A thousand autumns

22 September 2010

On Marinus’ desk is  folio volume: Osteographia by William Cheselden.
“See who’s waiting inside for you,” says the doctor.
Jacob contemplates the details, and the devil plants a seed.
What if this engine of bones — the seed germinates — is a man’s entirety …
Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree trunks tumbling.
… and divine love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?
Jacob thinks about Abbot Enomoto’s questions at their one meeting.
“Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”
“Then where” —Jacbon indicates the pious, profane skeleton— “is it?”
“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”
Eelattu brings two beakers of bitter beer and sweet dried figs.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell (p. 146)

So it’s autumn again, I’m unemployed & adrift in western Michigan, there’s applesauce boiling on the stove. Cut grass, fallen leaves, cicadas humming — I’m even driving cars now. Midwestern reversion. Parking lots, no bakeries within walking distance. Silver lining: I’ve got plenty of spare time to catch up on my reading list.

Mitchell, then. I finished this a week or two ago, after finally getting my hands on a copy. It was checked out & reserved for weeks in the local library, all branches, which I find kind of heartening — he’s not on the cover of Time, but Mitchell’s a writer of literary fiction who has maybe penetrated the cultural conversation.

I like this passage for a couple of reasons: the nice, epigraphical kicker, eminently quotable, almost a punchline; the necessary (there’s a reason I scanned the page) illustration, which is the sort of thing that crops up from time to time throughout; and, lastly, the way it showcases the book’s unusual rhythms.

Look at those line breaks — practically every sentence, breaking even in the middle of a thought. So heavily syncopated that when I read this I hear jazz in my head. Granular detail is unfailingly interspersed, & the way the lines are broken means that every line is not only a kind of self-sufficient, fully populated world, it also seems to be happening at the same time as the action it interrupts.

Critics (1) are writing that this is Mitchell doing straight historical realism, no formalist innovation involved, but I think they’re not paying attention. The writing isn’t just limpid & well-wrought, although it is that. Mitchell’s not being as showy as in Cloudy Atlas, sure, but something about the prose here — its idiosyncratic atomic structure, the way it shifts voice & narrative perspective, its flashes of what I’ll call for brevity’s sake magical realism —  has a very thought-out determinism that only superficially resembles something as similar in theory as, I don’t know, James Clavell’s Shogun. And Mitchell has hinted at readings that this is the first in a trilogy spanning centuries, which, potentially, makes it not a ‘straight-up realist’ outlier, but instead Cloud Atlas writ large. (2)


1. Dave Eggers writes in his New York Times review: “This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel . . .” And James Wood echoes that (“a formidable marvel . . . [but] still a conventional historical novel,”) in an irritating New Yorker essay that I’ll address, I hope, sometime in the next couple of weeks

2. Capital: At a reading in the West Village, “Mitchell announced news that he claimed he hadn’t even yet shared with his publisher: that Jacob de Zoet will be followed by two more books dealing with the theme of immortality and delving further into the realm of speculative fiction . . .”

2 Responses to “A thousand autumns”

  1. Cordelia Says:

    Just catching up, and found myself under “embalmed ones.” So I have nerve asking, but what are you up to these days ?

  2. kapitan nut Says:

    Reading you, listening to Hong Kong. feels like mourning, a bit, being so unsophisticated

    I really, really love your style.

    don’t die, keep writing, please

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