Monday, June 28, 2010

David Mitchell -- A Writer I Ought to Read?

David Mitchell
Photo by Koos Breukel
(Image from New York Times)

In "David Mitchell, the Experimentalist" (June 21, 2010), Wyatt Mason tells readers of The New York Times that they ought to be reading the novels written by David Mitchell:
Since the appearance of his debut novel, "Ghostwritten," in 1999 -- a fifth, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is being published this week -- Mitchell's writing has been compared with that of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon, Salinger, Chandler, DeLillo, Murakami, William Gibson and Ursula K. LeGuin -- a baker's dozen that begins to suggest both the heights of hyperbole scaled by Mitchell's admirers and the Hydra-headed nature of his novelistic output.
Well, Mason doesn't explicitly tell us to read Mitchell, but I think that he -- despite using the word "hyperbole" -- implies that we ought to do so since he notes Mitchell's placement in the company of all these other, arguably great writers -- but should I trust a reviewer who packs three dashes into a single sentence?

We have no time to reflect on that hesitation, however, for Mason dashes on to cite Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, made into the well-known film of the same title, and Ishiguro says:
"Of many new writers one gets excited about, . . . one says: 'Well, this writing is important because this book gives a voice to an ethnic minority experience. This writing is important because it tackles the issue of modernity well or captures a historical period.' We often get into the reflex of 'this is important because,' relegating literary worth to some secondary function. But when reading David for the first time, I was exhilarated -- the exhilaration of being swept along into another, different world. It's sheer joy."
The NYT provides a link to an excerpt from Mitchell's latest novel, 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' (June 25, 2010), so let's take a look at what happen to be the closing words to the excerpt, at a point in which the young Dutch clerk Mr. Jacob de Zoet has just been punched in the nose:
The pain in Jacob's nose suggests a breakage, but the stickiness on his hands and knees is not blood. Ink, the clerk realizes, hauling himself upright.

Ink, from his cracked inkpot, indigo rivulets and dribbling deltas . . .

Ink, drunk by thirsty wood, dripping between cracks . . .

Ink, thinks Jacob, you most fecund of liquids . . .
I can't quite visualize the "dribbling deltas" -- how do these form and where do they dribble? -- but that's perhaps the limit of my visual imagination. The context is well-done, the interrogation of a man caught smuggling Japanese art in the late 18th century -- 1799, to be precise.

Perhaps I'll look further into this writer's works. The article by Mason tells a fascinating tale of how Mitchell came to be a writer, an unexpected development for someone who didn't begin speaking until he was nearly six years old:
[H]e didn't speak until he was 5. His parents, visual artists who worked in various commercial industries (porcelain, pottery, graphic design) were worried something was wrong. They took him to a speech therapist. "I remember going to the office and playing with toys -- children always remember toys. This was around '73-'74, the very early days of child behavioral psychology. Words like 'autism' weren't in common use. How they decided I was in the clear I don't know, but I started speaking right before I started school."
My own mother tells me that I didn't begin speaking until I was nearly two years old -- perhaps due to the law of averages, since my older brother had begun speaking at six months -- so there's even hope for my writing to improve.

Anyway, I'm intrigued. Read the whole review and the entire excerpt. See what you think.



At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Phil said...

This novel has what is almost de rigueur in today's acclaimed novels - set in a historical period, and written in the present tense.

And its jacket design is arresting.

So it could well be nominated for this year's Booker Prize.

That said, I was less than totally bowled-over by the excerpt.

At 8:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've gone ahead and ordered his first novel to see what I think of it.

I might be posting my impressions . . . if I have something to say.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mitchell is a creative and endearing novelist. My favorite book is his 4th, Black Swann Green. I read Cloud Atlas first, the book that gave him fame. Start with it, as it has a very interesting construction, and you will relish even more the most recent books (this one is the 5th) that have devoid of such complications.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've recently begun reading the first novel (and have already started blogging on it).

It is excellent.

Jeffery Hodges

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