Bonus points for squeezing in a mention of “The Breast”

Superfriend CAAF here, to say, as one might of the dearly departed, “Ed would want this mentioned.” In this weekend’s NYTBR, Tom Bissell writes a wonderfully smart review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

It is not unheard of for a novelist of exceptional talent to write a deliberately difficult book. This urge does not necessarily result in novels with nameless characters, mutating typography or unpunctuated attempts to explore the aphotic realm of human consciousness. It is also not an urge unique to modernism or experimentalism. Some novelists just seem to say, What the hell. John Updike’s odd (and wonderful) early novel ”The Centaur” seems to have been written from this impulse, as do Philip Roth’s equally bizarre novel ”The Breast,” Norman Mailer’s ”Why Are We in Vietnam?” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s ”Unconsoled.” Among this crowd, the young British novelist David Mitchell stands out. Deliberately difficult novels are the only novels he seems to be interested in writing.

This is to the good; the tree of literature drops its best fruit after being shaken with conviction and intelligence. Mitchell is neither abstrusely arch nor a wizard of scenic dislocation. One does not sense that — unlike, say, William Gaddis, Carole Maso or Walter Abish — Mitchell is trying to chop down the tree of literature in order to replace it with something treelike. On the contrary, his prose is straightforward and, quite often, magnificent. Mitchell is as good at aphorism (”Faith, the least exclusive club on earth, has the craftiest doorman”) as he is at description (”Now and then goldfish splish and gleam like new pennies dropped in water”). The difficulty comes in how Mitchell chooses to construct his novels — or rather, how he does not choose to construct his novels.

Related: Some of Bissell’s points figure in Emma Garman’s manifesto on the merits of snark over at Maud’s.

Last night I went to bed with John P. Marquand and boy, were some of his sentences stiff

CAAF darting through, in her orange muumuu and some superhero underoos. Lately I’ve been reading and relishing The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand. It seems appropriate to post that here as I picked up the book after reading Ed’s (and Terry’s) many effusions on the topic of all things Marquand.

In a short but interesting May 2004 Atlantic Monthly appreciation, Martha Spaulding reports that Upton Sinclair (Jungle Love) received the proofs for Apley in 1936. (It went on to win the Pulitzer in 1938.) Sinclair wrote the publisher:

I started to read it and it appeared to me to be an exact and very detailed picture of a Boston aristocrat, and as I am not especially interested in this type, I began to wonder why you had sent it to me. But finally I began to catch what I thought was a twinkle in the author’s eye … One can never be sure about Boston, and I hope I am not mistaken in my idea that the author is kidding the Boston idea. It is very subtle and clever, and I am not sure that Boston will get it.

Not everyone saw the twinkle in the eye (though I can tell you it’s winking away by page 7). Spaulding quotes editor Edward Weeks as saying that there were people in the Back Bay who “appeared at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday afternoons asking to be shown the ‘Apley Bronzes.’”

Here’s our handsome host’s, Mr. Champion’s, take on Marquand, pulled from a recent email:

Likewise, there’s the sullied status of John P. Marquand, whom I discovered completely by accident (spurned on by Yardley a few years ago). The man made the covers of both Time and Newsweek and was, to my knowledge, one of the most astute observers of manners between the two wars. Also (and this is the part that floors me), he was able to convey his satire in a way that attracted readers — not an easy thing to do in a nation ripe with great satirists often misunderstood by a highly literal public. Now the man’s getting something of a modest revival (much as John O’Hara did a few years ago). I’d recommend starting with The Late George Apley, which was just recently reissued by Back Bay Books. Also in print are H.M. Pulham, Esq., Wickford Point and Point of No Return. But my favorite Marquands would have to be Apley, Sincerely Willis Wayde and So Little Time. I managed to obtain every Marquand novel printed by making a run of every used book store in San Francisco and Berkeley (converting a few helpful bookstore clerks along the way), and supplementing these efforts with the easy and decidedly non-Arthurian search through Alibris. (Yes, I’m pathological that way.)

Having started Apley, I expect to be trolling Asheville’s used bookstores soon.