Tuesday, July 20, 2010

mitchell: the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

#65 The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell

I like David Mitchell. I had a crush on him earlier this decade, when I read number9dream and Ghostwritten in quick succession, and thought we were going to be together forever. I'm afraid Cloud Atlas ended that feeling for me. Others who had never read him before retconned the whole trajectory of his talent to present Cloud Atlas as some sort of postmodern coup, a turning point in the Mitchell bildung. True, it was an unprecedentedly broad showcase for his talent for writing up crack pastiche in a style that was - and continues to be - so richly layered and aphoristic. As ever, you could almost imagine the face in his adorable author photo smiling delightedly as he went TYPE TYPE TYPE at his window.

In spite of this cheering image, I thought it was relatively frivolous and joyless. So yes, he flexed his talent, without actually displaying any commensurate growth or depth in his ideas. This is not an absolute evil. Plenty of writers have charmed us by writing what is essentially the same book - in spirit, if not in the letter (unless you are Jeffrey Archer, in which case you just change the names and throw them across the Atlantic) - over and over again. And Mitchell is such an inventive writer that that it's difficult to imagine him ever running out of stories. His is a great pulp imagination, attuned to all kinds of breathtaking derring-do across genres, whether he's writing an Age of Sail story, or a Yakuza thriller, or fingernail-shattering SF dystopia. In his stories, there's always a man with a gun ready to walk into the room, per the Raymond Chandler prescription. The longer Cloud Atlas grew, though, the more it muzzled the reader's instinct to devour it, the more it hopefully invited us to seek the pleasure of a sustained intellectual proposition. In my opinion, it wasn't worth it. I didn't think there was more to the analyses than you would write on an undergraduate literature exam; I was mildly jealous that in the real world, critics were apparently paid for writing exam answers.

I came, therefore, to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in an attitude of some disenchantment. But, in the manner of the ex-girlfriend with a sense of humour*, I was also hoping to be proved wrong.

I was not proved wrong. As I am trying to separate my feelings about the critical halo around him from the book itself, let me first say what I liked about the book. It is beautifully written. I think I'm ready to go back on my contention that in the literary dance-off between Mitchell and that other popular, well-liked pulp-transmogrifier Michael Chabon, Chabon would win for stylistic virtuosity: actually, in so many passages of this book, Mitchell writes with a creative felicity that is almost peerless. He is leaping about barefoot while Chabon is tap-dancing in soft shoes. He has written before about Japan with respect, affection and familiarity, as well as wonder: his awesome capacity to fold sensory experience into a story - as he did with contemporary Tokyo in number9dream - is well-matched by his ability to do the same with secondary, academic experience. He writes with a cool, glinting eye on the decaying effect of racial and intellectual arrogance on a human being through pages and pages of stories of bookkeeping, power-jockeying at dinner tables, and diplomatic blind-alleying. It is as fine an account of the stutifying corruption and petty evil of European colonial clarkdom as I suppose anyone has produced.

Is it worth reading for this alone? Maybe. I'll see if I can think of more positives as I go along, but that's about it for now, really. His transmogrifying capabilities have not taken him any closer to the aesthetic or moral concerns of postmodernism; his pastiche is less and less reminiscent of other authors, and more of Hollywood. He has been compared, in the innocent past, to Ridley Scott and Sergio Leone (here is that fly-by little interview, c. 2000 - and spoiler warnings for number9dream). Alas, as Ridley Scott is emblematic of imaginative stasis, so also Jacob de Zoet makes frequent and shocking descents into hackery.

-- spoilers begin here -- (highlight to read)

+ A scarred Oriental lady. Even Bollywood stopped doing that in the 1970s. Heh.
+ Daring samurai rescues in mountainous forests? Noble samurai deaths? Wise old crones? Thanks, these are narrative tropes non-Japanese people are totally unfamiliar with.
+ 'All your base are belong to us' syntax for the Dutch-speaking Japanese? And Jacob is somehow charmingly fluent once he learns to speak their language? White men must be magic. Gosh, I hope one pines for me when the Orient inevitably enslaves me in its impenetrable religio-sexual psychotic way.
+ Which is to say: Shinto sex slavery? SHINTO SEX SLAVERY? WHAT?

It's not (just) about the time or the place or the race. It's about the story. I get it. It's about this dystopian body-horror paradigm that you're transplanting into this sub-plot. There's a lot of complex stuff going on beneath the surface. The situation delineates a loved, and lovable female character who is possibly one of the finest literary heroines we are likely to find in highbrow English fiction this year. But there is a limit to literary apologism. It's not 'like Japanese anime,' as pronounced by James Wood. It's just cheap and foolish exoticisation, and it reads like it. What were you thinking, David Mitchell? What?

-- spoilers mostly end here --

It's the same dispiriting pattern of two of every three set pieces turning out to be gorgeously embellished hollow vessels. To Mitchell's dubious credit, this is just as true of some of the Dutch points of view as the Japanese. The emotional climax of the book is accompanied by the chanting of the 23rd psalm from the Bible. Have you seen a more creatively impoverished trick in the book? I'm not sure I have. I'm not sure the Mitchell of a decade ago would have been capable of writing something so tearfully boring (an assessment which has nothing to do with the Psalm, a piece of poetic genius that does not deserve to be tarred with this accusation).

Then, in his sudden hurry to wind the book up in a sixteenth of the space he has taken to set it out, he descends into Mr Nice Guy bathos, trying in vain to produce an epilogue that suffuses the whole history with melancholy, and succeeding only in inducing an eyeroll. In this Mitchell is reminiscent of some of the failures of young geniuses (hi, Zadie Smith) to grapple successfully with the big structural asks of the postmodern epic. Nonetheless, Zadie Smith is someone who has already made a significant contribution to our understanding of just what such an epic might constitute. I'm afraid Mitchell has a lot of ground to cover after this book if future critics are going to ask the same questions of him.

And for the ordinary lover of pulp, admirer of style, hankerer after narrative, once-Mitchell-fan -- no dice. Maybe very few dice. Maybe one die and a half. This is so surprisingly pedestrian, it hurts. The ghosts of Scott and Leone are vanished. I can almost see Tobey Maguire in the Edward Zwick adaptation. I'm almost ready to read Chabon's Wonder Boys to make up for awarding the dance-off elsewhere.

* - exactly like I am in real life.

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly right, specially about Cloud Atlas. Did you read Black Swan Green? It's wonderfully likable.