“No matter from what level you begin, or where you are, or in what obscurity, or in what fame, you still have a possibility of writing something marvelous. Its potential is there always.”
— James Salter
What a trainride of a book! What a exhilarating read! This book is as ambitious as **** and even if you’re not a fan of Mitchell’s prose (which can arguably verge on the sentimental or overtly sincere at times), his talent is hard to deny.
Things I will specifically remember about this book:
- Nine narrators, ten chapters. Is this the future of the novel? Fragmentation, disembodiment? Lives in pieces, coming together in random fragments? God, I hope I don’t sound like the marketing campaign for Crash.
- A disembodied spirit in Mongolia (!!), jumping from body to body. I think this was the chapter, more than anything else, that made me think This Mitchell guy can do anything.
- The diabetic lawyer in Hong Kong–another extremely strong narrative voice that reminded me of the Timothy Cavendish chapter in “Cloud Atlas,” my favorite.
- The old woman in China–this is the only section narrated in 3rd person, and I did NOT he was going to be able to pull it off–i.e. narrate 100 years of Chinese history with all its tumultuous historical changes via the perspective of one character–but he DOES. WTF!
More general impressions: I was not a fan of the chapters that were most reminiscent of ludicrous crime fiction, i.e. St. Petersburg and Ireland, but then again I am not a fan of crime fiction in general–I also didn’t rock out to the Luisa Rey chapter in Cloud Atlas, so, yeah. I DID like the surprise twist in the Ireland chapter in which we learned that the scientist was female, rather than male (talk about undermining our sexist assumptions). I also loved the premise of the next to last chapter, about an apocalyptic scenario witnessed by an artificial intelligence called the Zookeeper, but to be honest if I hadn’t read on wikipedia that that’s what the chapter was about, I’m not sure if I would have been able to guess that’s what was going on. To be fair I may have read that chapter too fast ’cause I was eager to get to the end at that point.
But anyway. I really admire this book, and I really admire David Mitchell. His writing is not perfect, but fuck perfection. As R.E.M. sings in one of my favorite songs of theirs, Practice makes perfect, perfection is a fault and in fault lies change (yes, I know that youtube claims the lyrics are different, but they’re wrong, believe me!). I’d rather read a book that is trying to do something different that falls short in some places, as opposed to one that is entirely successfully at presenting something familiar, playing by numbers. When you’re reaching for the stars, if you fall you’ll land among the clouds etc (I have never forgotten this inspirational poster from my 7th-grade classroom, hehe). Like, this kind of writing is hard to do without making it seem annoying or forced. The book does suffers a bit at times from the aforementioned Crash syndrome, the whole woo-woo “we are all connected” theme–to give a specific example, I could have done without all the musing about electrons in the Ireland chapter; it felt a bit heavy-handed to me… too much like the author hitting me over the head, trying to get me to pay attention. But for the most part the book is more like a cool example of the “interconnected” story style, more like the subtle Amores Perros than the over-the-top Crash.
In summary, I am way jealous of this book. I hope my first novel will be this badass, but we’ll see, time will tell… : ) Reading this book made me feel happy to be a reader, and excited that there are still books in the world which make me feel like I’m experiencing something new and exhilarating. It made me feel like the quote I shared at the beginning of this post is possible. Only literature can do that to me, you know? Make me feel that way. Like anything can happen.