Friday, July 09, 2010

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

Cloud At Last
(Image from NPR)

After a couple weeks' wait -- though most ordered books in Korea take only one or two days -- my copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: A Novel finally arrived. I've read only the first 22 pages but am persuaded that the man is truly a great writer . . . though I had to grow accustomed to his use of the ampersand, which appears four times in the opening paragraph, indeed in the second sentence:
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, 'tis not down on any map I ever saw.
Mitchell has an excuse for the excessive ampersand. The author is 'actually' a certain Adam Ewing, the opening story's protagonist, writing in his journal. This character is distinctive. Prudish and finicky, yet inquisitive and even foolhardy. Also deliberative, earnest . . . though a bit silly, too, even ridiculous. He sticks in my mind.

In an interview from 2004 with the Washington Post, "Book World Talks With David Mitchell" (August 22, 2004), the author -- I mean Mitchell, not Ewing -- is asked what he learned "in the process of writing" this book:
I learned that art is about people: Ideas are well and good, but without characters to hang them on, fiction falls limp. I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred. I learned that maybe I should have a go at a linear narrative next time! I learned that the farther back in time you go, the denser the research required, and the more necessary it is to hide it.
These are not merely things that Mitchell learned for himself, they also make for good advice proffered to other writers.

I acknowledge hesitating at the expression "tiny infinity" . . . an 'infinity' that be 'tiny'? But the nuances of a word, its shades of meaning, do constitute an infinity, comparable to those in some of Zeno's famous paradoxes. Writing is as difficult as Achilles overtaking the tortoise or as an archer releasing an arrow and seeing it reach its target. Theoretically impossible, but empirically demonstrable. Great writers reach that precise nuance with a mysterious extension that exceeds our grasp.

As for the "outsized Beaver" that's been weighing on your mind, it's not what you might be thinking . . . unless you were thinking of this.



At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

". . . an 'infinity' that be 'tiny'?"
--Horace Jeffery Hodges

Have you ever imagined what the tiniest number greater than zero might be? Imagine a number that is as close to zero as possible:
0.1 is close, but this isn't it.
0.01 is closer, but it's still too big.
0.001 is also still too big.
0.0001...this may take a while.
0.00...infinite 0s...001 is the number! But it will take an infinity to reach it.



At 6:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right, one of Zeno's paradoxes.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Right, one of Zeno's paradoxes."
--Horace Jeffery Hodges

Ah, pardon, you got that already. But actually, I was merely enacting speedy cleverness failing to overtake slow reading comprehension. I shall now pass around the hat and thank you for your patronage.



At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

A man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what are we writing for?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:19 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

I live in Canada where we see the other variety of beaver. It was the flat tailed one that I imagined. LOL Glad you clarified that.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Flat-tailed beaver are perfectly admirable -- and certainly not to be dammed in a dry spell.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to use a CB radio driving to and from Colorado to Arkansas.
Truck drivers were discussing the "beavers" they observed.
I don't think it was hats or broad tailed dam building animals they were talking about.


At 7:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I suspect that you are right.

Jeffery Hodges

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