Good morning! And thanks very much for the response. It suddenly occurs to me that it’s a bit ironic that we’re discussing BSG at the tail end of January, which is when, after all, this book begins. Mild California weather or true blue Bostonian snow notwithstanding, I’m ready to boogey yet again.
I felt exactly the same way you did about waiting for the Mitchell-esque quality to kick in. In the previous email, I described this sensation as “reading a naked David Mitchell.” But on further
consideration, I’m wondering if there is some major flaw to Mitchell’s work that, in our admiration for the man, we’re simply not addressing. Yes, even with this book, he’s a beautiful stylist. Yes, he grips you and he doesn’t let go. Yes, his plots are as perfectly engineered as Gaussian curves. And yes, this new Mitchell was extremely fascinating and often quite moving to read.
To take the phone calls we were talking about, now that you mention it, it is now perfectly obvious that it was a girlfriend calling. But it wasn’t when I was reading it. And I’m wondering if this was because of my own expectations of Mitchell or whether Mitchell’s subtlety has, in some way, interred the narrative a mite. Based on all the yakuzas and conspiracies and parasitical aliens and crazed service sector industries we’ve seen in previous books, for some dumb reason, I kept expecting Jason’s father to be involved with some government plot or something similarly extraordinary. And I am wondering if, in this case, Mitchell’s high octane plotting was justified in this case, given that it resulted in something of a red herring. Do you think we’re giving Mitchell too much of a fair pass here, Megan?
Now that we’re on the subject, all of Mitchell’s other books, for the most part, have been devoid of red herrings. One of the things I’ve appreciated about Mitchell is that, up until now, one rarely finds a story arc that doesn’t tie into another. It’s as if Mitchell is offering the reader a conscious effort to deconstruct, to see patterns, or to simply see the parallels and differences within multiple narratives.
And that’s the thing: Here we find no clues, no references that play off later, no real sense of
cohesion or thematic overlap other than the crumbling marriage of Jason’s parents.
I am not certain if the new Mitchell entirely sits with me, because it seems to me that these subtleties play against Mitchell’s natural strengths as a writer. Think of the way that he offers remarkable story developments (think of the Luisa Rey segments in Cloud Atlas) and throws a kind of casual existential nuance to it. That’s what gives Mitchell such a distinctive voice. Mitchell is Frobisher dangling out of a hotel window while contemplating precisely where he’s heading in life. Mitchell is the tender voice of the old lady in Ghostwritten running the noodle shop on the side of the mountain. These are all comic beats of a light Kafkaesque timbre and yet with Mitchell, you’re never really conscious of how preposterous this all is – in large part, because the man’s keeping you dazzled with about seventeen balls in the air. What I’m suggesting here is that Mitchell’s fire is ignited in some sense by the fantastic. He has an uncanny way of taking a somewhat preternatural situation and making it crackle on the page with a strange sort of normalcy. (Again, I’m pretty sure this is the Murakami influence talking, but Mitchell’s humor is often more subtle, because it never totally envelops a scene.) But in BSG, I didn’t really feel, aside from the bizarre poultice episode at the beginning, that Mitchell permitted himself the kindling. While I was greatly stirred by the pain and awkwardness of Jason Taylor’s adolescence, other parts, such as the disco scene in the end, really didn’t sit with me.
Of course, I should also point out that when Mitchell came here to the States for the Cloud Atlas tour, the man was feverishly jotting as many observations that he could fit into his notebook. So if BSG is a transition point, then perhaps it’s a way for him to find that fantastic impulse within the ordinary. I can understand the desire to become a subtler writer, but do you think Mitchell want to become more of a realist?
I’m in a café. And right now, there is an extremely intense and very large man clad in a green Army-Navy surplus jacket who can’t stop staring at me. So I’m going to try and address your points really quickly here. Because I may have to disarm him a knock-knock joke or something.
1. Yes, the ending was too neat. And I’d add that the relationship between Jason and Julia also felt too neatly wrapped up.
2. I too loved the “Relatives” chapter. One thing that also comes out quite beautifully is the obsession with the good life and having a steady middle-class home (complete with the flatware and cookery that you haul out for special occasions). It’s not an entirely original observation, but I think Mitchell’s subtext worked quite well here. In this chapter and others, Mitchell demonstrates that he understands just how money can destroy a relationship. (Also laudable: The secret financial arrangements.) I’m also curious, Megan. What were your thoughts on the rocks/garden incident?
3. Maybe I’m objecting to Madame C because she felt too much like a cartoon for me. Or perhaps she came across as a cartoon when juxtaposed against the other, more realist characters in this book. But I did buy the situation from Jason’s perspective.
Before I send this off, I want to respond to the idea of critics rejecting this book for being imperfect. I’m reading Eliott Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity right now. It’s this big social novel in the Wolfe/Franzen/Dreiser vein that is often completely wrong in its generalizations and sometimes outright preposterous. But the fact that it dares to make its point and that it at least tries to come up with some reasons and connections for why humanity is so fucked up is ambitious, particularly since the storytelling is gripping. And yet it was, in some cases, savagely reviewed both here and in Australia because people could not accept the idea of a novelist being wrong in spurts, while also promoting a worldview which causes the reader to reconsider her own notions.
Could it be, Megan, that BSG falls in the same category? In other words, should we try and answer the question of whether a flawed but ambitious novel from a very special writer deserves to be ripped a new one because of a few impatient book reviewers?