel about a novelist, rest assured that Crispin is pointedly nothing like Mitchell. Crispin is a former “Wild Child of British literature,” whose first novel was edgily titled Desiccated Embryos. (There’s a reference to Kingsley Amis on the first page of Crispin’s section, and Crispin has a novelist father who was a grand old man of British letters; I think we’re supposed to make of these associations what we will.) Crispin is a terrible man, a dull and vainglorious womanizer, whereas Mitchell seems (to this fanboy at least) sincerely humble, intellectually radiant, and solidly dedicated to his family.
Which makes it all the more striking when Mitchell speaks so transparently through Crispin’s voice. Again, compare this, a portion of a lecture Crispin gives on Auden, to what Mitchell told the Paris Review:
Writers don’t write in a void. We work in a physical space, a room, ideally in a house like [Halldór] Laxness’s Gljúfrasteinn [the home and workplace of the Icelandic Nobel Laureate], but also we write within an imaginative space. Amid boxes, crates, shelves and cabinets full of…junk, treasure, both cultural–nursery rhymes, mythologies, histories, what Tolkien called ‘the compost heap’; and also personal stuff–childhood TV, home-grown cosmologies, stories we hear first from our parents, or later from our children–and, crucially, maps. Mental maps. Maps with edges. And for Auden, for so many of us, it’s the edges of the maps that fascinate…
Forgive me a little digression, but there is something big going on on our planet. We’re the first generation in history for whom extinction is a problem to be solved. And this problem is so big, so all-encompassing, that not one of us can claim to live in the edge of its map.
It’s this sense of global citizenship, I think, which accounts for why The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity–the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other–has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters.
In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. Previously, if his characters had regrets, they were, for the most part, regrets about how the world had treated them, about the hand they’d been dealt: Eiji Miyake, for instance, the hero of Number9Dream, who sets off for Tokyo after the death of his beloved twin sister, to find the father they never knew; or Jacob de Zoet, the heartbreakingly persnickety clerk for the Dutch East Indies trading company, nursing a forbidden devotion to Christianity while living in the swamp of greed and brutality that was the late-colonial Pacific. (And Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas is not wholly to the contrary–Frobisher is so youthfully rakish, so self-absorbed and talented, that you can’t get too upset with him. He’s a charming, artistic kid hounded by money troubles largely of his own creation, and what millennial can’t sympathize with that?)
But in each of the five novellas leading up to and away from the book’s climax in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” Mitchell’s primary characters suffer regret for their own actions. Holly Sykes begins as a lovestruck teenage girl who runs away from home, and isn’t there to stand in the way of the horrifying tragedy that befalls her family. Ed Brubeck is a journalist who goes where the story is (in this case, Iraq), but who knows that his story, as a partner and a father, demands that he stay home with his family to tell it. Crispin Hershey commits a terrible, life-altering prank against the critic who broadsided his “comeback” novel. And the second novella, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume,” brings back Hugo Lamb, the intensely charismatic (but secretly psychopathic) cousin of Black Swan Green’s Jason Taylor; he drives a friend and classmate to suicide over gambling debts.
The four characters followed in these five novellas (Holly Sykes narrates the first and last sections) suffer the consequences of their own moral failures–failures of lust and self-absorption, of ambition and envy and insecurity. Unlike the characters in earlier Mitchell novels, these people aren’t so much victims of the world as they are creators of their own little world of sorrows, which follows each of them around, reminding them how they went wrong.
This theme is partly why Mitchell made two of his choices in constructing this novel. One, he called it The Bone Clocks, and the reader quickly realizes that he means us, humans–regular-order, plain-Jane, non-immortal human beings; it’s a title meant to remind us that we’re all just stopwatches counting down to some unknowable, but inevitable, zero.
The second choice was to end this story in Ireland (where Mitchell lives with his family), in the year 2043. We are not finding so much in the current fiction any visions of the future that could be called “optimistic,” and The Bone Clocks is no different. It’s not a dystopia–not quite. But it’s a world where precious little civilization remains–and what does survive hangs by a frail and unraveling thread. A world that is, itself, one very big Bone Clock. There is a deep worry about this book; a sense of regret for a planet that may already have passed the point of redemption.
Even so, there is a moment in the very last pages–you will definitely know it when you get there–where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. Our greatest storytellers can remind us that these moments are possible; and perhaps I’m naive, but I think the more we are reminded of this, the more likely it is that we will ultimately gather together and save our world, and ourselves, before the clock runs out.
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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Unlike the last time I reviewed a film, when I felt compelled by virulent dislike so to do, I was moved and surprised by This is England, Shane Meadows’s 2007 movie about restless 80s youth in a shitty northern town. At the start, the film’s world is shaped by Thatcher and the Falklands and council housing and having no money; the youth, as is their wont, are acting out and wearing silly clothes.
Twelve-year-old Sean, whose father died in the Falklands, is left with a young and loving (if kind of dotty) mother, a pair of uncool jeans, and a big hole in his heart. Finding refuge from his various neighborhood persecutors, he becomes the little brother and mascot to a group of lovable non-racist skinheads (the sharp-dressing reggae kind, which were apparently a thing, not the white power murderous kind). Together, they get up to minor destruction and harmless hijinks. Then a couple of old friends show up, newly minted ultra-nationals fresh from a stint in jail. Lines are drawn, choices are made, and suddenly the film gets stops being carefree and comic with a cheerful Specials and Toots soundtrack, and the threat of violence immediately becomes ever-present and terrifying.
The movie has a couple of problems, namely the “sad music” selection accompanying some of the serious scenes, and its abrupt denouement. I would have liked the film to be longer and to see what happened to everyone, mostly because I was so engaged by the incredible performances–especially by Tom Turgoose, who plays the young feller Sean, and Stephen Graham, who plays Combo the nazi–as well as the great, if sometimes unintelligible dialogue and the glimpse afforded into this particular zeitgeist. It reminded me not a little of David Mitchell’s wonderful novel Black Swan Green, if only because of the Thatcher and the Falklands and the dialogue and the teen angst.
Basically, it’s a movie about the dangers of poverty and powerlessness, the aching hearts of youth, and the horrors of prejudice. Since, in my crude estimation, 20% of every story ever told is about these things, as a film This is England doesn’t break new ground on the human experience. But it is mesmerizing in its specificity, and the acting is spectacular. And, unfortunately, although the film’s milieu is now almost three decades old, the rampant unemployment, the ignorance, and the attendant nativism it relates are not unrecognizable today.
Although many readers at The Millions are likely to have at least one David Mitchell book under their belt (Cloud Atlas was admitted into The Millions Hall of Fame earlier this year, after all), I’m sure most of you remember what it’s like for the uninitiated. Everyone tells you that you must read Cloud Atlas, and you buy it and it sits on your shelf for three years. You assume that his work is intellectual, serious, complicated, experimental; a multi-voiced beast that is said to be amazing, but that has to be heavily grappled with in order to appreciate. However, spending even a couple of minutes with David Mitchell — the man — made me realize that neither he nor his work should be approached with the kind of hesitation or trepidation that some readers have.
Just before his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell tiptoed down the stairs from the mezzanine office. He sat on the third step clutching his cup of tea, hidden from the adoring masses by a waist-high wall that serves as a railing. From my chair at the back desk, I had the perfect angle for a photo opportunity: the big author mentally preparing for his last reading before heading home. Instead, when he noticed me with the camera, he started making faces at me and mock-scowling. During his reading, he paused mid-sentence to tell anecdotes, he told us that he likes to create onomatopoetic verbs to mess with his translators, and he occasionally provided sound effects to go with his metaphors. This was not the brooding intellectual one might have expected. This was not the “serious author” whose books are to be spoken about with mountainous respect in hushed tones. This man was playful, and instantly open, and remarkably nimble.
Although David Mitchell is almost universally hailed as a creator of literary fiction, it is the lens of games and child-like amusement that often sharpens his work into focus. Michael Chabon described Cloud Atlas as “the novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” Mitchell has been called a ventriloquist for the way that he inhabits voices and “does” other genres so well. Even his naysayers use this lens: in the LA Times, reviewer Eric Banks described the second section of Mitchell’s new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as a foray into “comic-book Japonica.”
I asked Mitchell what his favorite game was growing up, hoping it might tell us something about his writing as a whole. He described a loose kind of game that most of us probably played in some form or another: an improvised war-type game with two opposing sides and rules and goals that you kind of made up as you went along. You would advance into each other’s territory, set ambushes, and try to spring your own men who’d been captured. Guns were made up of two fingers and a thumb, and there was a sort of honor system when a confrontation occurred. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think that it can describe what Mitchell has done in his books – he makes up a new set of rules each time, and he treads into territory that you might not expect in terms of genre, voice, and style. There are usually opposing forces at play, though who is playing for which side can be ambiguous and shifting.
From the micro-view of his own memory, Mitchell quickly waxed analytical. He suggested that games allow us a small view into how the mind works:
We don’t have an effective vocabulary of the mind, because we don’t really know what it is. And we need a couple of Newtons or Darwins or Einsteins–in neurology–before, I think, we’ll begin to “get it”… We know much more about [the mind’s] pathology than we do about its anatomy. But it becomes visible in games. Games gives us a vocabulary of mind that we otherwise lack… Patterns can be made manifest in one form.
Fiction can also “do the mind” — it picks up on patterns like games do. Towards the end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob fleshes out the story of Phoebus in Greek mythology and then says: “The truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not its words, but its patterns.”
Several of Mitchell’s novels use games to show macro tendencies: he uses a rugby match to ruminate on chance and fate in Ghostwritten, in Black Swan Green it’s something called British Bulldogs that sheds light on growing up in Thatcher’s England, and in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the Japanese game Go provides the ripples and layers. In the final section, after we’ve gotten some sense of the relative equilibrium between the Dutch and the Japanese on Dejima (the Dutch East India Company’s outpost off the coast of Japan in 1799), in comes the English ship, bringing with it global machinations and the need for shifting alliances and multilayered strategies. It is immediately followed by an actual Go match, also full of machinations and strategies, which has taken on all sorts of significance of its own. Not only does it illustrate the power play happening between the Magistrate and Lord Abbot, it foreshadows the waning strength of Japan’s isolationist policies in the face of global advances.
In the present day, interestingly, Go has the opposite role to play in the global advance of technology — Mitchell told me that an algorithm is no match for a master Go player, and the game is “one of humanity’s last strongholds against the computer.”
Perhaps Mitchell is aware of these tendencies, for even he uses toys and games of childhood to describe his writing process. On the recent challenge of writing a libretto for an opera, David wrote that “packing so much human luggage into so few syllables” was similar to sudoku.
When I asked him whether one needs to live in a place in order to write about it, he said it’s hard to make it smack of authenticity if you haven’t. You need more tricks and sleight-of-hand to mask the fact that you haven’t been there. For example, Mitchell had never been to New York when he was working on Ghostwritten. One of the sections is takes place there, so he set it in winter, when windows are hard to see through and details are muted by snow. And then he made the bulk of the action occur on a radio show. How’s that for literary prestidigitation! Historical fiction, however, tends to thrive on rich detail, and after reading his latest novel, no one would doubt that Mitchell spent nearly a decade living in Japan.
Finally, I asked him how, after observing a place in the present, do you access its past or imagine its future? I’m sure that there is some element of Faulkner’s famous quote at work, that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” David also suggested that first you gather the bits. Then, essentially, you’re playing dress up with dolls:
You just think about the story first. And… the people. But they are, as it were, naked. Temporally naked. So you just think about the story and the relationships and… what their hearts want. And how these wants bounce off each other. Then when you’ve got those, then you clothe them. Literally clothe them in appropriate period costumes, but also sort of… attitudinally clothe them.
While answering questions after his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell got into a groove and offered, in rapid succession, three extended metaphors for his writing process. The best one, the one that can help both writers and readers, came to him just a few weeks ago. He said that writing a novel is like an amusement arcade horse race game with five horses – character, plot, theme/ideas, structure, style – and the goal is for them all to finish at once. For example, you develop the character horse, his history and his personality, and then you ask “What would he do in this situation?” Then the plot horse catches up. I found this metaphor to be useful to me as a reader as well, in terms of describing what does and doesn’t work in a novel. I asked Mitchell whether one of his horses needed more training, or whether one came more naturally than the rest.
It varies from book to book. I would say that generally, my themes/idea horse probably hasn’t much rider. I don’t really think “This book is going to be about this,” ahead of time. Or perhaps, specifically, it sort of leaves on its own sweet time, late and last. And at some point, after the others have streaked ahead, the rider sort of hops over the barrier from the crowd and then sort of jumps on …[here Mitchell made leaping gesture with his hand];. And then, “Okay, this is what you’re about. Now I see, now I see…”
The other metaphor that Mitchell threw out there was one that helped him finally master writing in the third person: that of the “narrative helmet.” One character wears it at a time, and it’s got a “camera filming the action but with a spike going into the brain so you can get that character’s thoughts but no one else’s.” He then told us that the plot of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is perhaps more complex than it seems: in the first act, only Jacob wears the helmet. In the second act, the helmet alternates between Orito and Ogawa. In the final act, Jacob, the Magistrate, and the English sea captain wear the helmet. By doing it this way, the momentum increases as you progress in the book.
With building blocks, some children build simple walls and steps, and others build castles with moats and turrets using the exact same materials. Mitchell must have been one of the latter — he recently described his books as “Lego-novels,” made up of component pieces. After spending a few hours in his presence, it is clear that he thinks of language and literature in degrees of magnitude. “A word is a musical note, with its own timbre and attack and fade,” he said at the reading. “And a sentence is therefore a musical phrase, and a paragraph, therefore, is something like a song.” He’s written several novels of interconnected stories and his latest is really more like three successive novellas.
But we’ve all built towers that collapsed, and even David Mitchell can attempt too much. He told me that Cloud Atlas was originally going to have nine parts, not six, but it got unwieldy. One of the narratives was to be from a Korean rock star who was watching a video cassette that (of course) broke in the middle. But when Mitchell sensed it wobbling, he realized that he already had a young musical prodigy in Frobisher. He couldn’t bear to waste the time and money spent on researching Korea, so he set “An Orison of Sonmi-451” there instead.
Mitchell brings to his work the fine balance of playfulness and complexity. I think what turns some people off from “postmodern” writing in general, and something that Mitchell manages to avoid, is a feeling of being toyed with, a feeling that the writer knows something that the reader doesn’t. When you finish, you want to feel as though your mind has been engaged, not as though you’ve been had. Mitchell teased out the distinction a bit:
Maybe it’s the difference between, in the former case, being obliged to be the victim of a practical joke, where it’s not fair because you don’t know what the terms are, and it’ll happen to you and you just have to sit there and take it. Which is really annoying. As opposed to sort of being taught the rules of the game, and sort of being given an invitation, “Would you like to play, too?
Mitchell invites us to play with him, to enjoy the stories he writes, and to have fun trying to figure things out. He also invites us to think hard, and to grapple with the challenges of civilization. As a culture, we could use a bit more of that playfulness and complexity.
Update: Don’t miss our newest “Most Anticipated” list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond.
There’s something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño’s relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available)
Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison’s unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison’s death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it’s the masterpiece they’ve been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim’s affliction is that he’s unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says “Ferris possesses an overriding writer’s gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement.” See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone’s first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth’s review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd’s novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. “There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd’s wide-ranging new thriller,” said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, “It’s a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it’s also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.”The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – The follow-up to Kostova’s big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says “lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.” PW adds “The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.” See Also: Elizabeth Kostova’s Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel’s appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg’s translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February
Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo’s forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book’s surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book’s slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says “Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur.”Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We’ve already discussed Shields’ forthcoming “manifesto” quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited “the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010].” The book now sits on my desk, and while haven’t yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in – British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield’s Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, “Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that’s not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited.”Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort – a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here – was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel’s prologue. It begins, “Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each.”March
Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book’s protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book’s chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change “debate.” The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan’s books have elements of satire, it’s unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it’ll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says “let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?” Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask “isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness.”The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee “offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story.”Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash’s follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book’s title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote “The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.” The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze’s new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, “the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease.”So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver’s latest takes on the healthcare debate.
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, “It is the author’s mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat’s cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision.”Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG’s promotional material calls “McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing.” “Silk Parachute” is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It’s available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee’s recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, “long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe ‘on the chalk’ from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France.” Since McPhee’s most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April
The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do “blooks” too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago’s blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, “which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street,” according to the Independent, in its report on the book’s Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there’s an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, which “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria,” and Cain, “an ironic retelling of the Bible story,” was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey’s new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville “character” is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache.”The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: “The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy… is the search for synonyms for ‘brilliant.'”Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel’s previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel’s follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It’s Canadian publisher has called it “shocking.” And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by “pioneering postmodernist” Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: “Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008.”May
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, “blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme.” As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, “it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one.” Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? “They had made a movie about us.”The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It’s looking like that promising first effort may translate into a “big” novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge – the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II – and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon (“To bring an entire lost world… to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul… takes something more like genius.”)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson’s nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn’t exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions’ readers get behind a book, it’s often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson’s sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There’s not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children’s series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, “The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul.” In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate’s “Myths” series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser’s Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: “Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper… covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card… Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”June
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It’s long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, “Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire.”An American Type by Henry Roth: Here’s another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s “comeback” effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, “discovered,” according to the publicity materials, “in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor,” will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: “Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West.”A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it’s as ambitious and layered as Look At Me–and I’m sure it’ll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, “an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, “from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future.” Color me intrigued. (Edan)July
Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: “His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in ‘a completely illiterate New York,’ he said. ‘In other words, next Tuesday.'”
Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it’s hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.”
C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: “What are you writing now?” And McCarthy responded: “Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.”Unknown
Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it’s “a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children.”Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives – the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash – will be the length of the novel’s gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip – particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel’s content. From various obscure interviews, we’ve managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen’s original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an “inside baseball” look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, “will play an important role in the novel.” 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our “Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.” (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace’s unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears – April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: “The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity.”There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.