mitchell

The Bat Segundo Show: David Mitchell III

David Mitchell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #350. He is most recently the author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #1 — the very program that started it all — along with a two-part podcast from 2006 (Show #54 and Show #55).

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Annoyed by hotel security.

Author: David Mitchell

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Mitchell: I think of words as vehicles that convey what is in my imagination into someone else’s. And we’re sort of in a dialogue. Because they don’t just replicate what’s in the imagination. They can alter it. You can mistype and you get a word that actually can be better than the one you meant. Words can feed back and suggest to the imagination, “Well, would it be neater if you imagine this instead?” Language itself is a kind of a writing partner, separate to the writer, who is deploying the language. I think. I think this is true. Has that answered your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. Actually, there’s one thing I wanted to ask you and that is with Orito. You investigate the flashback of her sexual assault. Yet in the shrine, we don’t really see the true horror of what’s going on. I mean, granted it’s from Orito’s perspective. But I’m wondering why you didn’t really go into what was happening. I mean, she could have observed the engifting. I mean, it sounds horrific in terms of a “what is not seen” standpoint. To use a cinematic idea. But I’m wondering why you didn’t go full-borne. Or if there was a draft where you did in fact go into that dark territory and it proved just too disturbing? I don’t know.

Mitchell: I didn’t know how to do a sex scene that involved engiftment for it to not stink of misogyny. And as a male writer, that’s even worse. You know, in blunt terms, if you can ever hear a writer jerking off as he’s writing, then that’s it. Then the book’s dead. That’s a crude thing to have said.

Correspondent: You can say whatever crude things you like here.

Mitchell: But it’s what I meant. And you kind of know what I mean.

Correspondent: Yeah, I do. But on the other hand, you are dealing with an age from centuries ago where it was in fact a very misogynistic atmosphere.

Mitchell: Oh certainly. Certainly!

Correspondent: You certainly get a lot of that in the book. But I’m just curious why. I mean, don’t we have to really look at these terrible dark feelings squarely in the face in order to really get at the truth?

Mitchell: If it’s happening now — at a place about a quarter of a mile from the Helmsley Hotel that we’ve just been kicked out of in downtown New York, and it’s a social wrong, and women have been trafficked from godforsaken parts of the world and are being exploited like this — dead right. Shine cold hard truth or truth of light onto it. Please. It’s got to be stopped.

This is fiction. Two hundred years ago. And it hasn’t got that same imperative. That wrong, in this day and age, does not exist to be righted. If there’s an echo of Dejima, which is also a place that no longer exists, it’s a novelist’s requisite. That’s what the shrine on Mount Shiranui is. And for me to be offering the scenes — sort of on camera as opposed to off stage, where such physical exploitation is taking place — I think would have gone over a kind of writerly ethical mark in the sand. Which I chose not to go over.

Correspondent: What would that ethical mark in the sand be for you? I mean, it seems to me that other people — like Brian Evenson, who comes to mind — will go across that mark. And by doing so, really risk the idea of being impugned as a misogynist. Even though there is no misogyny in their particular intent. I’m wondering if it’s an overstated concern perhaps on your part. Or whether this is just one of those lines in the sand that you will possibly cross in the future or some capacity. Staring some really terrible truth in the face like that. I mean, you do. Don’t get me wrong. But this is an interesting question.

Mitchell: If it’s a real terrible truth, it has to be stared at the face. If it’s an unreal, made up, quasi-historical fictitious terrible truth, then to be describing institutionalized rape on the page in hard porn vocabulary terms, I feel that it sounds like me jerking off into my laptop. And all of a sudden, 98% of my readers have left the building. And I probably have gone with them, had I been a reader of the book.

Correspondent: Would you call something like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho jerking off?

Mitchell: Firstly, I can’t say what I’ll be writing in the future. I don’t know. Secondly, to go back to the question that you’ve — well, two questions ago and actually one question ago as well. I don’t begin to sit in judgment on other writers who handle this, who make this call in a different way. And I’ve read that book. And it works very well. It’s distressing and awful and upsetting. And it works very well. And good luck to him really. But here in my book, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it felt wrong. And I’ve had a really blessed life. But I’ve also had enough hurt and pain to know it’s real stuff. And it’s not to be toyed around with just because, “Hey, I’m going somewhere no one else has gone before.” No. You have to treat your own female characters with respect as a male writer. Why I’ll stop being afraid to show the moral hypocrisies going on and the way that these things are justified quite plausibly, quite kindly, by the men who are conducting this kind of farm — that I’m not afraid of at all. Why would I be? But the language that they use. Just like a term like “ethnic cleansing.” These soft little euphemisms when reality is too horrific to be true. What gives? What bends? There’s actually language used to describe it. And these euphemisms. Rendering. Waterboarding. They sound quite pleasant. They sound quite Beach Boy-esque, don’t they? Always watch out when you hear words like that. Because it means reality is too horrific for that spade to be called a spade. Now this kind of thing, I really have to explore in the book. And I do it. And that’s great. But the thing itself that is being euphemized about — this farming of newborn children for purposes I’m not going to talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it — it’s crucial that I don’t wobble my fingers in that gore in a sort of gratifying, self-regarding, “Look how brave I’m being” kind of a way.

Correspondent: I bring that up because it does resemble the farm that’s in the midsection of Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell: Yeah, it does. Doesn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that. So it does.

Correspondent: And you seem to be really concerned with the idea of slavery. Particularly in the first two parts of the book. And this is why I’m convinced that what we’re talking about here is an interesting fusion between these moral hypocrisies and, of course, the narrative steam engine. At the end, we’ve got the clearly influenced Patrick O’Brian. Which is great and all. But what I’m wondering is: Can you really pursue these dark and dangerous and really heavy topics that involve serious exploitation? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the slave chapter that was from the perspective of Weh. The only time the book slips into the first person. This is also interesting to this question. Can you really explore dark terrain like this and stop short of the mark? That’s the question. Is this something you’re still figuring out?

Mitchell: It is. And it’s an ongoing debate I have with myself. If you feel the book works, then I can and one can. If you feel the book doesn’t work, then perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t work is because it can’t be done. You do have to slip into — not sexual porn, but a kind of pornography of violence. Maybe you do. I can’t judge my own books. I’ve no idea if they work or not. I never do. Never do.

The Bat Segundo Show #350: David Mitchell III (Download MP3)

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BREAKING NEWS: Cloud Atlas Film Adaptation in the Works

In what may be one of the oddest cinematic adaptations of all time, First Showing’s Alex Billington reports that Run Lola Run/The International director Tom Tykwer is hard at work attempting to adapt David Mitchell’s imposing novel, Cloud Atlas, for the big screen. He has enlisted the Wachowski Brothers for help. While Mr. Billington seems to possess an unfamiliarity with Michell’s great novel, asking Tykwer “which of the six he would be focusing on” (which, uh, sort of defeats the purpose), what’s interesting here is that Tykwer, who has written all of the scripts for his films, is even trying to adapt what is possibly an unfilmable novel. Whether or not Tykwer has asked the Wachowski brothers to read several books before reading Mitchell’s novel and getting to work on the script remains unknown. (Hat tip: mdash)

The Bat Segundo Show #55: David Mitchell II, Part Two

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[NOTE: This is part two of a two-part podcast.]

Author: David Mitchell

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Miffed by a grand literary theft.

Subjects Discussed: The Simpsons, the ambiguity of Norman Bates, transcontinental reception, the unexpected reception of Black Swan Green, the Stranger review, Haruki Murakami, finding auctorial voice, the “fourth book” breakthrough, avoiding the pitfalls of commercial writing, laziness, stylistic restraints and imagination, politicians, flexible opinions, compartmentalizing narrative components, conclusions of novels, the perfect songs, the Beatles, information on the fifth novel and the kind of book Mitchell is shooting for.

[LISTENER’S NOTE: There is a NASA beep that somehow made its way into this podcast. Don’t be alarmed. I will remove it later.]

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The Bat Segundo Show #54: David Mitchell II, Part One

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[NOTE: This is part one of a two-part podcast.]

Author: David Mitchell

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Responding to the crazed accusations of a major film director.

Subjects Discussed: The similarities between Jason Taylor and David Mitchell, idiosynchratic vernacular, first-person vs. third-person voice, index cards, how Granta unexpectedly kicked off Black Swan Green, the correct pronounciation of Nabokov, the difference between sandwiches in the US and the UK, the use of 1980s technology in writing, the Falkland Islands, on selecting cultural references from 1982, Friendster, the regulation of UK schools over the past thirty years, the use of visual elements in BSG, authenticity, money and Thatcher’s England, MacGuffins in novels and life, being nice to horrid people, the Julia principle, the politics of language, hip-hop culture, the threat of conformity vs. Jason Taylor’s resilience, shaking off the Murakami yoke, the Ed Park review, on using characters from other books, and naming the headmaster Nixon, and character names that “stick on the eyeball.”

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Birnbaum vs. Mitchell

Robert Birnbaum talks with David Mitchell and it looks like he may have discovered Amoeba when he came through San Francisco: “There is a wonderful music store in San Francisco, vast warehouses like Borgesian universes of CDs—I forget the name.”

[UPDATE: Jenny D quibbles with Mitchell’s assertion that “all novels are actually compounded short stories” and goes on to suggest that Mitchell’s humor is a bit lacking. I agree with Jenny on the first point, but I think Mitchell was attempting to aver his own influences. Certainly, every single one of Mitchell’s novels represents an interconnected series of stories and perhaps this narrative approach is how he views fiction. As for Mitchell having no sense of humor, I will eventually offer first-hand evidence that he does indeed have a sense of humor, particularly regarding oddly formed sentences involving sandwiches. Stay tuned. The podcast is up the pipeline.]

Contrarian for Contrarian’s Sake

Paul Constant, writing in The Stranger, serves up a contrarian review of Black Swan Green: “Black Swan Green could prove to be Mitchell’s most acclaimed novel yet, although it’s clearly his worst. There is almost nothing exceptional left to be written about children. It’s all been said before….”

Really? So I guess anyone writing about kids should just throw in the towel then. Because children, just like adults, have no complexity whatsoever. Children are mere amoebas, easily programmable and readable by the adult units, often skirting the edge of the ocean floor.

Constant complains that one of Jason’s sentiments about the Falkland Islands “rings false,” but never explains exactly why. He complains that cultural references get “name-checked,” as if Mitchell has written an encyclopedia book instead of a novel. But if one is writing about an adolescent in the early 1980s, does not a reference to one of the hottest video games of that era (Space Invaders) make sense?

I’m all for contrarian criticism. Even though I’m a Mitchell fan, I actually think Black Swan Green has been just a tad overpraised myself. But if unsubstantiated bile like this is the order of the day, how then can an array of variegated opinions be established?

All Mitchell, All the Time

The last time David Mitchell came out with a novel, we were mentioning something about almost every breath. Well, let it be known that we’re going to be doing the same damn thing with Black Swan Green. To get you folks started, here is some coverage of Black Swan Green.

Also, keep your ears out for a future Bat Segundo Show (among many) with a brand new interview with David Mitchell himself. Yes, the man who inspired the podcast will be returning. And this time, we’ll be chatting with him in person. (Plus, we’ll be less nervous this time.) More news to follow.

New Odds on Mitchell

Black Swan Green passes the Laura Miller Test, which means that the going odds for the Review That Will Take a Hatchet to Mitchell’s New Direction have dramatically shifted. Here’s the going figures.

New York Press: 3 to 1. The 50 Loathsome New Yorkers article wasn’t received too well. So my guess is the Press will be the first, if only to prove that their hearts beat of anthracite and that they still read books.

New York Times Book Review: 4 to 1. It’s been a while since Tanenhaus commissioned a hatchet job. And my guess is he’s struck a deal with Leon “Assman” Wieseltier to show no pity.

New York Magazine: 7 to 1. With recent reviews comparing Edmund White’s sex life to Erica Jong’s, you can almost smell the superficial takedown in the air. Although I think that Mitchell’s more inclined to get the respect he deserves from Boris Kachka..

Slate: 10 to 1. Unless Blake Bailey writes the review, I can see Slate, now struggling for viability, greatly misunderstanding the book.

The Village Voice: 25 to 1. A long shot, but don’t underestimate the semi-snark surprise factor here.

Please place your bets in the next week. The house closes on Friday at 5:00 PM PDT.

Black Swan Green Discussion #4

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Megan and I conclude our Black Swan Green discussion. Previous discussion: Installments #1, #2 and #3.]

We’re in the middle of a blizzard here in the Northeast and I’m taking a break from shoveling the sidewalk. The snow has been falling steadily for most of the day. It’s beautiful and unusually quiet outside.

I suppose the first thing to address is whether we are giving Mitchell a free pass or not. I think you’re correct when you say that our admiration for him prevents us from addressing his flaws. Is it possible to truly and objectively critique an author whose previous works I’ve adored? Is this our fault or is it his fault that this new book seems jarring to us since its form is so different? You mention several times that one of the things you enjoy most about Mitchell is his inventiveness and playfulness and that you feel like BSG lacks some of those elements.

I went back and reread portions just to see what I felt a second time around. I don’t want to admit it, but I think this novel is less successful than Cloud Atlas, which brings me to the point of why he wrote BSG in the first place? He’s changing horses midstream. Why change from what’s been so successful for him?

I also wanted to get your opinion on the graphical elements of the book. Throughout the book, Mitchell includes notes and ephemera to try and enhance the story possibly. I myself found them unnecessary and distracting. What about you Ed?

I must get back to my Sisyphean shoveling. I know by the time I leave for work tomorrow all of my hard work will be undone. That’s the Northeast for you.

By the way, did you chat up the intense gentleman in the green Army-Navy surplus jacket? What’s his story?

Ball’s in Your Court Now,

Best Regards,
Megan

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I never got around to answering Megan’s email. So I’ll simply respond here to wrap up this conversation.]

Megan:

Well, it’s a few months later and I’ve finally posted the conversation. I had considered halting the conversation and leaving your questions to linger. But I can’t quite do that, because you raise some very good points.

I disagree with the idea that an author shouldn’t change horses midstream or that he should stick with a formula that works. However, there are certain imprints and qualities to an author’s voice that I think are ineluctable. Part of the difficulty of critically gauging this book, to which I have had a rather interesting set of varying reactions, is trying to contextualize Mitchell’s sense of this fantastic (his playfulness, natch) with this new fundamental pursuit of the real. I didn’t really get into this in my last email to you, but I’m thinking that Mitchell is quite adept in BSG with not only finding the fantastic in the ordinary, but also providing language that fits the bill to boot.

One thing we really didn’t get into: Mitchell as a literary impressionist. In terms of discussing Mitchell as an author, we forget that he often adopts styles, voices and techniques that are certainly rewarding in their own right. But this novel is the first book we’ve seen that is the pure David Mitchell voice. Unadorned, no tricksies. It’s as if Robert Coover suddenly stunned the world with a very personal memoir or John Barth wrote a book without a single reference to Schaharazade.

Do you think that we may have unraveled a certain prejudice within literary fiction here, Megan? And do you think this might explain our bemusement? Could it be that a literary author is disallowed from pursuing a personal novel like BSG because resorting to life experience is considered “too easy” or beneath him? Think of the hell that Jonathan Lethem got for The Disappointment Artist. Also consider how merciless people were with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which featured a nine year old inventor as a protagonist. This is why I suspect a few critics are going to really have it in for Mitchell with this one. He’s “debased” himself by writing about his own experience, an emotional territory he knows quite well, instead of abiding by the “clever” hard line. (Imagine if Pynchon suddenly came out with a lean and austere book about adolescent angst. I think it would baffle the living shit out of people. They wouldn’t know how to react. Because they’ve almost been preprogrammed to accept a difficult text loaded with fun puns and esoteric references.)

So the fault, I would suggest, is both ours and the literary climate’s. None of this, of course, takes away from my criticisms of the book. I still think it’s the right direction for Mitchell and that he’ll certainly improve. And as I understand from a contact who shall remain unnamed, Mitchell, apparently, has been writing up a storm. There are at least two books in the works after Black Swan Green. I’m pretty confident that he’ll find his own way to negotiate the happy medium between the fantastic and the real, between playfulness and straightforward storytelling.

As for the gentleman in the Army-Navy surplus jacket, the minute I looked up from my laptop and smiled at him, he actually got up from his table and left the cafe! So your guess is as good as mine. Did he work for the CIA? Was he my guardian angel? Was he a member of the Haight Street underworld checking up on a regular customer of Rockin’ Java. You tell me.

Thanks again for participating on this. It was a pleasure chatting with you, Megan! And I look forward to seeing you again at BEA.

All best,

Ed

Roundup

  • This may very well be a first. Dan Wickett has launched an Emerging Writers Network Short Fiction Contest, in which he’ll be reading all of the short stories and passing 20 finalists on to Charles D’Ambrosio. Talk about using the Internet for an innovative purpose. The prize is $500. And the rules seem more ethical than most literary fiction contests I’ve seen.
  • Robert Birnbaum talks with Alberto Manguel. Borges fans should check it out.
  • The Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship has been announced. (Thanks, Tayari)
  • Wordstock, which has no relation to a flighty yellow bird or flighty hippies, is happening on April 21-23, 2006 in Portland. Word on the street is that Chuck Barris may challenge Dave Eggers to a fistfight, with Ira Glass as referee.
  • And speaking of literary festivals, Frances digs up this Leah Garchik item: “Books by the Bay, the 10-year-old Yerba Buena Gardens book festival sponsored by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, is kaput. The association’s Hut Landon said the festival, featuring author talks, panel discussions and displays by various vendors and publishers, had cost $20,000, and organizers felt it didn’t get enough attention to warrant the expense.” Frances opines that if Debi Echlin were still around, the NCIBA would have figured out a way to make up the shortfall. I’m inclined to agree. Last year’s Books by the Bay (interested parties can find my report here) happened to take place on a beautiful and sunny day, but I don’t recall seeing flyers or posters, much less heavy promotion, in indie bookstores to get people there. If there was any lack of attendance, I blame the NCIBA for failing to get the word out. It’s almost as if the organizers wanted Books by the Bay to die. I think enough individual donors or even a few more sponsors could have picked up the slack. I’ll be very sorry to see Books by the Bay go, but hopefully Litquake will be able to pick up the slack.
  • Over at Mark’s, a number of the smart and lovely women contributing to the forthcoming anthology, The May Queen, are guest blogging. A substantial chunk of the contributors are going to be at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place on April 3. I’m almost finished with the book and I’ll express my thoughts (less rushed this time) in a future 75 Books post.
  • Laird Hunt on “Nonrealist Fiction.”
  • The Morning News Tournament of Books continues, although Kate Schlegel is out of her mind to say no to Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.
  • The Rake faces a dynastic contretemps just before his 30th birthday.
  • A.S. Byatt: “I shall never write an autobiography. The fairy stories are the closest I shall ever come to writing about true events in my life.”
  • More patriarchal bullshit: “the indispensible literary spouse.”
  • “The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson.” (via Maud, who I understand has a Thomson interview of her own coming soon)
  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Black Swan Green: “Most recent bildungsromans stock tinseled epiphanies and fresh-baked-bread redemptions. Though they’re ostensibly about the character coming of age, the bad examples tend to be about coming-of-age itself. But Mitchell has refused the scaffolding on which he might hang a climax. By allowing Jason the stumbling progress of a novel in stories, Mitchell has given him an actual youth, not one smoothly engineered in retrospect.”

Black Swan Green Discussion #3

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The discussion with Megan continues. Previous installments: #1 and #2.]

Megan:

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?

Your serve.

All best,

Ed

Gray Lady Turns Yellow?

I’m not sure if I buy the logic in this New York Times article about paperback originals:

Ms. von Mehren, the publisher, said that following the article in the Book Review, Mr. Mitchell’s novel sold “10 to 20 times better than he ever had here. It really reignited his career.” Next month, Random House will publish Mr. Mitchell’s next novel, “Black Swan Green.” In hardcover.

Au contraire, Ms. von Mehren. A quick look at certain dates will deflate this mistaken hypothesis. A moment, if you will, as we dig up the history:

August 29, 2004: Tom Bissell, a perfectly fine critic, reviews Cloud Atlas for the NYTBR.

August 17, 2004: Random House releases paperback original of Cloud Atlas to bookstores.

Now I’m no marketing expert. But it seems to me that 12 days is enough time for the most feverish literary folks to read Cloud Atlas in whole and then tell their friends and loved ones, “Holy shit! You have to check out this David Mitchell guy. This is the best damn literary fiction I’ve read in years,” which then inspires these folks to do the same.

But more importantly, there is the history, which indicates (in about five minutes of Googling):

Early 2004: Some guy named Edward Champion manages to get his hands on the UK hardcover and says “David Mitchell” in nearly every sentence he writes and speaks. Others soon follow.

August 17, 2004: Village Voice reviews book.

August 22, 2004: David Mitchell interviewed by Washington Post, as well as Cloud Atlas reviewed. He is also reviewed by St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

August 27, 2004: Cloud Atlas anounced as part of Booker longlist for 2005. Cloud Atlas is reviewed by Boston Phoenix.

October 2004: David Mitchell appears in many U.S. bookstores. He is interviewed by a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

October 10, 2004: Cloud Atlas reviewed by San Francisco Chronicle.

In other words, not only did Cloud Atlas get a hell of a lot of publicity from multiple outlets, but there were many reviews other than the NYTBR reviewing it. I also think Random House was smart in getting Mitchell into the States in October to revive interest in it — in the event that some folks hadn’t heard of it already or the attention had flagged.

So for the Times to take exclusive credit (as much as I’ve mentioned Mitchell over the years, I certainly wouldn’t) for Cloud Atlas‘ success is not only laughable in the extreme, but highly irresponsible. Could it be that this is an in-house effort on the part of the Times to prop up their decaying Sunday literary offering? What can we expect next from the Gray Lady? A Sam Tanenhaus centerfold in next week’s New York Times Magazine? Propaganda isn’t working for the Bush Administration and it certainly won’t work for the NYTBR.

Black Swan Green Discussion #2

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This continues the discussion between Megan Sullivan and me. The first installment can be found here. I have tagged potential spoilers in white, but you should be able to follow the discussion.]

Hello Ed,

Yes, it’s cold here, but at least the sun is shining, melting the several inches of snow that fell on Sunday evening. I’ve been thinking long and hard about Black Swan Green and am finally ready to respond to your email.

I kept waiting for something Mitchell-esque to happen while reading BSG — and it didn’t. I was surprised at first, but then grew to appreciate his new, more subtle writing. I think he was subtly trying to play with the form of the book again. This book follows the traditional Bildungsroman form. You could say that his stutter and his poetic aspiration sets him apart from his family and peers and starts his journey towards adulthood. Perhaps I am over analyzing. As for the mysterious phone calls, I thought Jason’s dad had a girlfriend, who kept calling. Julia also mentions picking up the phone to silence, so I chalked it up to another woman.

I found reading this book very painful indeed. Granted I’ve never been a teenage boy, but I thought Mitchell wrote admirably in that spirit. With regards to Jason’s parents’ deteriorating relationship, I thought Mitchell captured how it feels when your parents fight, that angsty feeling of wanting to intervene, but at the same time, wanting to run and hide. The only unrealistic part I felt, was the end, where Jason comes to terms with his parents’ split. People handle things differently, sure, but Jason seemed a little too adult about it. What do I know about the adolescent boy’s mind though?

I enjoyed the “Relatives” chapter, when Jason’s aunt, uncle, and cousins visit. The observations on adult behavior is sharp, particularly with his uncle’s bombastic behavior. And I loved how he wanted to impress his cousin Hugo, but at the same time grew uncomfortable when Hugo steals the cigarettes and candy at the store. I think he realizes his cousin’s a prat, but he’s still cool and that’s what Jason wants.

I didn’t mind the connection between Frobisher from Cloud Atlas and Madame Crommelynck in BSG. I didn’t find the connection relevant to Madame C’s character in the “Solarium” chapter. This was one of my favorite pieces by the way. I loved how she forced Jason to explain the subtleties of being a teenager, such as when she pries the name Dawn Madden out of him and suggests he write her a poem. I loved the way Mitchell had her speak — I can hear the accent and picture her with her purple shawl and large jewelry. His disappoint when he arrives for a lesson and she’s been forced to leave is palpable.

The biggest disappointment for me was the ending or last tale. All of a sudden, Jason seems wise and grown up. It’s all a little too pat for me. His parents have split apart, he’s moving to a new town, his dad’s got a new girlfriend, even Philip Phelps has broken with Grant Burch. What ‘s your take on the end of the book, Ed?

Overall I’d say that I enjoyed this book, though it’s not without its flaws. I read it the same way you did, Ed, in sips rather than in one big gulp. Like any story collection, BSG has its strong points and weak points. I find it admirable that Mitchell wants to break free of the role he’s created for himself (with the help of critics of course). I think people will either pan the book because it’s not perfect enough or for veering away from his previous style. I also think that whatever he wrote after Cloud Atlas would have to stand up to a great deal of criticism. But like you, I’ll still read anything he produces.

Back to you,

Regards,
Megan

Black Swan Green Discussion #1

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few weeks ago, the absolutely delightful Megan Sullivan and I emailed each other about David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel, Black Swan Green. What follows is the first of four exchanges between us that I’ll be posting in installments.]

Megan:

Okay, it’s a somewhat chilly California morning (lukewarm by East Coast standards), but I’m drinking my first cuppa coffee and I’m ready to boogie. Now’s as good a time as any to begin our email volley about David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.

What are your thoughts? My immediate hunch here is that this is definitely the right step forward for Mitchell, an effort to finally shake off the Murakami yoke and write something straightforward on his own terms. Indeed, this is the most plotless book than Mitchell has written — even more divagating than Number9Dream. (Part of me wonders if we can begin applying an every other novel rule for Mitchell. Much like Richard Powers writes personal-political-personal, will we see Mitchell writing plot-heavy/character-heavy/plot-heavy?) I particularly liked how you could see Mitchell trying to resist resorting to playful prose. A sentence like, “Bluebells swarmed in pools of light where the sun got through the trees” is exactly the kind of awkward phrasing a thirteen year old would say, and I can imagine Mitchell pulling his hair out, forcing himself to keep things a little unclean. (I really liked all the interesting contractions and the “me and Morans” throughout the book.) I think he’s done a brave thing here by confining his perspective to a thirteen year old’s. And it doesn’t seem to be an accident that the protagonist (Jason Taylor) shares a similar-sounding four-syllable name to David Mitchell, and, like Mitchell, has a speech impediment. (And as I learned from monologist Kurt Fitzpatrick, a very nice guy I met while handing out flyers for my Fringe show a few years ago and who was in town performing a one-man show about speech therapy, this is really an underreported problem.)

I felt very much like I was reading a naked David Mitchell and it was an extremely fascinating experience. No tight herringbone plot pattern, no stylistic hijinks, no intricate structure at all. At times, it felt somewhat liberating to be reading this without a guide. But in other ways, it felt disconcerting and particularly frustrating, such as the mysterious phone calls near the beginning, which didn’t really pay off at all.

The book really worked for me when Mitchell’s inherent sweetness came to the surface. I know that we’ve all been discussing this issue of how one can be sincere in an age of irony and how there seems to be a stigma against it. So Mitchell’s sincerity is no small task. Mitchell’s tone here is the kind of rich positive voice that, to me at least, doesn’t seem phony, in large part because Mitchell doesn’t shy away from the pain of adolescence. (That one chapter where Jason is ridiculed all day, complete with the hardass gym teacher, brings back some really unpleasant memories.) I particularly enjoyed the dart game, the episode with Dawn Madden, and the way that the marriage between his mother and father gradually falls apart, complete with the whole garden and finances argument. On the latter point, Mitchell does a very nice job of keeping it in the distance, with Jason almost covering his eyes about it in relaying his story.

But I didn’t really buy the Falkland Islands tie-in, which is when I felt that things started to fall apart. Or perhaps lacking an island motif this time around, Mitchell needed to throw SOME kind of island in there. It was almost as if Mitchell, in deliberately writing against his instincts, didn’t entirely trust himself and felt the need to throw in a substantial current events angle. The Mr. Nixon announcement struck me as unremittingly treacly, even by Mitchell standards. And I felt the Frobisher love child tie-in to Cloud Atlas was too much of a character stunt — again, a case of Mitchell unable to say no. In fact, there seemed moments in the book, where Mitchell almost wanted to sabotage his own progress and draw attention to the fact that he was trying something different, such as that notebook sample at the beginning of the “Goose Fair” chapter. And I was saying to myself, “David! Fuck! Don’t do that! Don’t spoil the illusion! Have faith in yourself as a writer! You were doing so well!”

The other criticism I have, and this brings up something that Scott was good enough to challenge me on in person, is whether any of what’s expressed in this book actually expands our understanding of what it’s like to grow up. Are Mitchell’s observations here original or too rote? In conveying to us such common behaviors as being a nervous 13 year old asking girls to dance in a disco or getting crazy about 1980s cultural obsessions, is Mitchell evolving the adolescent novel or playing to much to the form? The Mitchell fan in me is willing to let him slide a bit on this, because of the stylistic progress he’s made. But in entirely extirpating his usual heavy plotting, I felt that Mitchell may have unintentionally exposed one of his weaknesses: a slight diffidence in pursuing the truth. Such stock characters as Norman Bates the bus driver (who reminded me very much of Moe the driver on The Simpsons) didn’t help things here.

The other thing: I was completely fascinated by Jason’s sister, Julia, but I was a bit disappointed that, after such an initially strong presence, for the most part, she disappeared. This was, I think, one of the most potentially distinct elements to the book. The relationship between Jason and Julia, with its ironies and contrasting elements, was one of the most real parts of the book to me, and yet I was sad to see it largely unpursued. What did you think of this?

Don’t get me wrong, Megan. I didn’t hate this book. Although I should note that the novel’s vignette structure had me reading it in spurts rather than in one go. There were sections of it that I greatly enjoyed and, again, it was fascinating to see Mitchell doing his damnedest to break out of the box. But I felt that Mitchell didn’t really push himself as hard as he could have. It was almost as if the damaged Omega watch that Jason was terrified of revealing to his parents was actually the daring novel that Mitchell was terrified of revealing to the public. Of course, what author wouldn’t be self-conscious after the considerable media attention given to Cloud Atlas? But you have to give Mitchell props for turning out an ambitious if flawed novel in spite of all this. I’m truly wondering, however, if the critics are going to throw him to the wolves because he’s dared to be gentle here.

None of my criticisms, of course, prevents me from reading everything that Mitchell turns out. He still remains a solid writer and a very fascinating stylist and a far greater risk-taker than, say, David Foster Wallace.

Okay, your turn!

All best,

Ed

Roundup/Update

  • Podbop: Enter your city and listen to MP3 snippets of bands touring in your town this week. (via Irregardless)
  • C. Max Magee, having now shifted to a more RSS-friendly home, offers a thoughtful take on the future of the book and gets a surprise response from George Saunders.
  • Robert “Prolfiic Is My Temperament, Prolific Is My Interviewing” Birnbaum talks with Andrew Delbanco.
  • Well, I guess Jessa Crispin hates such “desperate” works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.e. cummings’ No Thanks, Lord Byron’s early poems, Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Waltman’s Leaves of Grass, Thoreau’s Walden, Virginia Woolf’s early novels, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which was initially self-published).
  • Haven’t forgotten about the Black Swan Green discussion with Megan. It’s coming. The ball’s in my court. But there are many things currently going on. Hopefully, we’ll get up the copious correspondence next week.
  • I have a little under ten books to log for the 75 Book Challenge, including my long and long-delayed thoughts on Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Again, spare moments, hopefully soon.
  • Segundo: Three podcasts to finalize, some very special authors (including one HUGE surprise!) coming in the upcoming weeks, including Jonathan Ames, who also got a chance to talk with Pinky’s Paperhaus when rolling through Los Angeles.
  • Nor have I forgotten about the Naughty Reading Photo Contest. I apologize to all the entrants for the delay.
  • Do you have any more coffee?

75 Books, Book #4

You may be shocked to hear this, but I didn’t do a lot of reading over the three-day weekend.  Book #4 was David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.  I’ll withhold my opinion until I get a chance to take this up with Megan.  Needless to say, my reaction is extremely complicated and requires a good deal of thought.  I read this book very slowly for a reason.  I’ll only say that I think this novel was definitely the right step forward for Mitchell.  But it’s an ambitious attempt that’s definitely going to split readers.  I think we’re going to see the same heated and divisive reactions that we saw with Ian McEwan’s Saturday.  More to follow.

The Chair Update

We are pleased to report that the chair that was wounded during the course of engineering The Bat Segundo Show #16 has been replaced. (We had sentimental attachments for that chair, but it had a solid six year run and it was probably due for a replacement anyway.) The new chair is a large and quite comfy leather chair that we almost fell asleep on yesterday evening. Further, this chair has a five year warranty and reliable casters to boot. In short, the upshot here is that the chair’s comfort and durability (to say nothing of its easy assembly) will likely fuel us for quite some time. (To give you a sense of how nifty this chair is, when you stand up, the cushion emits a noticable whoosh, as if to suggest that it’s had your bottom’s interest at heart all along. How many chairs have the courtesy to do that?) So expect a new Segundo podcast (or two) in the week. We assure you that these are some pretty exciting interviews. Also, Mr. Segundo has been located and he will explain his disappearance in Segundo #17.

Further, we cannot say enough good things about Rupert Thompson’s Divided Thompson, which kept us up until 3:30 AM the other night. While we’re not yet finished with it (though close!), we’re thinking that it might have made our Top 10 List had we read it earlier in the year. If you like your dystopian spec-fic novels sprinkled with goofball humor (we’re talking surfing and pole vaulting, peeps!) and a strange obsession with curlicue imagery, then we whole-heartedly recommend it.

We’ve also dug our claws into Black Swan Green and will have some things to say about that in the emerging week (though, to be perfectly clear, not a review!). Our immediate impression is that this so-called “departure” is probably the right thing for our man, David Mitchell, although we’ll say more once we’ve reached the apex.

Black Swan Green

At the risk of coming across as feverish Harry Knowles types, we have in our hands the galley of David Mitchell’s next novel, Black Swan Green. We cannot confess how we got our hands on this, as several extremely nice people may be incriminated. But we will be taking a spin with Mitchell’s latest opus over the holidays and will attempt to report what we can as soon as we can.

David Mitchell — Red Alert

There are now galleys of itit being David Mitchell’s new novel.

Since we’re repeatedly on record her as being major David Mitchell fans, since a character devised by Mr. Mitchell did, in fact, inspire our podcast, we’re wondering who we have to blow to get a copy of this.

Mitchell’s next novel is Black Swan Green. It reportedly tells the tale of a 13 year old English boy in 1982. In this interview, we have this information:

In one of the 13 chapters of ‘Black Swan Green’, a major character is a woman in her sixties called Eva van Outryve de Crommmelynck, now an old lady. She’s the daughter of Madam Crommmelynck, wife of Vyvyan Ayrs, who the composer Robert Frobisher, went to stay with in ‘Cloud Atlas’.

In the same section, there’s a very minor character, called Gwendolin Bendincks, who appears in the old folks home in the Timothy Cavendish section, about fifteen, twenty years before Timothy Cavendish meets her. She’s a waspish vicars’ wife in Black Swan Green.

So we have some carryover from Cloud Atlas. Black Swan Green will be composed of 13 chapters, one for each month. The Falklands war factors in. Interestingly enough, each chapter is a short story that Mitchell tried to write independently. In the selfsame interview, the very humble Mitchell remarks that it’s the best thing he’s written.

Some more info on Black Swan Green can be found here from the Oxford Literary Festival, where Mitchell is described as reading two segments from the book for the first time. One was a sex scene and Mitchell, in fact, got a bit embarassed when reading it. But he also asked the audience which version of a sentence they preferred during this reading.

Needless to say, we’re having someone hose us down with cold water tonight.

On the Rebound

Perhaps consulting the will of Dr. Evil, Susanna Clarke has netted a millionaire’s deal for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an 800-page novel dealing with the last two magicians in England. Fortunately, Clarke has staved off Harry Potter ripoff claims. Because Clarke conveniently started her book “10 years before.” News of the Clarke deal has spread far and wide across the publishing industry, with agents encouraging novelists to “backdate their drafts” for anything remotely derivative.

Is David Mitchell’s Ireland’s answer to Pynchon? The Telegraph tries to find out (user: ed@edrants.com, pw: mabuse). Mitchell is one of Granta’s 20 Best Young UK Novelists. And Sam Leith believes that Mitchell’s latest, The Cloud Atlas, will be one of the highest praised books of the year.

Judith Jones will fuck your shit up. Not only has she given John Updike at least three black eyes, but she’s also lacerated Anne Tyler several times while editing her novels. However, the Baltimore Sun concludes that Jones is an editor who balances gentleness with harsh intervention, when necessary.

Borders is tapping into inner-city neighborhoods. The Times claims that recent stores built in Detroit and Chicago are for “underserved” neighborhoods. The Detroit Free Press suggests that there’s plenty of indepdent life still left. The Detroit store was built in a downtown section that once housed sizable retail. And at 8,000 square feet, it’s apparently “the biggest store since Hudson’s closed 20 years ago.” Borders claims the Chicago store in Uptown is an effort to “revitalize” a commercial district, but it looks like gentrification to me.

Salon has a mystery round-up, which should please Sarah.

Meghan O’Rourke claims that Naomi Wolf is setting the fight against harassment back. More from the Observer.

Sean “Puffy” Combs and Raisin in the Sun? Say it ain’t so.

Chick lit, lad lit, and now Can lit. But in this case, it looks like David Solway may be Canda’s answer to Dale Peck.