Fat Books & Thin Women


Readalong: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

After a few failed attempts to read Cloud Atlas, I joined in to this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and The Avid Reader’s Musings. Fun! This week, my thoughts on the first half of the novel.

Last weekend The New York Times ran a review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The reviewer, Douglas Coupland, referenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as an example of a new type of literature that in a single novel crosses huge swathes of time and literary genre. Coupland writes:

This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.

And yeah, that about gets at the heart of Cloud Atlas. I was passingly familiar with David Mitchell’s skill at literary ventriloquism, having read two of his novels, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, before starting this one. Swan and de Zoet are about as different in style and theme and place and time as two novels can be, so that it’s hard for me to imagine the same author wrote them. But Mitchell seems to do it so effortlessly – he seems as comfortable capturing the voice of a clerk living at a Japanese trading post at the turn of the 19th century as he does with a boy watching a neighbor heading off to fight in the Falkand Islands.

The first section of Cloud Atlas is the hardest to get through. It’s a short section of the 1850 Pacific diary of Adam Ewing, so we’re going with the antiquated speech patterns. Mitchell does it perfectly, of course, and by the time the section ends – abruptly, as if part of the diary has been lost – I was upset to see Ewing go. This is a trick that Mitchell pulls off again and again. The first half of the novel follows five stories (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher [1930s, young composer/layabout], Luisa Rey [1970s, journalist for a tabloid magazine, with her first lead for a real news story], Timothy Cavendish [a vanity publisher], and Somni ~451 [a fabricant – a clone – who has achieved consciousness]) and as each story comes to its sudden end – not conclusion, but simply end – I felt torn up again.

I’ve only read half of the novel, so I’m going to hold off making any judgements or guesses about what Mitchell is doing with this structure as a whole. What I’ll say for now is that it’s gorgeous and captivating, and that I totally get, now, why so many people have told me to read this book.

Mitchell connects the segments of the novel loosely. That diary of the first part is found by Robert Frobisher in the library of a composer he’s working for. Frobisher mentions the diary in one of the letters he writes to his friend Rupert Sixsmith, who turns up again as an old man meeting the reporter, Luisa Rey. Luisa Rey’s story appears next as a novel in the hands of the publisher, Cavendish, and Cavendish himself reappears when Somni ~451 describes having seen a film of the story we’ve just read. All the characters express some curiosity for the lives of the characters they read of, and they are also linked together by the prescence of a comet-shaped birthmark they all have. (This comet thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly artful, so I’m curious to see when it will reappear next, and what Mitchell is going to do with this thread.)

The publisher Timothy Cavendish writes:

England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.

That quote is, I think, as close as I can come to organizing my thoughts about the first half of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s characters interrupt and cross into one another’s lives. They seem marked by some sort of mission, by something they’re seeking: Ewing by the history of the Moriori; Rey by the coverup Sixsmith has told her about, that could be her first “real” story; Somni ~451 by the very ideas of consciousness and what distinguishes her from other clones and from humans. So far, though, they don’t appear to be searching for the same things. His characters do, however, take some comfort in the stories that have come before their own, so that a woman like Luisa Rey can read the decades-old letters sent to Sixsmith from Frobisher and find some suggestion of a life, and perhaps some commentary on her own life.

And, you know, that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Discussing books at the midpoint has never been my strong suit. I’m curious where Mitchell is taking things, how he is pulling everything together, and whether it’s going to become more clear (as he says in an interview quoted over at Care’s Book Club) that these characters are all reincarnations of the same soul (which would sure explain why they all seem so drawn to these stories they pick up at seeming chance). But for now, I’m just enjoying watching the writer work with these huge stylistic shifts. Each of Mitchell’s characters is so fully and perfectly drawn, even in the brief spaces they’re allotted, and each of the genres is done so well. As I’m reading, I’m totally aware of the fact that this is a novel – it doesn’t feel like one of those collections of stories clumsily drawn together into a “novel” – but also feel that in many ways, the sections of Cloud Atlas are complete and perfect on their own.

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Journaling Stories Short and Long

Lots of aspirational reading this week. I signed up for this great classics challenge hosted by Jillian. I use the word “challenge” about as loosely as I can here, because the whole thing strikes me more as, I don’t know, a collective effort to better our reading habits and read books we’ve meant to read for years…but haven’t. Over in the sidebar you can see a link to a list of classics I plan to…okay, will try to…read in the next five years. It recently occurred to me that these books average about 800 pages each and that I’ll be lucky to read half of them in five years, but it sure will be satisfying to knock a few of them off my Shelf of Shame, ie the collection of classics I’ve bought but never read. I’m already making great progress with this challenge – I moved my copy of Dickens’s David Copperfield to the end of my bookshelf, where I have to face down its cover dozens of times a day, from its former position wedged between my Albanian dictionary and GRE study guides.

Outside of work (more on that later), my reading lately has been focused about half on epic, immersive novels, and half on short and easily consumed essays and stories. Kit Steinkellner did a Book Riot piece a few weeks back, “Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter,” which makes the point that books need to be done like screenplays. The title of the piece is misleading, because Steinkellner doesn’t really say that every book needs to be fifty pages shorter (in that she does have a decent point; all I can hear right now is Kristen Wiig’s character from Knocked Up saying, “Tighten!”) but that novels shouldn’t be over 100,000 words – that there should be a clear limit for novel length just as there is a clear limit for screenplay length. It’s an interesting post (not least for the comments that follow), but also fundamentally off-the-mark. Because, hell, movies aren’t the only expression of film; you don’t even need to make an argument anymore that the best writing is in serialized TV shows because it is so obvious. Something like The Lord of the Rings (which I am still reading, and loving) or Game of Thrones or Stephen King’s Under the Dome is comparable not to the latest hour-and-a-half-long popcorn flick, but a fifty-hour TV drama. I swear, I am going to bring this all together at the end.

I’ve also been reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and Melissa at The Avid Reader’s Musings. I tried to read Cloud Atlas last summer and failed miserably – I started right before flying home for the first time in two years, which explains a lot – and am so, so glad I gave it another try. I’m halfway through now and am so in love with the book I don’t even know where to begin. There will be more gushing and expressions of love for David Mitchell, later this week.

My reading’s also been tending to the very short. I picked up a Kindle copy of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing on sale, and have been reading essays as a sort of reward/break from my reading for work. What I like about the collection is that it’s like having a zillion Kindle Singles for the price of one. (Speaking of which, recently read Mark Bittman’s new Kindle Single, “Cooking Solves Everything,” which probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about cooking and eating real food, but is as much a pleasure to read as everything else that Bittman publishes.) Last week the New York Times ran a review piece on Kindle Singles, which I hope they’ll do again in the future.

Also read a couple of stories by David Gaughran (who writes the best, best blog about self-publishing – with a real focus on marketing and design and being professional; I don’t even self-publish and I can’t stop reading the thing), available as an e-book, “If You Go Into the Woods.” The two stories here are light and quick reads and – I am not quite sure how to put this – very popular-feeling. You know, these read like stories that were written for readers, not for fellow writers, and it’s a lot of fun to read a short story that doesn’t ask for five rereads in order to figure out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, reading Gaughran’s stories sucked me in in some way, so that now I can’t stop thinking of buying his most recent novel, A Storm Hits Valpariso, to read when I’m flying home. Because I am the sort of person who starts planning what she’ll read during nineteen hours of flights and layovers…over four months in advance. Make sure you look at Gaugrahn’s blog, and pick up those short stories (it looks like they’re free in the UK, 99 cents in the States).

Since I’m always mentioning reading for work, let’s explore that (slightly duller) direction, too. Last week finished Ismail Kadare’s The Accident – I’ll put up a review soon…soonish – which somehow manages to take on Balkan spy agencies, a long-running affair, and time in just a couple hundred pages. Now on Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, which is interesting but which I have to read standing up to keep from falling asleep.

And one quick comment on non-bookish stuff. I’ve been watching Shameless lately, which is (back to that Book Riot piece!) a long and funny and sad and immersive serial that has, at least momentarily, displaced Downton Abbey in my affections. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of it, but it is just unbelievable in the way it faces poverty, alcoholism, and limited opportunities (there’s this one moment when Fiona, who dropped out of high school her junior year to care for her younger brothers and sisters, is serving drinks to a table of men at one of many humiliating, temporary jobs, that is just gut-wrenching) without ever diminishing the family or their stories.

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Review: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is such a detailed and well-crafted novel that it’s hard, at times, not to feel you’re watching a movie. Mitchell follows the titular character, Jacob de Zoet, as he moves to a Japanese factory town as a clerk for a Dutch shipping company. De Zoet has landed this job in an attempt to better himself and his prospects, so that at the end of five years he can return home and marry his sweetheart, Anna. Whether Anna feels Jacob needs to better himself or not, her father does. Jacob’s work has, from the start, an air of the prison sentence to it – at least as far as his dealings with coworkers go.

Mitchell doesn’t just follow Jacob, though, and it’s his ability to move between characters and worlds that makes this novel such a remarkable one. Mitchell follows Jacob’s travails as the hated assistant to a man who vows to clean up the Dutch company’s work on Dejima (a factory town on an island off of Nagasaki) and get rid of employees seeking unfair profits; a Japanese midwife as she is forced to move to a shrine run by the Lord Enomoto, a fearsomely powerful man; and the attempts of a British naval captain, John Penhaligon, to rescue his career by taking over the Japanese trade controlled by the Dutch. Mitchell uses each of these characters, in turn, to look at types of power and how it is wielded. Penhaligon, for instance, hopes to both assert his own power over his crew and to declare himself a worthy captain when he arrives home. The longer Jacob is in Dejima, the more he realizes that his “power” is fleeting and dependent on a fickle superior. And the midwife, Orito Aibagawa, early appears to have an extraordinary amount of power and self-possession, though even this proves of slight value against Enomoto’s wishes and her own desire to do right for those she lives with in the shrine.

As Greg at The New Dork Review of Books pointed out in his review of The Thousand Autumns, Mitchell exhibits some stylistic quirks that can impede the flow of the reading. The interruptions – characters talking over one another, characters’ thoughts cutting into conversation, details of the world inserting themselves midway through a conversation – at times run on until it is hard to keep track of the original conversation. One meeting is broken up by numerous times:

‘But what Yoshida-san proposes,’ objects Dr Maeno, ‘would require…’

A radical new government, thinks Uzaemon, and a radical new Japan.

A chemist unknown to Uzaemon suggests, ‘A trade mission to Batavia?’

Yoshida shakes his head. ‘Batavia is a ditch, and whatever the Dutch tell us, Holland is a pawn. […]‘

Mitchell’s style does sometimes prove a distraction, but at other times it affords a tremendous energy to the novel. These characters seem to live and breath, in their inability to censor either their thoughts or words. At other times, the sort of rapid-fire description to which Mitchell is prone provides a gorgeous backdrop for the characters. When de Zoet walks around Dejima, early on, it is almost as though he moves before an (very active) movie set:

In the garden, the cream roses and red lilies are past their best.

Bread is being delivered by provedores at the Land-Gate.

In Flag Square, Peter Fischer sits on the Watchtower’s steps. ‘Lose an hour in the morning, Clerk de Zoet,’ the Prussian calls down, ‘and you search for it all day.’

In van Cleef’s upper window, the Deputy’s latest ‘wife’ combs her hair.

She smiles at Jacob; Melchior van Cleef, his chest hairy as a bear’s, appears.

‘“Thou Shalt Not”,’ he quotes, ‘“Dip thy Nib in Another Man’s Inkwell.”’

The Deputy Chief slides shut the shoji window before Jacob can protest his innocence.

Outside the Interpreters’ Guild, palanquin bearers squat in the shadows. Their eyes follow the red-haired foreigner as he passes.

Through scenes like this Mitchell gives us a view of the workings of the whole island, not just Jacob’s small part of that world. It’s these details, provided rapid fire, that make the story such an engrossing one. Whether or not you are interested in Jacob’s early concerns with the trade mission, these descriptive sentences, sprinkled liberally throughout, offer a view of Dejima that is hard to resist.

As the novel progresses, Jacob becomes less a moving figure in front of the backdrop of Dejima, and more a part of that backdrop itself. He becomes involved, too, in the lives of Dejima’s Japanese residents. Mitchell does this so carefully, so gradually, that you don’t realize how fully Jacob has become a part of the island’s life until long after he is.

Mitchell has so many parts of this story moving at once that some elements are left to the side after a brief moment as seemingly central elements to the plot. Even this seems carefully orchestrated; Mitchell may move away from certain storylines, most notably that of Orito and the shrine, but this has the feel, again, of real life. Some characters on missions we would expect to be vital elements of the plot are lost, killed, forgotten; but their missions and lives have ways of quietly reasserting themselves, later on, through different characters and at unexpected moments.

While it may seem at odds to say that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reads like a movie, and that it reads very much like life, this is the only way I can think of it. In shifting between the vision of Dejima as a moving backdrop to the dull life of a shipping company clerk, and a vision of that same clerk as an integral part of life on Dejima, Mitchell makes clear the distinction between living somewhere and being a part of life somewhere. Mitchell has written a book that is at the same moment overflowing with intrigue (holy moly, is there a lot of that; and this review can’t pass without a mention of Enomoto, perhaps best described as “dastardly” – one of the most fully and irredeemably evil characters I’ve ever read) and with the attempt to answer questions of how and where and why we choose to make our lives.

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