The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel

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Creation Myths: The Millions Interviews Lindsay Hatton

I met Lindsay Hatton at a party. There’s a lesson there: even a misanthrope should go to a party once in a while — you might meet someone remarkable. Hatton’s first novel, Monterey Bay, is just so beautiful that if we hadn’t met and hit it off, I would hate her. Her book is full of sentences I wish I had written, and it’s such a bold act of imagination, unfolding across decades, mixing history and fiction with a confidence that’s awe-inspiring.

All novels suffer from pithy summary. Monterey Bay is about a young woman and some old men who end up creating an aquarium on the titular body of water. But really, it’s a book about ambition, art, sex, obsession, and the devastation wrought on this planet by people — and the unsettling fact that no matter what we do to it, the planet will outlast us. Hatton kindly let me subject her to a few silly questions about her novel, John Steinbeck, and the weird exercise that is historical fiction. Here we go. 

Rumaan Alam: Any summary of your book must, it seems, mention John Steinbeck. He’s a character in the novel, though I would take exception to the suggestion that Monterey Bay is “about” Steinbeck. Is Steinbeck important to you as a writer generally and in this novel specifically?

Lindsay Hatton: To be honest, I knew basically nothing about Steinbeck’s work before writing this novel. I mean, I had been assigned the requisite titles in grade school (The Red Pony, The Pearl, etc.) but for some reason they didn’t make a huge impression. As a kid growing up in Monterey, I didn’t experience him as a writer so much as a tourist attraction. I think there was a part of me that resented the implication that because I lived in “Steinbeck Country” I had to be a superfan. So maybe my avoidance of his work was my first — but certainly not my last — act of pointless literary contrarianism.

It was only once I realized that he’d be a character in my book that I really dug in. And I’m so glad I did. Some of his work I adore (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Grapes of Wrath) and some of it I don’t (I know I might be alone here, but I find Of Mice and Men borderline unreadable). Either way, I have great respect for him. He wasn’t afraid of sentiment, which I think is very brave. He had strong ethical convictions that he always stuck to, often at great personal expense. His geographical descriptions are breathtaking. As a writer, I definitely hope to emulate these things.

As a character in my novel, Steinbeck is important but minor. He is my protagonist’s nemesis/role model and the catalyst for one of the book’s odder moments and the source of some occasional comic relief, but other than that he remains pretty much in the background.

RA: Steinbeck isn’t the focus; that honor belongs to Margot Fiske, a wise (but refreshingly adolescent) teenager who arrives in California with her dad, and takes up with Ed Ricketts, who was also a real person. Steinbeck himself fictionalized Ricketts in Cannery Row and I finished the book unsure whether Fiske and her dad were real people too. It minimizes the book to say it’s about the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, though it is that. But is this creation story or creation myth? Until reading your book, it had never occurred to me that “historical fiction” is in fact a very postmodern exercise.

LH: My relationship to historical fiction is probably as complicated as my relationship to Steinbeck. As a reader, I really admire straight-up historical fiction but, as a writer, it plagues me. If I stay too faithful to the facts, my prose goes kind of stale. Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust. I hate tasting that dust! I prefer it when I can see, or at least intuit, the act of fabrication and the freshness it brings. I love David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America for precisely these reasons. They’ve done their research, but they take immense pleasure in wild speculation. I think that’s exciting.

I also think history itself is exciting. I like how stories and themes and symbols arise naturally by sheer virtue of time and distance and the cognitive pressure they exert. And then I like messing around with those things for my own devious purposes. So from the very first drafts of the novel, this interweaving of fact and fiction was crucial to me. The question was how to manage it, and the answer I arrived at was to stay almost completely true to certain realms of fact (the wheres/whats/whens/whos of Steinbeck and Ricketts, the marine biological detail, certain technicalities and logistics surrounding the aquarium’s creation) and to go almost completely off the rails as far as Margot was concerned. It is, as you put it, definitely a creation myth as opposed to a creation story. I mean, there’s also the question of whether or not there’s a material difference between those two things. But that’s a debate for another time.

One thing in particular that might seem invented but was actually supported by my research was the possibility of Ricketts being attracted to someone Margot’s age. As Steinbeck said in his eulogy of Ricketts: “When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.” ‘Nuff said, I think.

RA: Because of the connection to Steinbeck, I expected Monterey Bay to be in the vein of Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t love James enjoying Toibin’s book, but I have no particular feeling about Steinbeck and was swept into your book. That’s testament to your storytelling, but I think it’s also about the way you evoke Northern California. Does writing about geography entail a different set of responsibilities than writing about real people?

LH: When writing, I was hugely aware of place. Northern California is not only gorgeous; it’s also emotionally provocative. Whether they’re occasional visitors or lifelong residents, people feel very strongly about that landscape, often in quite proprietary ways.

So while the well-known, real-life location of the book is a selling point, it’s also kind of a minefield. I knew I’d be in for some criticism if my experience of the place didn’t match the readers’. My representation of the aquarium, in particular, was risky in this way. But that’s not really something I can worry about, you know? I can only be true to what I’ve seen and how I feel. I love my hometown and I acknowledge its spectacular beauty. But I also acknowledge its darkness. My adolescence was, like so many people’s, full of pain and drama and desire and a sense of not belonging. Monterey is where that all took place, so it stands to figure that my filter might be a little…gothic.

As for my responsibility in representing the town, I’m of two minds on that. The chapters that take place in 1998 depict the town as I knew it, so it was a question of accessing memories that are still very vivid and close to the surface. I trusted my own recollections and didn’t do much supporting research. As for showing what it was like in the 1940s, this is where I did my homework. I took this as seriously research-wise as I took my representation of Steinbeck and Ricketts. With very few exceptions, names and dates and locations are accurate. This was difficult. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, there are times when the facts refuse to fit with your invented narrative; the book becomes a puzzle and not the fun kind. For a while, when things got really rough in that regard, I considered doing what Lauren Groff did so beautifully with Cooperstown in The Monsters of Templeton: presenting a bizarro, renamed version of the real thing. But at the end of the day, Monterey is just too famous and specific a place, and fictionalizing it in that way would have added a layer of metatext that probably would have distracted from the novel’s main goals.

RA: Sex is a not-insignificant aspect of your book. The action begins in the 1940s, but you have the liberty of writing about sex as someone who lives in the 21st century. As the book concludes, Margot is an elderly woman, there’s still something, well, sexual about her. I’m curious to hear what it meant to write about this character as a young girl and an old woman, and how consciously you wanted to explore the question of sex in the book.

LH: Oh yeah! Now we’re getting down to business! It was absolutely vital for me not to present Margot as a victim of anything. Sure, she’s the recipient of some nasty circumstances (a dead mom, a rigid and neglectful father, a nomadic lifestyle, an age-inappropriate romantic relationship that is, no matter how you slice it, very uncool), but I didn’t want to give the reader the easy out of pitying her. When you pity someone, you weaken them. You declaw them and rob them of agency. This is especially true in terms of sex stuff. Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment. Young women with sex drives worry us: in our entertainment, we’d rather see them raped and killed than complicit in the fulfillment of their own desires. I wanted to Margot to break this mold. I wanted her to transcend the living hell of simultaneous fetishization and underestimation that most female teenagers experience. She is as bold, sexually and otherwise, as the men in her life and remains so despite the consequences.

The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today. Margot had to be largely ignorant of these mores, thus the very unusual parameters of her upbringing.

As for older Margot, her vitality was also very much a conscious choice. Our culture doesn’t like thinking about adolescent sexuality, but we REALLY don’t like thinking about geriatric sexuality. When old people have sex in movies or books or TV shows, it’s usually in service of a punch line. And making something into a joke is often very much like pity: it neuters (ha!) its subject. Margot didn’t deserve that, so I didn’t inflict it on her.

RA: The natural world also figures via the animals, mostly sea creatures, that Ricketts collects, that the aquarium is dedicated to. In these pages, sometimes animals are just animals, but sometimes they feel nearer characters. I wouldn’t say you anthropomorphize, necessarily, but you use animals in a way I found unexpected.

LH: For the most part I like animals a lot. But I see them as animals. This was a lesson I learned during my time working at the aquarium, actually. With the exception of the otters and the occasional sevengill shark, none of the animals on display had official names. Avoiding anthropomorphism was taken very seriously. I wanted that to be true of my book as well.

BUT. You just can’t help yourself sometimes, you know? Sometimes there’s an emotional connection or a symbolism that’s impossible to ignore and you kind of have to run with it. I’m okay with that. I remember that being the case at the aquarium, too. There was this one psychologically deranged, obese sea turtle. The turtle, of course, was given a secret name and extra treats because we had projected human characteristics onto it and had fallen in love with it. And that’s not a bad thing.

RA: I wrestle with the inherent sexism of this question but here we go: you have two young children, but found the time and bandwidth to write this beautiful novel. On the one hand, it’s fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked “How did you do it?” On the flip side, I see some value in coming clean about this; like it may well inspire their compatriots, whether mothers or fathers.

LH: Yeah, I don’t get as rankled by this question as some people do. I see it as an inquiry — however tactless and sexist it can sometimes come off — into the changing role of the artist in society. And this is a thing I’m really glad we’re thinking about. There’s that myth of the solitary (usually male, usually white) creator devoting his life solely to his work. Writing all day in his Parisian garret or lakeside cottage, and then drinking all night: that kind of thing. Art doesn’t get made this way anymore, at least not by anyone I know. But the myth still persists for some reason, and I enjoy the opportunity to help debunk it whenever possible.

You mentioned Colm Toibin’s The Master. I loved that book, too, but one of my predominant reactions to it was: “Man! Henry James had so much time and so few responsibilities!” I feel the opposite way about my life. No time! Too many responsibilities! But then again, I’ve also had the extraordinary benefit of a spouse who supported me financially when I was in the deep, unpaid murk of drafting the novel. I also find endless creative fuel in the act of parenting, however distracting and time consuming it can often be. Do my lifestyle choices stymie my writing in certain ways? Has my journey toward publication probably been longer as a result? Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

RA: I believe I am supposed to ask you the last great book you read.

LH: I really enjoyed Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. Her description of breastfeeding is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Also, she is a total virtuoso when it comes to changing POV. And I’ve been obsessed with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From for a while now. Highly recommended for my fellow Californians in self-imposed exile.

Sins in Thy Orisons: On David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’

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.

Filming the Unfilmmable: On David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

There’s something sort of funny about listening to someone try to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Walking out of Symphony Space one evening last week — David Mitchell was the shy and extraordinarily charming guest of honor at the opening night of PRI’s “Selected Shorts” — I heard lots of people try to explain the book to their companions. “With the ship, and the Pacific, it feels like the last one,” a woman said as we shuffled towards the exits, referencing the first (and final) section of Cloud Atlas and Mitchell’s most recent novel, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. “Ah, well.” Her friend leaned in and said in a knowing tone, “I can see that, but once you get to Sonmi…” The same phrases spilled out onto 72nd Street: “story-within-a-story;” “Russian dolls;” “a bunch of cliffhangers!” One man shouted at his date, “And that leads to the next section!” People were waving their hands in the air, evangelizing a book and its concepts that, at first glance, could strike the uninitiated as inventive or contrived. I’d gone to “Selected Shorts” alone that evening, but had I brought along someone to whom I could evangelize, I’d have described Cloud Atlas as a pyramid — six different novellas set across six different points in time, building up chronologically. Each story is cut in half, and we must climb to the peak, to a dystopian far future (which is presented without pause) and climb back down to reach the conclusion of the other five stories. We begin and end in the mid-19th century. Narrative threads, from big themes to small gestures — the act of drawing a map, for example, or certain words that crop up again and again — extend and echo up and down the pyramid.

One protagonist of the six, crotchety vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, expresses disdain for “flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices” (the same character — he gets all the good lines — says that a critic is, “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely…”). If you’re disinclined to appreciate tricksy devices, you might dislike the book outright; there are, as you can imagine, a lot of coincidences. Mitchell himself was surely aware of the risk: he references it in several self-conscious turns, like when Robert Frobisher, the troubled young composer at the center of the epistolary second (and then, the penultimate) novella, structures his masterwork, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” in a similar fashion:

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ’cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…

But by and large, Mitchell’s gamble paid off: Cloud Atlas has been widely acclaimed in the near-decade since its publication, not least of all here at The Millions, where it was retired from the Top Ten a few years back and voted #3 in a survey of the best books of the millennium so far. You’ve probably been seeing a whole lot of the book around recently, or of Mitchell himself, who’s been shuttling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles talking to the press. It’s all, of course, because of the film, the publicity for which has been hard to ignore, from the five-and-a-half-minute behemoth of a trailer released this past summer to the completely unhelpful teaser trailer that’s been running in heavy rotation on television (it’s 10 percent crazy sci-fi special effects and 90 percent Tom Hanks saying something folksy). The project is a collaboration between the Wachowski Siblings, Lana and Andy, of Matrix trilogy fame, and Tom Twyker, the German director of films like Run Lola Run.

Much has been written about the filmmakers’ struggle to find financial backing for the project: six storylines set in wildly different time periods and genres — it’s a hard sell however you spin it. And much, in turn, has been written about how they spun it: the process by which such a structurally unique book could be transferred to the screen, and if it could survive such a translation. Mitchell himself told Aleksandar Hemon, for a profile of the Wachowskis in The New Yorker last month, that, “As I was writing ‘Cloud Atlas,’ I thought, It’s a shame this is unfilmmable.” Some portions of the book — most notably, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a thriller set in the 1970s that’s the pulpiest of the bunch, complete with a ton of internal monologues — are fairly cinematic to start with. But it’s one thing to ask a reader to stop and start six times, and then repeat it all over again on the way back. In a movie, everyone agreed, this structure would never work.

But all three directors were so enamored of Cloud Atlas that they decided to give adaptation a go. They broke the book into plot points — “hundreds of scenes,” Hemon writes. “[They] copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period.” They pulled out arcs, drew connections, and read the reconstructed stories aloud. Then the cards went back on the floor, and were reshuffled and rearranged. They found an initial way into the eventual restructure with Dr. Henry Goose, a major character from the first novella, which is set aboard a ship in the South Pacific in 1849, and Zachry, the protagonist of the far-future dystopia, set a good deal after “the Fall,” when modern civilization seems to have totally collapsed. Henry is morally weak, cowed easily by greed and violent urges; Zachry spends most of his story struggling to throw off these same human impulses, cloaked in ignorance and fear. Mitchell’s six main characters are loosely linked by destiny, physically manifested in comet-shaped birthmarks and half-found (well, half-lost) works of art; the directors wanted to draw links between major and minor characters across every era, linked by common ideals and struggles.

And thus what Mitchell has characterized as the “‘transmigrating souls’ motif” was born: a single actor for multiple characters, certainly one of the most publicized elements of the film. Tom Hanks plays the two aforementioned characters, as well as a blackmailing manager at Frobisher’s hotel, conflicted nuclear engineer Isaac Sachs in the ’70s, and in the modern era, Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, a thug who throws a book critic off a balcony (at a screening of film critics, this earned some seriously awkward laughs). If you’ve read the book, you’ll be able to line these characters up side by side: it’s easy to see the moral arc here, and as a reader, it’s an interesting exercise to re-cast the book, as it were. Some actors — Hugo Weaving, as unwavering evil, and Hugh Grant, as an eternal sleazebag who always succumbs to it — play stagnant foils. Others — Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw — dance around each other in delicate balances of power. But the repetitive casting, the filmmakers’ big tricksy device, is one that, with the movie’s release, has drawn more ire from critics than praise. Many early moviegoers were distracted by the frankly bizarre-looking prosthetics, particularly in 22nd-century Nea So Copros, re-named in the film world a more recognizable “Neo Seoul,” where genetically-engineered clones, or “fabricants,” are bred to do humanity’s dirty jobs without complaint. And some of the accents — Tom Hanks is certainly the biggest culprit here — are distractingly poor as well.

There’s an obvious futility in comparing a book to the subsequent movie, but Cloud Atlas is no mere adaptation: it’s a big, ambitious structural overhaul, one that has been likened by Mitchell, amongst others, to a mosaic, all of his Russian dolls smashed to pieces and carefully reassembled. The plotlines are interspersed, with tight transitions between moments that often mirror each other in action or in theme. Sometimes that’s rewarding — it’s easy to get mired in a single section of the novel, and the quick steps between eras feel freeing by comparison at times. But we lose a fair amount of breathing room in the process, and fans of the book may mourn that loss. Sonmi~451, the fabricant hero of the Nea So section, still gives her orison to the archivist, but many of the meditative qualities of the year-long storyline are gone, replaced by fast and loud action sequences that boil down the sharp edges of what is in the book a deeply complicated narrative. In fact, grey areas turn black and white all across the six stories, either altered or overshadowed by the movie’s broader themes, or shortened for time’s sake.

And then there are the moments when Mitchell calls his own narratives’ truthfulness into question. Sonmi~451’s first words are, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” But Mitchell enjoys undercutting this idea, like early on, when Frobisher discovers half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the account of the first novella, and writes, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity — seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t quite ring true — but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The film is always pressing forward in time, and is largely, unflinchingly earnest — there’s no halting for the novelist’s tricks, and the storylines seem shallower for it.

Despite all this, Mitchell has given the alterations his blessing, telling The Times:

None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable…[The filmmakers] want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril.

But the language of the adaptation — and yes, it’s a little shameful to turn Mitchell’s well-crafted metaphor into something so literal, and I apologize for that — does leave something to be desired. Mitchell is a brilliant linguistic shape-shifter. In the South Pacific, Ewing’s Victorian diary entries are both lively and endearingly stiff. In the 1930s, Frobisher’s sentences fly past like whip-cracks, and the lyricism is oftentimes so charming that we’re distracted from his prejudices and his flippancies. Some of the lines remain, but the narrative voices are mere echoes of their originals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Neo Seoul: in the book, in a world where people worship fast-food mascots and project advertisements onto the moon, language has been deviously corporatized — citizens are consumers, fabricants like Sonmi~451 are servers, and they all read sonys and watch disneys and drive fords and remove their nikes at the door. I imagine legal complications kept these terms out of the film. But even the language that carries over loses its impact aloud: Xultation is much more strikingly written. And in the far future, where English has shriveled to a bastardized pidgin strain — “Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies.” — it’s often much harder to follow the words aurally, rushing so quickly out of the actors’ mouths, than it is to read and translate for yourself on the page.

In the end, it’s a question of mosaics and Russian dolls — of a set of stories, a pile of reshuffled index cards, and the new stories that emerge. If the film is the book distilled, its characters and their choices are sometimes easier to follow and appreciate. But the depths and complications of the novel must lie at the heart of why so many readers — including the filmmakers themselves — loved it to begin with. We are told, for the entire duration of the movie, that everything is connected. But Mitchell doesn’t have to tell us outright: the six stories are, at their hearts, the same.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Where We Write

The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we’ll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we’re making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we’ll repost some favorites on our Tumblr.

 

Michael Bourne: That’s right, I write in bed. I used to have a desk, one of those hideous pasteboard rolling-keyboard-drawer deals, but this being Brooklyn, when we adopted our son five years ago, my “home office” became his bedroom and I was relegated to the guest bed. But now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The big stack of paper in the foreground is my recently finished novel, which I’m now reading one last time before sending out. The yellow legal pads are where I take notes for my reported pieces (yup, I do most of my phone interviews in bed, too). There’s also some old New Yorkers and a Toy Story comic book that I read to Luke before he goes to bed. (Also, I now see peeking out from the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, a big black motorized toy car, whose provenance I cannot fully account for.) What the photo doesn’t show is the built-in bookshelves that cover the far wall and the prints of Impressionist paintings on the other walls. It also doesn’t show the cats – one ginger tom and a silver-and-black girl cat – who snuggle around me as I write. I thought about cleaning it up, but that would not only present me as a neat freak, which I am not, but more importantly it would convey the wrong impression. This isn’t a work space so much as a work nest. Like a lot of writers, I write a ton of bad stuff. Really bad stuff. Embarrassing bad. But here, behind closed doors, in my messy bed in my son’s bedroom, with the big wall of my favorite books smiling down at me and the cats curled up in purring puddles at my side, I can be my fraudulent self and no one will ever have to know.

 

Sonya Chung: I live in a studio apartment with one other human and two dogs. It’s pretty crowded. I work at a long table that is divided from the sleeping/TV area by bookshelves. I straightened up a little for this photo, but generally, I work, and think, in piles. Writing pile; teaching pile; life administration pile. On the far right end of the table is the miscellaneous crap/mail pile (and, of course, dog biscuits). I included my knitting-in-progress in the photo (a scarf) because it’s a strategy I’m trying out, i.e. I’m teaching myself to knit and hoping (as many people have told me) that it helps to de-stress and focus scattered thoughts. The kneeling chair recently replaced an exerball-as-deskchair (which gradually deflated) — back pain, anyone? The lamp is a Kmart special that was originally all-white, but we spray painted the shade hot pink, couldn’t tell ya why…

 

Garth Hallberg: This probably isn’t the messiest workspace you’ll see, though the handprints I’ve left in the laptop grime are pretty gross. Still, when I behold The Desk objectively like this, any pleasure I might take in the externalization of my own mind loses out to my chagrin at all the work remaining to be done. Atop the compact O.E.D. are six books I’m currently supposed to be writing about – one of them a three-novel omnibus, another a year past deadline. To the left of that, bits of my wife’s dissertation have drifted down on top of the desk references (Shakespeare, Hobsbawm, Trucker’s Atlas, Complete New Yorker). Multiple drafts from my own work in progress lie atop books unread (Juan Jose Saer) and un-reread (Joseph Mitchell), because there’s no open space on the desktop. To the front right looms…well, the less said about that, the better.

The picture of my son is for inspiration. The knife is to be used against hostile invaders. The envelope of inspirational quotations has yet to be unpacked, a year-plus after we moved. The coffee right now is what is keeping me going. If you look closely in the glass of Amos’ Ab/Ex masterpiece, on the wall, you can see me shadowed against the awful pink bathroom tile, camera to eye, heavily caffeinated, but, for a moment at least, no longer quite so hard at work.

 

Kevin Hartnett: Whenever I start focusing on the less desirable features of where I work I remind myself of this: It’s an upgrade.

I started as a freelancer three years ago. At the time, my wife I were living in Philadelphia in a one-bedroom apartment. We got on all right in our small space. Then we had a kid. And another kid. By the end of our time in Philadelphia I had to move two piles diapers and a changing pad just to find a place to put my laptop down.

Now we live in Ann Arbor. I work on the second floor of our house, at an antique secretary, in a room with sliding glass doors that lead out to a deck in our backyard. It’s not strictly speaking “my office,” but from 9am-2pm everyday, when my wife is at work and our kids are with their nanny, I have the space all to myself.

My idée fixe of office spaces is a clapboard shed that overlooks Buzzard’s Bay on the front lawn of a friend’s house on Cape Cod. My present situation is a far cry from that. The sliding glass doors face west, which means I work in dimness. And the view out my window is just a boring suburbanish backyard. Occasionally a scrum of kids will burst into view, toting sleds or soccer balls. More often it’s just me and the squirrels who are so obviously fat and healthy it’s off-putting.

But overall I try not to fetishize where I work. All I really need is quiet and enough light to see by. When I find myself longing for a New England sea breeze I try to remind myself of this: The most consequential feature of any potential office is that I’ll be the one sitting in it.

 

Lydia Kiesling: Before a friend moved and bequeathed us the coffee table, the workspace was just the couch, where I sat with computer perched on lap and fretted about irradiating my womb and/or femurs. Now that we have the coffee table, my womb and femurs are presumably okay, but my back suffers. For now, this is where I do everything that I routinely do–homework, writing, cat-hugging, facebook-creeping, school reading (I prefer to read novels before bed, in bed). Most important: My betrothed, knowing this to be the lint-filled navel of my universe, pried the leftovers from my hands and proposed marriage in this very spot.

 

Edan Lepucki: Last summer I wrote about my workspace for the deliciously voyeuristic Tumblr site, Write Place, Write Time. The photos show my desk at home, which is my preferred place to write. Since having a baby, though, my apartment and the desk within it are far less calm and tidy, and I’ve had to go elsewhere to work. Most days I write fiction at my neighbors’ kitchen table while the baby plays and eats furniture next door. (Don’t worry, someone is watching him.) Since it feels weird to post a photo of my neighbors’ place, I present you instead with a picture of their dog, Saul. He is my muse. He understands only Spanish. His mohawk is growing out. Que lindo, no?

I write most of my essays for The Millions at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the coffee shop down the block from me. The place boasts excellent coffee, friendly baristas, beautiful high ceilings, and internet access, which I need for all these damn links. Here is a shot of my most recent camp-out. Mine is the only Toshiba on the block, but it’s proud not to be a fancy-pants Mac. Who cares if the bottom is duct-taped together?

 

Emily St. John Mandel: I’ll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn’t beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that’s Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops.

 

Nick Moran: My desk is full of nomads, and much of its population changes regularly. To wit: the five different histories of Russia. Though I minored in the stuff as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been drawn to the place, those are only visiting until I finish something I’m writing. (I don’t always use Red Star Over Russia as a mouse pad, either.) The rest: the asthma inhaler, the little wooden box from an Amman bazaar (labeled, adorably “Cofee”), and the Real Housewives-noise-canceling headphones are permanent residents. So, too, is the stack of aborted articles beneath the VQR. And the computer, of course. There’s also a Qur’an left over from a recent trip I took to visit my mother in Jordan. An exercise in immersion, that was, and a longtime desk resident it’s become. Finally, there’s the art on the wall above, a relic from my AP art class in high school. My theme was “breakfast.” That one you see is a diptych of a pig turning into a slice of bacon.

 

Bill Morris: I like a short commute. So I made an office out of the second bedroom in my apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Normally the place is not such a pigsty – honest! – but at the moment I’m working on a long magazine article about the future of my hometown, Detroit, and my notes, tape transcripts and drafts have taken on a life of their own. In case you’re curious, that Royal manual typewriter is not a prop. I still write on the gorgeous beast, then use the Mac for editing and sending my stuff.

Looking at this picture reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life: all you need is a table, a chair, a writing tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for?

 

Mark O’Connell: My desk is normally a lot more cluttered than this, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so I did a little spring cleaning before taking the photo. I work in Trinity College Dublin, where I’m doing a postdoctoral research fellowship; I’m in an open plan office in a snazzy new building dedicated to interdisciplinary research in the humanities. On the right, my desk overlooks an atrium where book launches and wine receptions for academic conferences are often held. As a result, I’ve become a connoisseur of awkward standing. I also get to see a lot of surreptitious lunging (for plates of sandwiches) and timid but determined sidling (toward established clusters of interlocutors). That can be fun to watch, and is often a reason in itself to work late.

On to the desk proper: the obvious centerpiece here is the nifty set-up with the elevated laptop, wireless keyboard and trackpad: this discourages slouching and does wonders for the lower lumbar region. Those books lined up at the back are mostly by or about Walter Benjamin, who might have something to do with something I might end up writing (that’s about an average number of mights for me). A lot of them I haven’t so much as opened, but I feel significantly smarter just having them there in front of me. In that sense they’re like a sort of bibliographic mascot or talisman. On the right of the laptop is a hybrid pencil sharpener/rubber I picked up earlier in the week. I probably paid more for it than I should have (€3), but you’ve got to spend money to make money in this business. I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status.

 

Janet Potter: Four minutes after this photo was taken, I started packing everything pictured into boxes. I’m moving this month, so my work area will soon be reconstructed in another Chicago apartment with a bigger kitchen and walk-in closets. I can say with some confidence, however, that it will look a great deal like this, because the iterations of my work area in each of my post-college apartments have been built around the following, horcrux-esque elements:

#1 – The Big Blue Desk. How great is that desk? It’s royal blue! It’s a solid wood secretary desk (with the flip-up thing for a typewriter) that I bought on craigslist for $30 in 2005.
#2 – The Posters. The signed cover prints of On Beauty and Ghostwritten were going away presents when I left my old job at Brookline Booksmith, and the signed print of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a gift from a friend at Random House.
#3 – The Chair. That stool with the ugly green cushion was the bench to my grandmother’s vanity.
#4 – The Formative Books. The bookshelf that sits to my back holds only the best of my childhood, teenage, and college reading. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Cloud Atlas, The Harry Potter series, Proust, Natasha’s Dance, Banvard’s Folly. Only the best.
#5 – The Presidential Biographies. Each time I finish another biography in my project, I add it to the ranks lined up on top of the bookcase, supported by Abraham Lincoln bookends that used to be in Conan O’Brien’s New York office (long story).

Show us photos of your writing spaces using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter!

Digging into the 2012 IMPAC Longlist

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2012 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 147 novels on the list, nominated by 122 libraries in 45 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2010 (including translations).

Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.

Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.

Room by Emma Donoghue (20 libraries representing Australia, England, France, Ireland, the Maldives, New Zealand, and the United States)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (13 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (12 libraries representing Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the United States)

To the End of the Land by David Grossman (10 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States)

Purge by Sofi Oksanen (8 libraries representing Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland)

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (7 libraries representing the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)

You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:

In Canada, Annabel by Kathleen Winter

In Germany, Fame by Daniel Kehlmann

In Ireland, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

In the Netherlands, Counterpoint by Anna Enquist and The Book Club by Marjolijn Februari

There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:

From Bermuda, Gorée: Point of Departure by Angela Barry

From Cyprus, A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible by Christy Lefteri

From Hungary, One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni

From India, Serious Men by Manu Joseph

From Japan, The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe

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