Sunday, August 06, 2006

As Advertised--David Mitchell

Finally, time to write about some amazing books that everyone should read who enjoys good fantastic fiction or even good fiction.

David Mitchell, author, two time Booker Prize nominee. British.

I can't remember how I first picked up his first book, Ghostwritten. I really thought it was an advanced reader's copy but I have it in front of me and it clearly isn't, so either I got it from the library and then picked up a copy, or I bought it in one of my rare random buys from a bookstore. I read so much and in so many varied genres that I become overwhelmed in bookstores. So much sounds good; I can't afford much so I buy nothing rather than choosing and then run to the library with a list so long I can't carry it. What I do remember is that about half way through I looked at my husband and said, "This belongs on the shelf," and "You MUST read this."

He did and was as blown away as I. It's a first novel which is so confident and sure of itself it's staggering. It's a book of ideas, but it's never heavy handed. As the blurb by A.S. Byatt says on the back, "...never clotted by its ambitions. It easily covers the global village but there's no sense that it's striving for multiculturalism or spectacular effects--just that Mitchell knows what he's doing." It's told/experienced by several narrators all with their own distinct voices and worlds. An Okinawan terrorist, a Tokyo orphan, a Chinese peasant, a Russian tour guide and a ghost, to name a few. It is a story of the world and progress, and human emotion and loss. And the pieces stand alone and weave together. Breathtaking. Mitchell is an Englishman who taught English in Japan for eight years before writing this novel in his early 30's and returning to Ireland and his details are perfect.

When we were in England two years ago I saw that his second novel was in paperback and his then new novel was in hardback. I picked up the paperback and made a mental note to get the hardback when it came out. The second book, number9dream for which he was short-listed for a Booker is slightly more straightforward (one narrator) but still in a world of it's own. The protagonist is a poor clerk in Japan who is looking for his father but he slips effortlessly into a fantasty world as real as Walter Mitty so the reader is left wondering what is happening, and what is illusion. As he gets closer and the world gets darker, again his knowledge of Japan is rich and fresh in detail (including very, very disturbing Yakuza violence). I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first, but still astounding.

Which brings me to Cloud Atlas. Where do I begin... This was the book I was supposed to remember to buy when it came out in America in paperback and didn't. Then as I was leaving San Francisco I stopped into a book store for a book to read with dinner and on the plane (passed out cold on the plane as it turned out, but what I read at dinner was enough to have me desperate to return to it). I went in to buy Umberto Eco's book in paperback which I had seen at the airport bookstand on the way out, but found this. (Great bookstore, by the by--Cody books--you know you're going to like a place when you have all the books from the staff picks wall) Finalist for the Booker. Because I knew that I was going to want to write about this I kept a stack of post-it-notes next to me while I read (most of the Sunday afternoon after I returned) and marked pages. Like Ghostwritten it's got 6 voices/stories (I say that rather than narrators because not all sections are in first person) and this is the shape A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A, moving forward and then back in time. Each section gives birth to the one after--that is B is reading A's diary, C knew B, D has the manuscript of C, E is watching the film of D and F sees a recording of E. Got it? Then the stories are closed in the second half. E asks to watch the rest of the film, D gets the rest of the manuscript and so on. In a way it is frustrating as the stories in the first half will just end--reminiscent of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Calvino--sometimes mid-way through a sentence though their is some conclusion in the second half (as opposed to the Calvino which is painfully frustrating even now). Michael Chabon compared it to nested dolls.

And what is it about? What we are doing to ourselves as a people, what we do to ourselves personally, the act of creation, lies that are told by governments. Things like that.

Listen to this line from the second section set in the 1930's--"Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I've stepped through it's wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again." Wow--doesn't that just sum it up--the confusion of the agnostic in a world of relgions, the problem of wanting to believe but not actually believing--you'll find yourself outside again.

Elgar wanders through this bit; it's about a muscian writing the "Cloud Atlas" piece. The stories are interwoven that way too--and linked with a crescent shaped birthmark on their shoulders, so it's about reincarnation too, only it isn't, not really or no more so. So he has Elgar say (and maybe he did--I don't know enough about Elgar to know), on Pomp & Circumstance, "Oh, I need the money, dear boy. But don't tell anyone. The King might want my baronetcy back...I always say, Ted, to get the crowd to cry Hosanna, you must first ride into town on an ass. Backwards, ideally, whilst telling the masses the tall stories they want to hear."
So this character finds the diary that the first character was writing but just the first half, ending mid-sentance, just as we have read it. He writes a friend (all of his section are letters) to scour bookstores for the second half because he questons whether it is real--too styalized. So here we not only have a contrivance, you have read a book this character is reading, but also the suggestion that it's fiction when you are obviously reading a work of fiction. It's a dangerous balance--to remind the reader that they are reading a book but it's also bold and daring when it works.

The first section was the diary of a clerk in the Chatham islands in the 1840's. He writes about the Maori and the whites wiping out ANOTHER aboriginal tribe that lived in peace on the Chathams. True peace, no murder, for to spill another's blood renders you non existant to the tribe--truly do unto others here among the "Godless heathen." And of course they are slaughtered by the somewhat bloodier Maori who don't view them as people. The human way, no matter how low you are, there's someone lower to kick! So the Maori fled the white man and pretty much commit genocide. This is mankind.

Third section--1970's. "Hey, metaphysics seminar is on the roof. Just take the elevator up and keep walking until you hit the sidewalk. Anything is true if enough people believe it is." The main character of this section is left the letters of the second section by their recipient. Got it?
They quote a joke that I vaguely remember hearing, "What's a conservative? A mugged liberal." Someone on another board discussing the death penalty said that lots of people say that they don't believe in it, but if something terrible happened to someone they love then they are all for it. Yes, but some how, some time we must transcend that. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind as they say. I'm bucking the trend--becoming more liberal as I grow older. I don't know if that's a sign o' the times or just me. Another little note which kind of ties into the next thought, and kind of doesn't. The main characters name is Luisa Rey. Her father is Lester Rey. Lester Del Rey was a golden age of sci-fi author. She's writing about a possible safety hazard at a nuclear plant. Lester Del Rey's first big story was about a disaster at a nuclear power plant. That's another thing about the authors on "The Shelf." They've all read what we've read and they've all read each other. They are all well read, like Neil Gaiman who weaves the myths of a dozen cultures into one new whole.

Fourth section--now or near future. "You would think a place the size of 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." Yes, the world of coincidence. I think of this one all the time, of how small the world is sometimes. How a fellow actress is working with a cousin of mine when the cousin and I grew up in KC, MO and ended up here. Little things. How Hyde is Hyde and Hyde is the name of where the detective of "Life on Mars" worked, my new favorite show. Stupid and small and yet somehow they feel like they should add up to a pattern, but they really don't.
"Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage." Oh, my God! Is that not just a brilliant sentance? The greyhound of language does not do it justice.
The character in this section, he of the razor wit is reading a manuscript of the third section. So once again we play with reality. If the third section is a novel, then so is the second and the first, but we are clearly reading a novel, so the fourth is not real either, so what is real? Alice like it folds back on it's own reality but always with perfect control.

I'll stop now and post this. Then come back for the last two sections of the first part--this is where things get really weird.

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