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.