David Mitchell talks about the inspiration behind his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. (Read our review).
Vanity Fair interviews David Mitchell about his new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The interviewer mistakenly (I believe, anyway) thinks James Wood is joking in his New Yorker review when he wonders if the book is “post-postmodernist.” Mitchell’s answer sounds about right.
VF: James Wood in the New Yorker was describing your books and he jokingly came up with the phrase post-postmodernism. If there were such a thing as post-postmodern literature, what do you think that might be?
DM: Oddly enough, I’m not sure if novelists are the best people to ask whither-the-novel questions. For me, it’s a little like I’m a duckbilled platypus and I’m being asked a question about taxonomy. You won’t get much of an answer out of a platypus because they’re busy going about their business digging tunnels, catching fish, and having sex. You really have to ask a critic, or a taxonomist. I feel like I should have a pithy answer because I’m a novelist and you’re asking a question about the future of the novel, but the biggest question I ever get to is, “How can I make this damned book work?” I rarely ever put my head above the rampart and see where this big lumbering behemoth called global literature is going.
(Thanks to the Bored Bookseller for the tip).
Hear the whole interview here.
At some point, almost every character in David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a story. The book teems with storytellers and their stories, overflows with compact bildungsromans, wistful jeremiads, high adventures drawn in miniature, comic escapades, bizarre folk tales, and romantic myths, all pressed into the service of the book’s larger narrative, the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutchman in Shogunate era Japan. In 1799, the relative starting point for this massive novel, Japan limited economic trade with Europeans to the Dutch East India Company, who, with a few rare exceptions, were not permitted to touch Japanese soil. Instead, the Dutch were confined to the man-made isle of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. With its rich cultural mishmash, claustrophobic isolation, and strange hybrid nature, Dejima makes a fascinating platform for Mitchell’s tale.
Most reviews of Mitchell’s new book have squared it against his earlier novels, particularly his experimental opus Cloud Atlas (The Guardian‘s review even begins by asking “Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? Should readers need to know an author’s preceding works fully to grasp the new one?”). The reason for this is plain. By and large, Thousand Autumns is a conventional historical novel, a straightforward linear narrative that combines a forbidden love triangle story with elements of high adventure. There are good guys and bad guys, Enlightened thinkers and scheming crooks, warriors and spies, and even an evil monk who may or may not have supernatural powers. Thousand Autumns (like its main setting Dejima) is richly detailed but hermetically sealed; what leaks from that seal are its myriad stories, its capacity for storytelling. This effusion of stories also marks the novel, I believe, as something more than the conventional historical novel it is purported to be. Even more interesting though is the space the novel is occupying in a current literary debate–is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a postmodern novel or not? The rest of my review will discuss this issue, along with James Wood’s review at The New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s review at The New York Times. The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether the book is postmodern or something else–it’s a very good book, I enjoyed it very much, and you probably will too. I encourage you to read Wood’s precis, which I’ve excised here, and then pick up the book. Anyone else interested in the foolish minutiae of what may or may not make a book postmodern or post-postmodern or something else may wish to continue (or not).
Here’s James Wood, using Mitchell’s oeuvre to dither over the fact that “The serious literary novel is at an interesting moment of transition” —
If postmodernism came after modernism, what comes after postmodernism? For that is where we are. “Post-postmodernism” tends toward an infinite stutter. “After postmodernism” suggests a severance that has not occurred. We might settle for “late postmodernism,” a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering—not unhappily—between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism, the mass audience and the élitist critic. Thus David Mitchell can follow a “postmodern” novel with a “traditional” comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel. It is hard to know whether this statelessness is difficult freedom or easy imprisonment, but the more ambitious contemporary fiction will often blend a bewildering variety of elements and historical techniques [. . .]
Dave Eggers, however, feels no need to look for machinations beyond straightforward storytelling. He claims that Thousand Autumns retains the
[. . .] narrative tendencies [of Mitchell’s earlier works] while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it’s not.”
There’s a certain reticence in Eggers’s review to situate Thousand Autumns against anything but itself, including even the rest of Mitchell’s works. In contrast, Wood spends the first half of his review positioning Mitchell’s postmodernism, throughout both his novels (against each other), and as the oeuvre of one author (against other authors). For Wood, Thousand Autumns, because of “its self-enclosed quality [. . .] represents an assertion of pure fictionality.” He continues, arguing that “although the book contains no literary games, it is itself a kind of long game.” Wood would like to see in Thousand Autumns‘s discrete self-containedness a kind of literary gesture, perhaps a sort of conventional historical novel (in scare quotes) that is so conventional as to efface all signs of self-awareness (and thus erase the scare quotes around the gesture). At the same time, Wood recognizes the power of storytelling in the book, asserting that this feature is what makes it a “representative late-postmodern document.” Wood continues:
In place of the grave silence that was the great theme of early postmodernism (or late modernism, if you prefer), language announcing a postwar exhaustion, its own impossibility, as in the work of Beckett or Blanchot, there is a confident profusion of narratives, an often comic abundance of story-making. Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.
These last sentiments are where I strongly disagree with Wood (as perhaps my lede attests)–the greatest strength of Mitchell’s work here is the fabulous fortune of its abundant storytelling. Far from being a metaphysical deficiency, the characters in Thousand Autumns, major and minor, repeatedly transcend their social, spiritual, economic, psychological, and physical confinement via storytelling. Again and again language breaks characters away from their isolation or imprisonment, gives them access to adventure and romance–to spirit. Ultimately, Wood condemns the book for this “metaphysical deficiency,” arguing that “the reader wants a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure that is absent, and that has ceded all the ground to pure storytelling.” (In Wood’s critical body, it is always “the reader,” never “this reader”). I think that the pleasure and power of pure storytelling is its own end, and perhaps it is this recognition that leads Eggers to pronounce of the book simply that “Postmodern it’s not.” And while this declaration is ultimately a more reader-friendly take on Thousand Autumns, it’s also clear to see how the experimental nature of Mitchell’s previous work calls for Wood’s need to place the novel, to situate it against a developing canon (even if Wood chooses ultimately to deny its status).
Wood is perhaps right in his assertion that the term “post-postmodernism” leads to an “infinite stutter.” Still, post-postmodernism ultimately seems more fitting to describe Thousand Autumns than Wood’s “late postmodernism.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet cunningly sets the spiky traps of language and then gracefully leaps over them. Like David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann–two writers who I believe mark the beginnings of post-postmodernism–Mitchell wants to transcend postmodernism’s ironic vision, and storytelling–giving his characters voices–is a means to this end. Perhaps it is Mitchell’s earnestness in conveying the power of storytelling leads Wood to conclude Thousand Autumns “a kind of fantasy [. . .] Or, rather, it is a brilliant fairy tale; and even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales.” If, finally, Thousand Autumns is not a late postmodernist historical fiction but indeed a fairy tale, then it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly enjoyable and nourishing one. Highly recommended.
I’m a few hours from the end of the audiobook version of David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’s fantastic stuff so far–engaging, imaginative, complex, and satisfying in its richness. Here’s a summary of the book from James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker, July 5, 2010:
Jacob de Zoet is a pious, pedantic, upright young clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, newly arrived on the man-made island of Dejima, in the bay of Nagasaki. It is 1799. The Japanese, enforcing their policy of isolation, confined the Dutch to their post at Dejima, a kind of floating village connected by a bridge to the mainland, and strictly monitored them. The Dutch were effectively prohibited from entering the landmass of Japan, except for the purpose of making an annual visitation to the shogun, in Edo; religious services were banned, and books of Christian devotion were seized upon arrival. Jacob is quickly involved in two difficult narratives: as an employee of the utmost probity, he is tasked with auditing the company, and purging its corruption (various employees have been fiddling the books and stealing goods); unfortunately, the man who has bestowed that task, Unico Vorstenbosch, the chief of the Dejima trading station, is himself on the take. When Jacob confronts Vorstenbosch about his dishonesty, he is suddenly isolated, without allies.
The second struggle also isolates Jacob: he falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, an unusual Japanese woman who works as a midwife, and who has been taking medical instruction from a Dutch physician and intellectual, Dr. Marinus, long resident on Dejima. It is almost impossible for Jacob to advance his love; he is not even sure that Orito returns it, and, even if she did, how could a red-haired Dutchman and a wellborn Japanese woman form any serious bond? But, before anything might occur, Orito disappears. Her father has died, leaving large debts, and it seems that Orito’s family, in order to settle those debts, has “sold” the daughter into a kind of slavery: against her will, she is taken to a remote rural nunnery, run by a powerful and malevolent warlord, the Abbot Enomoto. Just as Jacob fought to unravel the corruptions of his company, so he now strives to unravel the corrupt potency of the Abbot Enomoto and his cultlike temple. As an English reviewer has remarked, the Abbot’s temple, where the enslaved nuns are drugged and impregnated by willing monks, is reminiscent of the world of Japanese anime.
This summary is really the best part of Wood’s review, which works overtime to find fault in what is a very good book. He spends a good deal of his review dithering over the space Mitchell occupies in the contemporary literary world–is Mitchell a postmodernist? A post-postmodernist? A late postmodernist? It’s all quite silly, and I’ll probably write about it in a later post.
After five five fun-filled (mostly) sun-soaked days on Florida’s glorious Gulf Coast, Biblioklept returns from July 4th reveries. I found time to finish Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan–full review forthcoming, but now, I’m still in a lazy-loungy mood: so, links and vids and so forth–
First, I ripped my title from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which you obviously knew of course, gentle reader, because of course you’ve read it, but maybe you haven’t seen Jan Svankmajer’s 1981 film adaptation. Creepy stop motion that completely dispenses with actors. Ignore the subtitles.
Another great little film I saw this weekend is Oliver Laric’s Versions (2010), an essay that playfully updates Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Watch Versions. A choice line–perhaps appropriated?–from Laric’s essay: “There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things and more books about books than any other subject.”
Still on film: watched John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby-Dick on a lazy post-July 4th demi-hangover. Melville’s novel is unfilmable, really, but Huston’s effort isn’t half bad, although the tone of “high adventure” and the downright jaunty soundtrack hardly fit the grisly images of whale killing that permeate the work. The climax doesn’t really read as big as it should either. Key scene: Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon–
Finally, I listened to a good chunk of the audiobook of David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Good stuff so far (great stuff, really), and a full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s Dave Eggers’s review.