Sunday, December 12, 2010

Just Shelved

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Mitchell is the literary equivalent of that person who can do scarily accurate impersonations of everyone. He throws himself into a pastiche of literary styles and time periods with verve and brilliance. Cloud Atlas is like five extremely provocative and entertaining novellas for the price of one. The question for me, though, is this: Are the artificial plot breakages and post-modern conveyances necessary? Is Mitchell afraid that it's not clever enough simply to be a supremely gifted storyteller? To my mind, it's the opposite. Storytelling is the true magic.


  1. Re-posting some great comments from my friend Leah (split into sections):

    It's an interesting question, and one that several students brought up when I taught this book to undergrads a few years back. Many students were suspicious of the storytelling techniques throughout, noticing gaps in his mastery of each form, i.e. places where he wasn't quite pitch perfect. In the end, however, they viewed these gaps as calculated breaks within Mitchell's own commentary on craft and how stories can be used to manipulate an audience.

    To me, on the level of this one book, this works brilliantly. It also works in his earlier books, Ghostwritten and Number9Dream, though not quite as well. However, there comes a point as with all post-modern texts where, as you imply (I think), the gimmicks are just too easy. One could easily argue in Cloud Atlas that the gimmicks justify lazy or bad writing. Why, after all, not just make those stories entirely pitch perfect, if he's already most of the way there? Over a whole body of work, it becomes problematic.

    I was going to write a whole post on this over the summer after listening to his interview on Terry Gross, but never got around to it. What interested me in that interview was this very discussion of post-modernism, and his indication that he was moving more towards traditionally told stories. I got very excited to read his new book, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, but ended up disappointed. It was a traditional story, to be sure, but far too self-aware. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer, but with every stroke of his pen I could feel him going, "Now I will have this character say this; can someone say, character development?" "Now I will tell the story from this perspective; can someone say, different points of view radically change a story?"

    He CAN tell a great traditional story, and did so in Black Swan Green, a semi-memoir about his childhood. However, even that he brought in characters from his other books, which is another post-modern move. Perhaps he needs the crutch of post-modern device, even in the most subtle forms, to help him along. Or, perhaps his latest book is just his first stab at a new form, and the next one will be in better shape.

    Here is that Fresh Air excerpt, in case you're interested. I really identified with it!

  2. GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought up originality because, you know, early on you were playing with conventional narrative in your novels. Did you start to feel at some point that the attempt to be original was kind of hopeless because everything's been tried, every experiment's been done and at some point what you want to do is just be really, really good at whatever...

    (Soundbite of laughter)

    GROSS: ...whatever it is you're doing?

    Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I do aspire to be that. It's a life-long job, though, before you're worthy to sweep up the crumbs under the table of the masters.

    GROSS: But do you know what I mean? I mean sometimes, like when I was in my early 20s, I guess, I got so excited by avant-garde music, by new music by the avant-garde and of classical music and, because they were playing with structure in a way that I found so thrilling and also you didn't have to know everything about classical music to get what they were doing. Maybe if I knew more I would've gotten more of it, but at some point I wanted, like I wanted more melody in my life and more...

    Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

    GROSS: ...more harmony in my life.

    Mr. MITCHELL: Sure. You want to be able to hum the tune, don't you?

    GROSS: Yeah.

    Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Yeah. I think it's natural for youth to be drawn to newness because the world is still new for them and there's a feeling that you can take part in shaping it and changing it and turning it into something new in your image. But anyway, inevitably, I look in the mirror now and I think wow, it's Dad.

    (Soundbite of laughter)

    Mr. MITCHELL: And I am a dad. And I am a husband. And these sort of messy human muddy themes become much more interesting. And you also realize that structure, originality and innovation is not actually a story. They're useful ingredients for art but it's not art itself. Not really. You might be able to admire but you certainly can't fall in love with it as a piece of music or as a piece of narrative.

    Yeah, you go back in a way to older more traditional forms. You also come to accept that actually, Shakespeare cleaned everything up. There's no new turf after him, really. All the postmodern themes, the play-within-the-play, metafiction, it's already been done in the 17th century. You can't win. But art isn't the what. Art is the how. Lowell said this really well: If you try to write about the universe, you'll end up staring at the bricks at the bottom of your garden. But if you start with those bricks, you may well end up finding something new about the universe.

    Another way to put it: how much can you write about the act of writing? Eventually, he has to move beyond the self-awareness and just tell the story.