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The Book Report: Episode 38: When Your Favorite Author Lets You Down

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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.

In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

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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.

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

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

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

It’s hard to imagine a better reading experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprise Me!