Tag Archives: David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks: Extraordinary



I know I rave about books all the time. I’ve been called out more than once by N. for overselling a book that’s only really good. Not the case with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. This novel is genius. Extraordinary in so many ways: in its approach to genre, to plot, to character.In its hyper-imaginative renderings of the near future world and of the past.  It’s a book that asks about mortality, familial-responsibility, ecological-responsibility, identity and grief. It’s a book that gives the finger to genre tick-boxes and plots made-for-movies. It revels in the brilliant beauty of its own writing without being showy. It’s exuberant in the possibilities for the novel as a form and for readers as enthusiastic consumers of imagined worlds and people. Continue reading


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Cloud Atlas

Away for work with no laptop, and so a proper post is impossible at the moment, but I wanted to get down a few thoughts about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas before I forget (for those counting I only have one Mitchell novel left, which I may save for the day i recognize as the worst day of my life so that I might have something to live for/look forward to. He is so. Brilliant. I like just knowing there is
more of his genius for me to discover. that promise (both the potential and the guarantee) – withheld – makes my life more livable).

I want to remember the form – a mess of genres, narrative points of view and forms. The theme of servitude: to ideals, people, corporations, history (but not love). The idea of ascension – that we (people, characters) might be evolving in a way that keeps us the same even while we strive to be/do better. The idea of reliance, that if we are to make it/survive it will only be after trusting in someone else, knowing we will be betrayed, but in the time before betrayal that we might make/do something great or lasting. That we lose ourselves in moments of beauty – that in reading this book we find ourselves presented with one such moment – a space to forget the petty, insular problems of a particular time and place, and transcend form, genre, and *self* in a way that allows the briefest recognition of beauty. That is what the characters do, and that is what Mitchell offers his readers. And we rely on him to take us somewhere higher then we had been before. And he, unlike his characters, doesn’t betray that faith, but really did leave this reader with a greater expectation for what is beautiful, for what great art can do.

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Number9Dream: Mitchell goes 3-3


So normally I’m not so interested in dream sequences in books. I find them distracting, or a sort of discount warehouse for the novel’s symbols. But the opening dream sequences of David Mitchell’s number9dream, and every dream sequence that follows, so blurs the line between dream-reality and so thoughtfully provokes questions about the purpose of dreams in our lives (dreams here as both our aspirations and our night time wanderings) that rather than sighing and soldiering through the sequences I found myself relishing them.

Our protagonist’s – Eiji – quest to find and meet his father ostensibly structures the book in a quest narrative that involves the usual host of demons to slay (in this case those in the Japanese mafia), helpful collaborators, and distracting side-adventures. While I’d rather not give much away in terms of the climax, I will say that it is not – as one might realize early on in the novel – a climax of plot, and more a climax of character, as Eiji comes to realize what is expected of him as a son, a brother, a lover, a man.

On this subject – the slippery roles of Eiji-as-man – I issue one of my few complaints about this book, and that is that intimate relationships aren’t consummated in a described physical encounter. The long anticipated reunion with Eiji’s mother, for instance, is only narrated after the fact (and briefly) in a way that makes this reader wonder whether it ever happened. And the intimate – or potentially intimate – relationship between Eiji and Ai is similarly evanescent. So in writing this complaint I realize that it should perhaps be better put as praise, as once again Mitchell adds a layer to the question of what we can know for sure in this text – what we can know for sure in our lives and relationships. Are these ephemeral relationships not the perfect representation of how we know and interact with one another? through declarations, through descriptions and narrations of the story of our relationships – the story of our lives – and perhaps only ever in the remembrance of the physical, the memory of once having touched. Hmm.

So my other minor complaint (which I am happy to have resolved by a more attentive reader): what’s the deal with the computer virus/mafia organ/corruption plot line?

As for the ubiquity of the number 9 in the text – it really is everywhere – and its supposed ‘unluckiness’ (wikipedia tells me that it is unlucky because of its similarity to ‘pain’ or ‘distress’) I can’t say that 9 operates consistently as an either lucky or unlucky symbol, more as a kind of anchor that reminds the reader both to pay attention, and that these kinds of superstitious or serendipitous (so much of the plot relies on unlikely encounters) may be all that can be relied upon in a reality as slippery and unpredictable as ours.

So the first book of 2012 is a triumph of gorgeous language: Mitchell consistently delivers beautiful writing that really does make this reader feel X – nope, just feel. number9dream reads, as a whole, like a dream itself – the unexpectedness of events, the sharpness of some details and the opacity of other major events, the acceptance of the illogical without demand or want of explanation, the fleeting appearance of characters, the lingering feeling on waking – or closing the book – that something significant just transpired, but the reluctance to say just (or only) what.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: I have a lot to say


So where to start?

The expression “best at the beginning” may not apply in the case of David Mitchell’s (entirely brilliant) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoett, which opens with the graphic narration of a breech birth. Putting visceral reactions aside, in this vivid first chapter Mitchell expertly lays out the thematic questions of the novel – a dizzying array of concerns from national, linguistic, familial, class and gender filiation and affiliation to the worth of artistic or generous sensibilities in a landscape of commerce and rigidly defined hierarchies of (gendered, military, national) power.

At times I wondered whether the thematic scope might in fact be too broad – the harrowing second part focused on the mysterious monastery, for instance, felt barely introduced before it was over – but I need not have worried so much, as the concluding two parts – a brief 30 pages between the two – weave the (until then seemingly distinct) threads together with such subtly that I worried instead that I had may have been an inattentive reader (I was not!) for not noticing the ever-tightening connections among the three principle plot lines. So bravo theme. Bravo plot.

I have questions about character. It is not the case of a poorly defined or undeveloped character; in Jacob, like Black Swan Green, Mitchell presents entirely fallible, and so entirely sympathetic, characters. Rather, I found Orito’s behaviour to be – in two remarkable scenes – somewhat at odds, and so I finished the book not entirely certain I believed her motivations, or understood the ‘core’ of character: I’m trying reconcile her self-preserving decision in relation to Jacob’s marriage offer with her selfless decision with respect to the monastery. *spoiler* In the conclusion of the text, when Orito explains to Jacob that he need not be forgiven because ‘he did nothing wrong,’ she implies that her knowledge of what happened at the monastery prevented her from leaving – a moral/ethical imperative that superseded her – utterly human – selfish motivation to leave. In conversation with P., who recommended the book, it was suggested that perhaps she acts out of some ‘martyr complex.’ Plausible, and so far, so good: outstanding character development and a fascinating moral question (would I save myself? would you?). But then! Almost as though Mitchell can’t stand to have Orito suffer, she finds on her return that she can trade her knowledge for different duties, and so escape the fate of those she purportedly sacrificed her liberty to be with. Orito’s decision and its subsequent ‘reward’, taken together with the (quite positive) outcome of Jacob’s ‘heroics’ on the watchtower suggest an implicit reward for selflessness, which I’m pretty sure annuls “selflessness.” Or maybe it just suggests that behaving with selfless intentions will result in unexpected reward. (I hear echoes of my time in Sunday school…) In any case, none of these comments should be construed as complaints; in fact, I think it’s clear that my difficulty reconciling the scenes and character decisions demonstrates the complexity of the narrative and its characters. And maybe also demonstrates that I’ve just finished it an hour ago and haven’t (necessarily) properly thought things through.

A final note then on historical fiction. The Publisher’s Weekly review of the book notes that it is a “dense and satisfying historical with literary brawn and stylistic panache.” If I can forgive “panache,” in that sentence, I cannot forgive the implied snub of historical fiction – that Mitchell has managed to attach “literary brawn” (whatever that is) to the otherwise merely “satisfying” genre. Okay, I’m too defensive. But this book is as brilliant as historical fiction as it is as literary fiction (again, let’s try to work out what that might be another day) and we need not get into genre splitting to say that. I do think Jerome de Groot’s observation that historical fiction requires a more ‘attentive reader’ because the genre demands a doubled willingness to suspend belief and to trust the author has some merit in this instance. I admit to previously enjoying only the shadowiest knowledge of early 19th century Dutch trading companies, let alone their Japanese outposts, and so the novel allowed me a measure of discovery not just of human motivations, relationships and sacrifices, but of a historical period and setting utterly unfamiliar. So while Mitchell may not be credited with the brilliant complexity of my favourite genre, I’ll say bravo anyway, as he’s done a tremendous job highlighting just how effective a relationship between the literary and the historical can be in evoking and provoking.

In sum: bravo. 

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