David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work

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David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweepingambitious, genre-skeweringkaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodernmetatextualmetacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.

The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.

Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):

The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.

“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”

“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”

“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”

“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”

“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”

Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.

“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.

See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section antecedent to young Holly’s story.

Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.

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David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (Book Acquired, 8.19.2014)

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David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters earlier this week, but I’ve been busy with the start of the Fall semester and haven’t had a chance to get into it yet. Here’s publisher Random House’s blurb:

Following a terrible fight with her mother over her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting on the war in Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

Rich with character and realms of possibility, The Bone Clocks is a kaleidoscopic novel that begs to be taken apart and put back together by a writer The Washington Post calls “the novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction.”

An elegant conjurer of interconnected tales, a genre-bending daredevil, and a master prose stylist, David Mitchell has become one of the leading literary voices of his generation. His hypnotic new novel, The Bone Clocks, crackles with invention and wit and sheer storytelling pleasure—it is fiction at its most spellbinding.

New Issue of Asymptote Features David Mitchell, László Krasznahorkai, Fady Joudah and More

The July issue of Asymptote, a journal devoted to literary translation, is chock-full of goodies, including a long interview with David Mitchell, a shorty from László Krasznahorkai translation, and an essay by Fady Joudah with the marvelous title  “Dear God, Your Message Was Received in Error.” Here’s the beginning of that essay:

In Borges’ story, “Averroës’ Search,” Averroës interrupts his long day of contemplating the problem that confronts him in Aristotle’s Poetics (how to translate ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ into Arabic) and joins friends for dinner. The Andalusian philosopher seems to be listening (against hope or “without conviction” as Borges put it) for a solution to his problem in something that any of his guests might say. Maybe the answer is “near at hand” or, as in Lydia Davis’ “The Walk,” right “across the street.”

As the conversation meanders through various subjects about writing, God, and art, one of Averroës’ guests brings up the account of the seven sleepers:

“Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.”

Borges’ mention of the seven sleepers comforts me, perhaps because I know the story from the Koran. Or perhaps because it serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing. Telling a story through seeing is also a gesture at what Averroës could not grasp when he encountered Aristotle’s ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’: theatre.

Lots of great stuff–check it out.

 

I Riff on the Cloud Atlas Movie

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1. Cloud Atlas is neither the bizarre trainwreck I thought it might be, nor is it a disastrously wrong-headed reinterpretation of David Mitchell’s novel.

2. It’s actually about as faithful an adaptation as one could expect.

3. A major deviation from the novel:

The filmmakers (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) of Cloud Atlas chop up and rearrange the novel’s six sections such that each section’s individual arc (e.g. exposition, climax, dénouement, etc.) runs concurrently with the other narrative arcs—like braided strands—whereas the novel nests them—like matryoskha dolls.

It’s very clear why the filmmakers would wish to use a more traditional grammar, but the effect is often more taxing than rewarding—the work’s themes of eternal recurrence are overstated (yet somehow underdeveloped), pressed repeatedly on the viewer. There’s little breathing room.

4. Another (possible) deviation from Mitchell’s novel:

The filmmakers cast their company (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving) in multiple roles, so that each actor portrays a new character in each section. Mitchell’s novel played with the idea of eternal recurrence subtly, using a comet-shaped birthmark as a linking signifier. The film adaptation overloads the theme, creating the impression of a system that simply doesn’t inhere through the plot unless the viewer chooses to impose it (granted, certain actors tend to be cast in villainous roles or heroic roles—but there isn’t a coherent system of correspondences between the actors and the characters, despite what snippets of dialog would wish the viewer to believer).

5. The biggest problem with casting actors across a variety of roles:

The effect is extremely distracting—especially when actors are playing characters across gender or across race (especially the film’s notorious use of “yellow face,” which is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that the make-up and prosthetics just look awful—and the part of the yellow face that’s worst to me (and perhaps the least-remarked-upon) is the awful fake “Asian” accents that the white actors use, with mangled intonations, etc. Disastrous).

The gambit may have worked (only may) if the filmmakers had cast actors who could actually pull it off. Denis Lavant, Tilda Swinton, and Gary Oldman all come to mind as actors who inhabit their roles to such a degree that the character transcends them (in plainer language: Gary Oldman is excellent at not looking like Gary Oldman). Tom Hanks—well, Hanks is wonderful at balancing charm with profound gazes—but he looks just like Tom Hanks in every damn scene he’s in, whether he’s playing a contemporary British gangster (maybe the low point of the film) or a post-apocalyptic tribesman (which, let me just shoehorn this in here real quickly—I imagined the Zachry of the novel to be like, much, much younger than mid-fifties). Halle Berry looks like Halle Berry, even in white face. And Hugo Weaving doing his Nurse Ratchet impression…well, leave it alone, leave it alone.

6. One thing the film does very well:

Stylized action sequences. We might expect this—the Wachowskis gave us The Matrix trilogy—but I was surprised at how well these moments fit into the film. There must have been a temptation to wedge shootouts and battles and cool cityscape sequences into the film, but these pockets of action are used sparingly, effectively buoying the film.

7. Another thing the film does well:

Explore the themes of slavery (and slave-master dynamics) that are central to Mitchell’s text.

8. The biggest thematic short-coming of the Cloud Atlas film:

Its muddled handling of eternal recurrence. In my review of Mitchell’s novel, I suggested that the book was overtly investigating the relationship between Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and his infamous and often misunderstood übermensch. Granted, the film does posit history as a cycle of domination and submission, and also suggests that figures who wish to break or disrupt or upset this cycle will be assassinated or martyred—but the film elides the novel’s Nietzschean impulses in favor of New Age contours. There’s a broad, hippy-dippy streak of faux-spiritualism to the film that’s too syrupy to swallow. (In full disclosure, dear reader—I prefer a healthy dose of bitter with any sweets).

9. Another problem:

The music. It’s not that the score by director Tom Tykwer and two collaborators is bad—it’s fine, I suppose—it’s that the filmmakers rely too heavily on music to stitch their story strands together. The effect is at times simultaneously dulling and claustrophobic.

10. An extension of the previous point:

This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Cloud Atlas: Its compression. The film runs to an epic three hours, but somehow feels rushed.

There’s not enough space for characters to develop, and because the film has created a system through which characters are essentially reiterations of previous “selves,” the changes that the characters do undergo seem like fore drawn conclusions. Perhaps the most drastic example comes in the fabricant Sonmi-451. She’s an emblematic character to the narrative, a messianic figure, and her catechism provides the novel’s perhaps strongest exploration of what it means to be human and free. While the film hardly botches the Sonmi-451 segment, it doesn’t devote enough time to showing her revolutionary arc.

11. I know, I know—the film is already three hours, and here I am asking for more.

Suggestion: Cloud Atlas might have been much stronger as a twelve part miniseries, giving its characters and themes room to breathe and grow.

Another suggestion: Cloud Atlas as a one-man theatrical show starring, I don’t know, Gary Oldman (?). 75 minutes tops.

12. My criticisms might seem overly nitpicky, and to be clear, they are from the perspective of someone who read and enjoyed the book first. Still, I hate to fault the Wachowskis and Tykwer for their ambition, scope, technical prowess, and, oddly, their restraint. The film is far more focused and coherent than it has any right to be and its themes come through clearly. The filmmakers show a deep respect for Mitchell’s novel as well as the film’s audience while at the same time offering their own personal interpretation of the source material. When Cloud Atlas stumbles or outright fails, it does so on its own terms—which is why I think the film ultimately succeeds.

In Which I Review the Cloud Atlas Film Trailer

I liked David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas.

I reviewed it here in some detail, but here’s a brief overview:

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comprises six sections, each interrupted by the next section (with the exception of the sixth section), and then commenced again in reverse order (a simpler way to think of this might be a schema: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1). Sections 1-6 move forward chronologically and, significantly, each section represents a new literary trend. (Again, perhaps a schema with illustrating examples would work better here; for more detail, check out my review: 1: Melville-2: Modernism-3: Airport novel-4: Contemporary novel (Roth?)-5: Dystopian sci-fi (post-Orwell, shades of PKD)-6: Post-apocalyptic (language games, à la Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker)). In short, Cloud Atlas is an exercise in several genre styles, glommed onto a few ideas cribbed from Nietzsche: eternal recurrence, master/slave relationships, will to power, all that jazz. Ultimately—and more interestingly, I think—Cloud Atlas is an exercise in postmodernism-as-genre, a sort of critique perhaps (intentional or not), brought into even greater relief when one examines Mitchell’s novels Black Swan Green (a coming of age story) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (a straight-up historical romance), which are, again, genre exercises.

This leads me up to the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the long trailer for which dropped today.

I would embed the goddamn trailer, but it’s been blocked on YouTube and other similar sites by Warner Brothers, who apparently have absolutely no idea how publicity works.

You can watch the trailer here.

[Update] Here’s the trailer:

Did you watch it? Okay. I’m gonna riff a little:

I know that trailers have to advertise films to a wide range of potential audience members, and that often leads to overwrought musical cues and lines pulled out of context and big flashing words in all caps, but damn, this is cheeseball stuff. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a subtle book (at times), one that works best when the readers are allowed to do most of the work. The trailer suggests spectacle over nuance, bombast over substance. But again—just a trailer.

Not that the Wachowskis—who are directing and writing and producing (along with Tom Tykwer, whose films Run Lola Run and Perfume I recall enjoying)—-are known for restraint.

And, while I’m bringing up the Wachowskis: They are most famous for their visual inventiveness (these are the guys who did The Matrix), but great looking films don’t necessarily mean much. I mean, the last film they did was Speed Racer (okay, Cloud Atlas looks a lot more restrained than that fiasco, but still, these guys have major problems with storytelling).

Now, based on the trailer, the filmmakers seem to have done some significant rewrites. In Mitchell’s novel, each section (or sections 1-5, at least), exists as a narrative of some kind—fictional narratives, in a few cases. Each protagonist comes to find him or herself echoing or tracing or otherwise repeating or prefiguring the protagonist of another narrative—but there’s always the recognition of the textuality (and hence, metatextuality) to this patterning. Put another way, these are all characters in stories that are awfully familiar to us, and Mitchell strives to make the reader aware of this textuality: it’s a thoroughly postmodern move. 

The film seems to connect the characters in two ways: 1, it seems to use actors across separate roles (this could work) and 2, it seems to have characters from previous segments interact with each other across segments. I might be misreading the trailer when it comes to point 2 here, but I think that having characters actively puncture the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas is a bad idea. And, even if I am misreading this, the film clearly imposes a unifying style across the narratives—sure the dystopian sci-fi scenes will have different set dressing, etc., than the Pacific journal narrative scenes—but take note of how all the scenes seem to follow a unified visual sensibility. The joy of Mitchell’s novel is the way he plays with, parodies, adores (etc.) the narrative styles he’s reworking. For example, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery reads like a bad airport mystery (or at least a mediocre one). I was hoping that the filmmakers would attempt to do something similar with the film—actually play with the concept of genre, actually manipulate and amplify the distinct genre conventions at work in Mitchell’s book. Which, maybe they do. Again, I know: it’s just a trailer.

But it’s an awfully slick, shiny trailer.

Okay, perhaps I’m griping too much. All the characters seem to be there, and the casting doesn’t seem terrible. My curiosity is piqued, admittedly, but mostly because I want to know how the filmmakers will handle the nested narratives (also: how long will the movie be?). In any case, I’m sure this will be one of those movies where people sigh and say, “Yeah, the book is way better.”

Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

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Book shelves series #14, fourteenth Sunday of 2012.

This is a strange shelf: it’s the bottom shelf of the ladder book shelf I’ve been photographing over the past few weeks, and it’s probably the least organized so far. There’s also a higher ratio of unread books on this shelf than in previous shelves. Anyway, left to right:

I was far more enthusiastic about Jonathan Lethem just a few years ago. I still think The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn hold up (they do in my memory, anyway), but Chronic City was awful (then why is it still on my shelf) and You Don’t Love Me Yet is one of the most pointless, silly, and gross books I’ve ever read.

I had good intentions to read John Crowley’s Little, Big and  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and John Wray’s Lowboy and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: I’m actually pretty sure I got all these novels around the same time. They must have been in a stack that eventually got shelved here during a reshelving.

I’ve read at least five or six more Margaret Atwood novels than the ones here, but have no idea where they are (likely a combination of cheap mass markets that I gave to friends or lost).

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is an underread gem. Chris Adrian: Again, I was more enthusiastic about his work a few years ago, but I think it holds up. Also, would the person who borrowed my first edition hardback of The Children’s Hospital please return it? Padgett Powell’s slim novel is not bad.

Will Self’s Great Apes holds the distinction of being the ickiest novel I’ve ever read. Horrifying stuff. I bought it at an airport—in Bangkok? LA? Houston? I really can’t remember—I was returning to the US from Thailand and had bought the cheapest possible plane ticket—one that would basically keep me en route for three days, sleeping on planes and in airports. Anyway, Self’s nightmare book is bound up in that experience: it’s a riff on Kafka; dude wakes up to find that he’s become a chimp. It’s just so gross on so many levels. (Maybe I should add that I find seeing chimps dressed as humans to be the acme of perversion).

The Wells Tower collection is gold.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is gold, but I never got past the first 20 pages of number9dream, which seemed to really bite from William Gibson. I loved both the Tom McCarthy books, particularly C. Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bit overrated and Baudolino’s first half is not bad, but it just goes on and on and on . . .  but it’s funny.

Bret Easton Ellis on David Mitchell’s Novel Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell Discusses The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell talks about the inspiration behind his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. (Read our review).

Seven Fragmentary Novels That Aren’t The Pale King

I finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King the other night (don’t worry—I know that there’s been a terrible shortage of coverage for this obscure book, so I’ll post a review pretty soon review here). The Pale King unfolds as a series of fragments, some short as one page, many the length of long short stories, and one novella length piece. Characters recur, but themes, images, and motifs hold these pieces together rather than any linear plot. The better pieces can stand on their own as short stories, yet are much richer when read with/against the rest of the novel. The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death, but his notes on the manuscript (published at the end of the book) suggest that fragmentation was always his intentional method.

The fragmentary novel is nothing new, but its particular powers have gained resonance against the backdrop of a world where authority, information, and communication are increasingly decentralized, scattered, and, well, fragmented. Fragmentary novels might have roots in the picaresque (those one-damn-thing-after-the-next novels like Don QuixoteCandide, Huckleberry FinnInvisible Man, Orlando, Blood Meridian . . .), but picaresque novels tend to have a shape, a trajectory, even if they seem to lack traditional plot arcs or characterization. What I’m talking about here are novels made of pieces, segments, or chapters that work fine on their own, and  may even seem self-contained, but when synthesized help reveal the novel’s greater project. So, seven fragmentary novels that aren’t The Pale King—

Steps, Jerzy Kosinski

There’s force and vitality and horror in Steps, all compressed into lucid, compact little scenes. In terms of plot, some scenes connect to others, while most don’t. The book is unified by its themes of repression and alienation, its economy of rhythm, and, most especially, the consistent tone of its narrator. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same man relating all of these strange experiences because the way he relates them links them and enlarges them. At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Here’s David Foster Wallace: “Steps gets called a novel but it is really a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.”

Speedboat, Renata Adler

Telegraphed in bristling, angular prose, Speedboat unwinds as a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, japes, and jokes all filtered through the narrator’s ironic, faux-journalist sensibility. Adler’s novel eschews plot, conventional characters, and resolution—its contours are its center. Speedboat was published in the early 1970s, but it would seem ahead of its time even if it were published tomorrow.  Adler captures the deep existential alienation of modern life, converting dread into verve and despair into marvel.

2666, Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus bears considerable superficial comparison to Wallace’s The Pale King: both were published posthumously, both have endured a process of buzz and backlash, both are unfinished, and both are purposefully fragmented. 2666 comprises (at least five) parts, some connected explicitly, others tied loosely together, but all interwoven with themes of violence, darkness, art, and love. The book’s most notorious section, “The Part About the Crimes,” is itself a fragmented beast, a procession of murders and rapes, dead-end investigations, bizarre TV appearances, and other sinister doings. Prominent characters disappear into the violence of Santa Teresa never to return again; the great mystery of the book seems unsolved. But like Ariadne, Bolaño offers his readers a thread through the labyrinth, a layering of motifs, as words and images repeat throughout shifts in space and time.

Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch’s cut-up origins are well-known and probably greatly exaggerated: the book is far more coherent than its reputation insists. Still, Burroughs’s infamous novel is all over the place (quite literally), moving through time and space and even to Interzone. Comic, rambling, lusty, and perverse, Naked Lunch’s satire is often overshadowed by its seedier, more sensational side. Burroughs claimed his novels were part of an antique literary pedigree: “I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents.”

Vertigo, W. G.  Sebald

Vertigo blurs the lines between fiction, history, autobiography, and biography. The book comprises four sections. The first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life; the final section describes the narrator hiking from Austria to visit the village where he was born in Bavaria. Underwriting and uniting these separate episodes is the narrator’s attempt to find a common thread between past and present, to find a unity in a Europe fractured by time and war. There’s also a deep, throbbing melancholy mixed with beauty and wisdom here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Mitchell constructs Cloud Atlas like a doubled matryoshka doll, nesting narratives inside narratives that work their way to an apocalyptic future; once Cloud Atlas hits its middle mark, it works outward to the past, back to its own edges. With the exception of the middle piece, a nod to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Mitchell fragments each piece of Cloud Atlas at a key turning point, an old literary trick really, but one that pays off. The tales likely hold up on their own, but their intertextual play is the real delight of the novel, as Mitchell showcases a variety of styles and genres and forms that reflect the content and era of each tale. At its core,  Cloud Atlas explores Nietzschean themes of eternal recurrence and the will to power; its clever fragmented structure emphasizes the loops of history humanity finds itself caught in again and again, even as brave souls seek a new way of seeing, living, doing.

Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner

Faulkner always insisted that Go Down, Moses was a novel, although in its initial publication it was presented as a collection of short stories.  And granted, any of the stories can be read on their own. “Was” is hilarious homosocial hijinks, but read against the sorrow and anger in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Pantaloon in Black,” or the prolonged majesty of “The Bear,” Faulkner’s project becomes much clearer—he is taking on a century in the lives of the Mississippi McCaslins. Go Down, Moses is strange and sad and funny and truly an achievement, a book that works as a sort of time machine, an attempt to undo or recover the racial and familial (and in Faulkner, these are the same) divides of the past.

Electric Literature Shoots Guns at Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell, the Kindle, and Others

Heroes of 2010 — David Mitchell

“Without Any Jiggery-Pokery” — David Mitchell on Writing His Novel Black Swan Green

David Mitchell talks about writing his novel Black Swan Green in his 2010 Paris Review interview

MITCHELL

I’d actually started Black Swan Green years earlier. In 2003, while I was finishing Cloud Atlas, Granta asked for an unpublished story, and all I had were a few sketches about the world I grew up in. I didn’t want to be overly distracted from the end of Cloud Atlas, so I decided to knock one of the sketches into a publishable story. In doing so, I began my next novel.

INTERVIEWER

Did you, like Jason, write poetry under a pseudonym for the parish newsletter?

MITCHELL

I did.

INTERVIEWER

Was your pseudonym the same as Jason’s: Eliot Bolivar?

MITCHELL

James Bolivar—after a character created by an American science-fiction writer, Harry Harrison. I’ve never told anyone that before. You can see why.

INTERVIEWER

And, like Jason, did you go see a speech therapist?

MITCHELL

Just the same, aged about thirteen. Like Jason, I would go, and my stammer would vanish in the presence of the therapist, but come the next day, I’d be stammering again. One very pleasing result of Black Swan Green is that the book now appears on course syllabi for speech therapists in the UK. I hope that the book is useful for anyone wanting to understand an insider’s account of disfluency. For most of my life, the subject was a source of paralyzing shame, scrupulously avoided by family and friends. They were being kind, but to do something about a problem it must be named, discussed, and thought about. After writing the second chapter of Black Swan Green I realized, This is true, real, and liberating. I felt a little like how I imagine a gay man feels when he comes out. Thank God—well, thank me actually—that I don’t have to pretend anymore. Now I’m more able to feel that if people have a problem with my stammer, that problem is theirs and not mine. Almost a militancy. If Jason comes back in a future book, he’ll be an adult speech therapist.

INTERVIEWER

When you were creating Jason Taylor, did you ask yourself, What was David Mitchell like at that age?

MITCHELL

It was largely that, yes. Arguably, the act of memory is an act of fiction—and much in the act of fiction draws on acts of memory. Despite the fact that Jason’s and my pubescent voices are close, his wasn’t the easiest to crack because it had to be both plausible and interesting for adult readers.

INTERVIEWER

It was perverse of you to write a first novel after having written three others.

MITCHELL

When I started out on this head-banging vocation, my own background simply didn’t attract me enough to write about it. An island boy looking for his father in Tokyo; sarin-gas attackers; decayed future civilizations in the middle of the Pacific—these were what attracted me. It took me three books to realize that any subject under the sun is interesting, so long as the writing is good. Chekhov makes muddy, disappointed tedium utterly beguiling.

INTERVIEWER

Black Swan Green is very carefully structured.

MITCHELL

Get the structure wrong and you blow up shortly after takeoff. Get it right and you save yourself an aborted manuscript and months and months of wasted writing. Make your structure original and you may end up with a novel that looks unlike any other. So yes, Black Swan Green is carefully structured—like all halfway decent books—but simply structured too, with one story per month for thirteen months. After Cloud Atlas I wanted a holiday from complexity. I was reading Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Alice Munro—all three great No Tricks merchants. After doing a half Chinese-box, half Russian-doll sort of a novel, I wanted to see if I could write a compelling book about an outwardly unremarkable boy stuck in an outwardly unremarkable time and place without any jiggery-pokery, without fireworks—just old-school.

The Best Books We Read in 2010 That Were Published Before 2010

The best books that we read in 2010 that were published before 2010:

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño (2008, English translation) – Bolaño’s fake encyclopedia of right-wing writers is a tragicomic crash course in misanthropy, failure, and fated violence. Francisco Goldman’s blurb on the back of the book is spot on–the book is a “key cosmology to Bolaño’s literary universe.” Nazi Literature is like an index for the Bolañoverse–creepy, steeped in dread, deeply, caustically funny, and bitterly poignant.

Butterfly Stories by William T. Vollmann (1993) Adventures in the Southeast Asian sex trade. Bleakly funny, often depressing, and filled with erudite asides on Nobel prizewinners, transvestites, and the benefits of whiskey and benadryl. Plenty of grotesque sex. Not for everyone. In fact, not for most people.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970) – Higgins throws his audience into the deep end of gritty urban Boston on the wrong side of the sixties in this crime noir classic. There’s little exposition to spell out Coyle’s intricate and fast-paced plot, but there is plenty of machine-gun dialogue, rendered very true and very raw. Higgins trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way.

Home Land (2004) and Venus Drive (2000) by Sam Lipsyte — Is there a better stylist working today than Lipsyte? Does anyone write better sentences? Of course, sentences alone don’t matter much if you don’t have a story worth telling, and both Homeland and Venus Drive deliver. They are seething, funny, poignant books, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, despite their myriad sins.

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (1968) – One of the many small vignettes that comprise Steps begins with the narrator going to a zoo to see an octopus that is slowly killing itself by consuming its own tentacles. The piece ends with the same narrator discovering that a woman he’s picked up off the street is actually a man. In between, he experiences sexual frustration with a rich married woman. The piece is less than three pages long. You will either hate or love this book.

Cloud Atlas (2004) and Black Swan Green (2006) by David MitchellCloud Atlas is a postmodern puzzle piece of six nested narratives (each a smart take on some kind of genre fiction), informed by Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence; Black Swan Green (which for some reason we forgot to review here) is a funny and heartwarming coming-of-age story of a boy who copes with his terrible stutter and his parents’ crumbling marriage in early 1980′s England. The books have little in common save their brilliance–which seems kinda sorta unfair. It also seems unfair that Mitchell put them out so quickly. Damn him.

Angels by Denis Johnson (1983) — Angels begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (1979) — A beautiful, rambling riff on American literature — Suttree picks up on Emerson and Twain, Faulkner and Whitman, and flows into a new, wild territory that is pure McCarthy. Is it his best novel? Could be. Read it.

The Best Books of 2010

Here are our favorite books published in 2010 (the ones that we read–we can’t read every book, you know).

Sandokan — Nanni Balestrini

A dark, elliptical treatise on the mundane and inescapable violence wrought by the Camorra crime syndicate in southern Italy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower (trade paperback)

Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.

The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Kertész’s slim novella explores a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth against the backdrop of an oppressive Stalinist regime.

BodyWorld — Dash Shaw

Shaw’s graphic novel is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic/post-apocalyptic visions. It’s a sweet and sour subversion of 1950′s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Witty and poignant, it advances its medium.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

An unexpected historical romance from postmodern poster boy David Mitchell. Thousand Autumns is a big fat riff on storytelling and history and adventure–but mostly, Mitchell’s Shogunate-era Japan is a place worth getting lost in.

C — Tom McCarthy

“I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature,” McCarthy said in an interview this year. “For me, that’s what literature’s always done.” C, our favorite novel of 2010, seems plugged into the past and the present, pointing to the future.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel (trade paperback)

Who knew that we needed to hear the Tudor saga again? Who knew that Thomas Cromwell could be a good guy?

The Ask — Sam Lipsyte

A mean, sad, hilarious novel that simultaneously eulogizes, valorizes, and mocks the American Dream.

X’ed Out — Charles Burns

Charles Burns does Tintin in William Burroughs’s Interzone. ‘Nuff said.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Lydia Davis

An epic compendium of, jeez, I don’t know, how do you define or explain what Davis does? Inspection, perception, mood, observation. Tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms. Great stuff.