Monday, April 24, 2006

I had a minor internal literary psychodrama

last year around David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, it seemed like everyone was raving about it & yet I didn't find the idea of it appealing at all, I checked it out more than once from the library and returned it unread when some other reader recalled it and finally I read the first few pages and thought "Oh, those are remarkably well-turned sentences" and returned it to the library without a qualm and also without reading another page.

It was a revelation of the "Just because everyone else is reading it doesn't mean you have to" sort, but it didn't last, I was having qualms again a month later, clearly most of my novel-reading is prompted by the pleasure motive but as a serious reader and fiction-writer I do sometimes have to read things that may not be calling to me as strongly as some other books. Sometimes, afterwards, I discover that I've been missing out on something I will love; sometimes not.

Mitchell's Black Swan Green sounded rather more my kind of thing, in any case, and so I have just read it, and I find myself still quite torn. (But clearly I must read Cloud Atlas, I've put it in the Amazon shopping cart, I feel that I cannot afford not to see what he's doing technically even if it is not exactly what I love. This is a major English-language novelist & I must keep an eye on what he's up to. That "afford" isn't a prudential assessment, in other words, it just signals my sense that Mitchell may be on the shortish list of writers who are pushing the bounds of what's possible & that if you don't see them doing these things you miss an opportunity to expand your own range of techniques & goals. That kind of missed opportunity is what I find unacceptable; thus the obligation to read things I don't always or necessarily enjoy.)

The book leaves me completely cold emotionally. I couldn't stop comparing it to other roughly comparable novels & finding it wanting; it is not as moving as Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club, not as frightening as Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy, not as intellectually and emotionally compelling (to me personally, I mean) as Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, not as well-crafted (as a novel as opposed to linked-story-thing) as something like--but of course this is one of the greatest novels of all time and not a fair comparison--Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, not (to go a little further afield) as perceptive about adolescent psychology and the dynamic of groups as Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. (But there is a rather good classroom scene late on in the book, it is my obsession that great novelists do not write enough about classrooms--where everyone spends a lot of their time at one stage of life, and where I continue to spend some of my most interesting & engaging time--it is one thing I like about the Harry Potter books, that they reclaimed the classroom as a place where you could write lots of scenes even in a commercially successful novel.) And back to the main drift here, not as rich a bildungsroman as my favorites like Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows or (of course) David Copperfield.

One aspect of the book struck me as absolutely wonderful, and at a different level from the rest: this is the section titled "Hangman" and (more generally) the novel's treatment of the protagonist-narrator's speech impediment. It's really, really cool and well done and amazing things happen with the language related to this strand of the book. It got me through the first third or so of the book when I was just incredibly irritated by the narrator's (only word I can invoke) prissiness: Mitchell has chosen to use this prim and rather pedantic way of transcribing contractions ("would've," "'cause," etc.) and I really wish he hadn't, I know it can be affected when people come up with radical new spelling things (like Shaw does in Pygmalion & elsewhere, just leaving out the apostrophes in contractions in an attempt to get closer to the spoken language) but I think he could have done something better like just had "couldve" if he wanted it, or else done it more conventionally altogether, this way it's really annoying. And I have a personal antipathy to this style of British male middle-class boyishness, it rubs me the wrong way & my irritation distracts me from what should otherwise be the pleasures of the language. So the stammer material took things up to a higher level & tided me over & then the second half drew me in much more effectively, so that by the end I was not nearly so annoyed.

There's an episode in the middle that features a character (I am told) from Cloud Atlas, Madame Crommelynck, that struck me as both excessively stylized-literary (I thought the book would have been stronger without it) but also a productive turning point in the book, as if Mitchell had to get this out of the way before things could get really good. Here's Jason Taylor (who's been publishing his poetry in the parish magazine under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar) on his second visit to this intimidating & cosmopolitan lady who has made contact with him on the basis of those poems (I'm quoting this to give you a sense of what I don't like about the novel's style, and yet what's also striking about it):

As I prized off my trainers I heard a piano, joined by a quiet violin. I hoped Madame Crommelynck didn't have a visitor. Once you have three people you may as well have a hundred. The stairway needed fixing. A knacked blue guitar'd been left on a broken stool. In the gaudy frame a shivery woman sprawled in a punt on a clogged pond. Once again, the butler led me to the solarium. (I looked "solarium" up. It just means "an airy room.") The sequence of doors we passed made me think of all the rooms of my past and future. The hospital ward I was born in, classrooms, tents, churches, offices, hotels, museums, nursing homes, the room I'll die in. (Has it been built yet?) Cars're rooms. So are woods. Skies're ceilings. Distances're walls. Wombs're rooms made of mothers. Graves're rooms made of soil.

So I'm not objecting to what some reviewers have criticized, the incongruousness of this rather callow thirteen-year-old having such thoughts; I think that can be explained in terms of the voice, that awkward oscillation between immaturity and a precocious aestheticism seems to me psychologically more-or-less plausible. But the preciousness of the insights justs rubs me the wrong way (like the one about three people and a hundred); this is a very talented writer, don't get me wrong, but I suppose it's the same reason I don't like a lot of poetry, there strikes me as something terribly self-satisfied about lingering so long on these intricacies of self-observation and insight. Less would have been more: if I just had the plain sentences about rooms, I would find the observation more striking, but once it's presented alongside all this other stuff it takes it over the top in a way I find distinctly irritating.

Later in the section, Madame C. comments that Jason's best poem in the parish magazines is the poem titled "Hangman": "It has pieces of truth of your speech impediment, I am right?" she asks him. But common sense just has me saying here (in the internal monologue that accompanies my reading of a novel that has not fully engaged my emotions and attention), "But this is all very well and self-referential, and of course it echoes my own thought about the first hundred and fifty pages of Mitchell's novel, that the stammering stuff is much the best; but if you see it, and you see it's true, why not write me a really lovely short novel that deals with that truth in the amazing language I see in about ten percent of this novel, rather than giving me this blander and more middlebrow and prissy book clocking in at almost three hundred pages?" It's not an overly long novel, not by any manner of speaking, and yet I feel that some significant further distillation of meaning would have augmented my reading experience.

Some of the insights in the last part of the novel (about bullying, about self-knowledge, about secrets, about the power of being yourself) come a bit glibly, including a slightly over-obvious scene in the Hall of Mirrors at the village fair. "Secrets affect you more than you'd think," Jason tells us near the end. "You lie to keep them hidden. You steer talk away from them. You worry someone'll discover yours and tell the world. You think you are in the charge of the secret, but isn't it the secret who's actually using you? S'pose lunatics mold their doctors more than doctors mold their lunatics?" All very well, but a bit too familiar to be a really satisfying payoff for this artfully crafted bildungsroman. It's related to that blandness I feel here and there; I think one of the things that makes it hard for me to imagine Mitchell becoming a favorite writer of mine, though I am extremely impressed with his abilities and his craftsmanship, is that the books I love most tend to be (a) demented and (b) funny, and neither one of those adjectives applies here.

I've got one other disappointment that I will register (I hope, by the way, that I do not sound evilly mean-spirited; I found this an interesting and stimulating book, and I'm writing about it here mostly for myself, to clarify what reading it showed me about my own beliefs about novels I might write myself as well as novels written by other people). I don't think Black Swan Green works as a political novel, and I think that given its own implied goals and aspirations this is a problem. Jason Taylor mouths a lot of political opinions that his later grown-up self will presumably have disavowed (his older sister has already dissented from the smug Thatcherism professed by the Taylor father & many of the other grown-ups in this novel), but the novel leaves it at the level of simple irony, something on the order of the joke elsewhere about Betamax beating out VHS. There's a long set-piece early on describing a news broadcast early in the Falkland war (I haven't put it in italics so as to keep Mitchell's own italicizing clear):

"Mrs. Thatcher frazzled this twerpy prat in a bow tie on BBC1 this evening. He was saying sinking the General Belgrano outside the Total Exclusion Zone was morally and legally wrong. (Actually we sunk the Belgrano some days ago but the papers've just got hold of the pictures and since the Sheffield we've got zero sympathy for the Argie bastards.) Mrs. Thatcher fixed her stained-glass blue eyes on that pillock and pointed out that the enemy cruiser'd been zigzagging in and out of the zone all day. She said something like, 'The fathers and mothers of our country did not elect me the prime minister of this country to gamble with the lives of their sons over questions of legal niceties. Must I remind you that we are a country at war?' The whole studio cheered and the whole country cheered too, I reckon, 'cept for Michael Foot and Red Ken Linvingstone and Anthony Wedgwood Benn and all those Loony Lefters. Mrs. Thatcher's bloody ace. She's so strong, so calm, so sure."

I think I see what he's doing here, we're of course meant to hear this as thin & self-deluding and Jason just echoing what his father's saying in a painful and embarrassing and short-sighted way, and the story gives us several later surprises and reversals (including a death) to provide context. The longish passage here, though, ends with the following sentences, and it came clear to me that the present-past ironies as Mitchell's set them up can only be expressed by a contrast between speech & story, not by some greater complexity within the speaker's own sentences:

"The Sun's paying ₤100 for the best anti-Argie joke. I can't do jokes, but I'm keeping a scrapbook about the war. I'm cutting out stuff from the newspapers and magazines. Neal Brose is keeping one too. He reckons it'll be worth a fortune twenty or thirty years from now, when the Falklands War has turned into history. But all this excitement'll never turn dusty and brown in archives and libraries. No way. People'll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world."

This just seems to me coy and entirely unsubtle; it had me pining for Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which I felt was both formally extraordinary and also a really brilliant and subtle argument about Thatcherism and the relationship between the present and the past. (Muriel Spark and Joyce Carol Oates also have really interesting ways of bringing in future events/foreshadowing, I was mentally comparing.) Hollinghurst's vision and technique are nothing like what I could ever pull off myself, it is not that I am a Hollinghurst kind of a person as opposed to a Mitchell kind, and yet I feel a much stronger affinity with that book than with anything Mitchell does here.

I have certainly gone on long enough. Some real reviews particularly worth looking at: Daniel Zalewski in the New Yorker; Adam Phillips in the Observer (imaginative choice of reviewer); and (my favorite) Ed Park in the Village Voice. And here's the roundup at the Complete Review.


  1. Oh, and a Google search didn't turn up this link, but I've just looked & regular Light Reading commenter Gautam Hans's review of Mitchell is now up at the Columbia Spectator:

  2. I'm having to struggle with Black Swan Green for some similar reasons but will soldier on. Like you, I'm very lukewarm about his characters - in his earlier novels, much more so - and though I admire Mitchell's very considerable talents, some of his writing in BSG justs shouts out look how clever I am as writer. His structure is often very clever indeed - is cleverness enough? - but though I can accept incongruity of thought (and not just in an adolescent, by the way) it's the pretentiousness that irritates me. There are too many points where the author seems to break though into the narrator's voice, or at least bulge the membrane. Even highly intelligent kids don't have such a stream of pseudo-thoughts.

    What really interest me here is the cultural phenomenon: like with Zusak's The Book Thief, why one particular book gets pick up by nearly everyone, the whole faddishness of it all. And though there are of course some very intelligent and perceptive assessments - yours, Jenny, included - altogether I'm rather disappointed that the blogosphere seems for the most part to be mirroring the world at large in this way. There's almost an incestuousness to this whole blogging thing...

  3. I actually think our reading tastes are quite different, but we do seem to have a significant, and interesting, to me, because I am one of us, overlap: I too felt I should have wanted to read Cloud Atlas and just didn't, even though S did and liked it (but then he and I are also quite different, albeit also with significant overlap), and I too found The Line of Beauty brilliant.