By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
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With world history encompassed, Mitchell retreated to a memoir disguised as a coming-of-age novel: In Black Swan Green, Mitchell frames a provincial life in a novel that is not itself provincial. Taking a step back from globe-trotting and structural trickiness, he settled down on a single time and place in the story of a shy 13-year-old and achieved a new emotional resonance.
That book, then, was a precursor to Thousand Autumns, which takes place continents and centuries away.
Though much of Thousand Autumns is set during a brief period on a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor, it is in its way as worldly as Ghostwritten: International trade, after all, was the original globalism.
Mitchell literally stumbled into the idea for the novel during his first Christmas season in Japan, getting off on the wrong tram stop and suddenly feeling he'd come unstuck in time. The two-acre Dejima was, while the Dutch operated a trading post there in the late 18th century, the West's only window into Japan, which had kicked out previous Europeans for importing of guns and religion.
"The Spanish and the Portuguese were, for the Japanese, pernicious influences," Mitchell says. "They'd Christianized the Japanese laboring classes, who were very happy to hear about a guy in this distant city called Rome who would escort them to heaven."
It was probably inevitable that Mitchell set a full novel in the country where he spent most of his 20s. "But there is something specific that fascinates me about Japan: the incredible feat of social engineering — that high density of population and how it was accomplished. It could not have happened in an American context, where self-determination and individualism establish themselves almost as a cult."
The novel sketches a stoic and formal shogunate Japan. Then, as now, he says, "Society couldn't function if everyone was just giving vent to their feelings. So you have a liberal society steeped in a somewhat illiberal Confucianism that requires hierarchy, structure and stasis."
The new novel starts slowly, with dense historical exposition that can be tough sledding. By the first section's close, it becomes almost an adventure story — indebted to Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan — and takes off like a rocket. The book will turn again in its third section, even if not as radically as the narrative disjunctures in Cloud Atlas.
One thing that sets Mitchell apart from most highbrow novelists is the breadth of his influence. He's not entirely unique — generational peers including Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have flown the flag for genre fiction.
But he's certainly gone against the grain of an Anglo-American publishing establishment which puts "literary" work on one side and pulp — science-fiction, fantasy, private eyes — on the other. Mitchell devours it all, but issues no manifesto and doesn't know what side of fashion he is on.
"I simply don't know which way the grain is growing," Mitchell says. "Perhaps I feel like I have a duty to my imagination, in text and prose, and to the book I'm working on, to make it as seaworthy as I possibly can." He's equally drawn to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Neil Gaiman's fantastical novels; the influence of Isaac Asimov is all over his work, and part of Cloud Atlas pays homage to '70s nuclear thrillers.
"The only question that matters is that the book be working. If you don't notice the page numbers, then something is working really well. It's not working because it's 'junk-food prose' — it's connecting with you. It has to include the nutrition of theme, the vitamins of thoughtfulness, to keep you going. It makes you want to go to bed a little earlier or wake up a bit earlier to read it."
Mitchell also diverges from mainstream realism in his use of artifice — employing his prose to get at the nature of storytelling. On Conceptual Fiction, a site dedicated to the postliterary novel, Ted Gioia described Cloud Atlas as a radical document: "Imagine that the defining stories of our lives are not rooted in reality, as many critics assume, but in other stories."
Mitchell is cautious here. "If you do that, you have to watch out a little bit," he says: If a novelist draws attention to himself too much, "it's deadly. 'Very clever, yes, I know it's a novel — the set just wobbled.'"
That said, Mitchell sees his novels as a chance to get at a burning question: "What is fiction? How does it work?" With artifice or without, highbrow or low, corny rock song or elaborate postmodern novel, it's all part of the same impulse, he says. What's important is that the basic mechanism of storytelling work properly — starting with the writer.
"The reader suspends disbelief," Mitchell says. "And if it all goes well, it's something we're hardwired to appreciate. The novel is just the latest twist in the long road of an old tale called story."
THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET | By David Mitchell | Random House | 479 pages | $26
David Mitchell reads from and signs The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at Skylight Books, Friday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m.
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