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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Books today…

I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in a day’s time on one of my Christmas-break-at-home reading binges after hearing its name floated on various blogs and from the lips of a respected classmate or two. It’s a truly enthralling book, well-balanced in style and form with a gimmick put to masterful use. If you haven’t read it, the most striking formal aspect is its nested structure: the first halves of the stories, each one about a century apart, culminate in a central story set in the post-apocalyptic future, after which follows the second halves of the stories in reverse order. Each section is a meta-fictive written account in the sense that each story is a self-contained written record (i.e. a private journal, a political thriller novella of a “true” story, etc.) that is somehow discovered by the character in the next story. E.g., one character finds the first half of the preceding story being used as a stump to balance a wobbly bedframe and his attempts at finding the second half become a subplot of his story, and the preceding story (the bedrfame prop one) resumes with the end of the character’s own story in the second half the novel and his discovery of the second half of the journal. A sort of russian nesting doll of a book, as it has been described. All that to background my having just finished his book written prior to that one, number9dream.

I have a habit of reading authors in reverse (going from Fortress of Solitude to Motherless Brooklyn to Gun, With Occasional Music or Underworld to Americana), and I successfully continued the trend, picking up Ghostwritten at the local used book store just before I finished Mitchell’s number9dream (which I bought at Book People in Austin last weekend) this afternoon. I imagine I’ll wait a while to read Ghostwritten, but I find watching writers’ styles unravel in this reverse chronological order intriguing. (And I started Amis’ Time’s Arrow today. How quaint.) But anyway…

Overall, the novel starts out rough, though as it progresses you can really see Mitchell get a handle on the sort of genre-manipulation he managed so well in Cloud Atlas. This one is an odd blend of coming-of-age tale (a genre I’m not incredibly fond of, unfortunately) and amateur sleuth story. A more soft- than hardboiled, first-time-in-the-muck rather than dirt-caked fingernails type of story. Its a fun read, even if it does fall into the traps of genre-fic(a)tion a little too easily, what with lost virginities, the kindness of strangers, and double agents that save the hero as a by-product of their secret loyalties.

The intriguing parts are where Mitchell gets around to his themes, which I think he began to realize clearly enough only in the last third of the book. The first two-thirds feel like stabs in the dark that hit their target as often as not. When he handles his themes directly, though, he handles them deftly, as in the dream sequences that, despite their fairly short length, dominate the last chapter of the book (Though I still don’t know what to do with the garden-shed scene and its indiscretions. Was it a dream, too, which Eeiji forgot? If not, why no mention of it? Eeiji thinks too much to let something like that slip from the last fifty pages unreflected upon.).

There is much with which I disagree in Mitchell’s seeming theory-of-the-world (particularly his reliance on an ingredient that looks, smells, and tastes suspiciously like destiny, an ingredient that always strikes me as lazy and one that he handles with more ambiguousness and interpretive freedom in Cloud Atlas), but in this particular book, I think its because he let his themes fit to the framework instead of letting the framework buckle in the places it needed to in order to fit his themes. Given, this seems to be a flaw that Eeiji succumbs too, as well, as evidenced by his fantastical digressions into sci-fi spy-movie plots in the first chapter. The main character frequently lets his imagination run wild, but his imagination often resorts to the tried-and-true in-over-his-head detective story tropes. In the sci-fi spy-movie plot mentioned above, Eeiji imagines making his way into the building he is staking out by assuming a blue-collar work-order role. Mitchell saves some of these clichés from beng simple reiterative plot-filler by echoing them in Eeiji’s real life later, such as when he makes a major discovery filling a similar role as a pizza boy. But this is one of those cases where I have a hard time discerning whether or not the flaw is a component of the character’s or author’s style.

I’m looking forward to getting around to reading Ghostwritten, eventually. I think Mitchell handles bits that work together to aid a not necessarily visible framework better than he handles massive, unwieldy hunks of story. While Eeiji is an interesting character with lots of well-written words devoted to him, I found myself caring less about Eeiji and more about the minor characters that influence him from the edge. For instance, a minor character who appears at the end, Mrs. Persimmon, is a fascinating and unexpected breath of fresh air while Mitchell is rapidly wrapping up all the loose emotional ends of his protagonist. And Eeiji’s love-interest in the novel has some witty and charming passages, even though her suggestions that keep the plot progressing come off with a little too much pre-packaged psycho-babble aplomb. Of course, its a coming of age novel dealing with parental relationships, so those bits do exactly what they need to do, but this sort of functional plug-n-play is the book’s main handicap.

Overall, I have to say that, had I not already found Ghostwritten on the cheap, this one would make me more inclined to go forward and read Black Swan Green. Give it a shot if you like Mitchell already, and suffer the bleak bits for the truly good writing knowing that they pay off in experience beneficial to the creation of his subsequent novels.

In other news of recent book acquisitions, I picked up Brideshead Revisited, Tristram Shandy, Sons and Lovers, and Saramago’s The Cave at the bookstore today on top of Ghostwritten (all for $1.65— this store has a ridiculous trade-in policy; all I had to pay was tax after giving them some unwanted relics from classes past, duplicate copies, and other remainders). The Sterne may go back to a used books store eventually, though, as its a little more marked up than I noticed at first glance, and I have a feeling that’s one I’m going to want to mark freely without worrying about confusing my own marginalia with the previous owner’s. But who knows, I’m also a huge fan of reading other people’s marginalia, and said owner left a pretty daunting topical index scribbled on the blank pages at the back…

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Filed under: Books, Mitchell, Reviews

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