David Mitchell: Complacent? And does anyone care?

Dueling mini-reviews of Cloud Atlas (courtesy of Kevin Wignall and Ed) pulled from Tingle Alley’s backblog:

KW: David Mitchell is, I’m told, a lovely person, but he represents everything I detest in fiction. I’ve tried to read both Number 9 Dream and Cloud Atlas and found both of them messy, too in love with themselves, and wilfully complacent about the need to tell a story in a compelling way. I’d be happy for Ed to try and put me straight – I remain open-minded – but if the argument is, “sometimes you have to work hard to appreciate a great work of art”, I’m sorry, it doesn’t wash. I’ve said the same about David Peace. The difficulty of a story should be in the content, not in the telling. We are in the business of entertaining people, and any writer who forgets that, no matter what the subject matter, deserves not to be read.

EC: It may be a difference of sensibilities. Even so, “Cloud Atlas” is such a rich, goofy, operatic and downright kickass work that hits so many fantastic tones (satire, pathos, pulp, nostalgia, concern for humanity, futuristic argot, surrealism, light pomo) that I just can’t see why anyone looking for a bracing literary ride wouldn’t love it. It does require a dictionary. It does require looking up arcane references. And, yes, it’s a showboat. But the plots are so entertaining, the prose so invigorating, and the five puzzling plots much fun to pick through (although admittedly the book loses steam near the end) that why would anyone possibly care? Hell, you could argue that Faulkner, Joyce, Gaddis, Barth or Pynchon are “complacent” to some extent. But then, for me, plunging into arcana is what makes literature worthwhile.

I know where I stand on this one, but what say you, EdHeads and David Mitchell fans/detractors? Is Mitchell generally making his readers work too hard or is this just a case of to-ma-to/to-mah-to?

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  1. I agree with Ed – no, not in general – but about it being a matter of taste. Anyone familiar with my books will know that I work at the opposite end of the spectrum – I don’t sacrifice complexity or important themes, but I consider it crucial that I never compromise narrative drive. There’s a purity to storytelling and I feel that authors like DM lose it in their desire to challenge the reader. What’s more I think you can challenge the reader in other ways. If you want literature as crossword puzzle, then I’m happy to accept there’s a place for books like Cloud Atlas.

  2. I see what you’re saying, Kevin, most definitely. And having not yet read Cloud Atlas I’m unable to enter into this discussion as well-informed as I would like to be. But I’m interested simply in the sense of the old schism of, how hard should writers make it for their readers?

    And I think what has to be allowed for is that for some readers the verbal hijinks, the puzzling, is as much a part of the entertainment as the plot.

    I was thinking of this the other day as I was reading London Fields by Martin Amis, and right off the bat, on page 1, he has a line “I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed.” And the foil/fool/foal thing pleased me so much — I felt braced and, this is hard to describe, more wide awake than normal. For me, word play like that is so pleasing — and yet I’ve loved so many books (Ada and Pale Fire spring to mind) that work in this way, books that I’ve been absolutely wild about, then passed on to smart friends who were left stone cold, that it’s slowly dawned on me that what wakes me up, is for other people tedious and tiresome.

    And then going over to The Rake’s take on DFW over at The Reading Experience, he quotes an interview with DFW in which Wallace talks about how textual play can actually becoe a form of aggression toward the reader. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something to the effect of how the author (the example was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho) may be in fact using these devices to be quite hostile to the reader, to bludgeon them with the play.

    So there’s that: Is the prose invigorating or is it bludgeoning?

    I’m trying to think of some other bludgeoning books.

  3. DFW seems to think that it’s OK to quote/unquote “bludgeon” (he’d probably prefer one to say “challenge” or some such) the reader so long as you reward her with something for the trouble–Ellis’s American Psycho, in his opinion, was simply punishing. From the Dalkey interview:

    “What’s precious about somebody like Bill Vollmann is that, even though there’s a great deal of formal innovation in his fictions, it rarely seems to exist for just its own sake. It’s almost always deployed to make some point (Vollmann’s the most editorial young novelist going right now, and he’s great at using formal ingenuity to make the editorializing a component of his narrative instead of an interruption) or to create an effect that’s internal to the text. His narrator’s always weirdly effaced, the writing unself-conscious, despite all the “By-the-way-Dear-reader” intrusions. In a way it’s sad that Vollmann’s integrity is so remarkable. Its remarkability means it’s rare.”

    If you go too far the other way (DFW sez), you end up with television, where shows exist for the sole purpose of being liked and enamoring the viewer with the medium (i.e., Watching).

    It seems obvious that each reader is going to draw his own line w/r/t how much challenge is worth it. (I most recently drew the line with Joseph McElroy, for example.)

    Still, Cloud Atlas seems to me an odd choice as the exemplar of “bludgeoning” fiction. Mitchell took great care (I thought) in constructing interesting narratives–so much so that whatever game-playing and structural wizardry he also wrote in seemed very integrated and relatively easy to negiotiate. CA isn’t a potboiler (although there is a short potboiler folded in), but then again it seems more about story than trickery, or at least as much. (I also figure that I’m not going to catch most of a book’s complexity the first time around–hence, I’ve read Crying of Lot 49 3 times and counting, and I’m still saying “Aha!”)

    But I haven’t read Mitchell’s two other novels–what are they like?

  4. Mmm, can’t we go back to bludgeoning books? I haven’t read any Mitchell. Also, I was taken with DFW’s idea that a writer might act aggressively, hostilely toward a reader. Because it struck me as true, and yet it never occured to me: I’ve noticed writers showing off for their readers, or trying too hard in some other way, but never thought that they might be acting out passive-aggressive relationship techniques on me.

    Rake, did you experience Joseph McElroy as bludgeoning? Or did he stop you for some other reason?

  5. Yeah, sure. Consider DM a mere spring board. Here’s another quote from that DFW interview (Print: “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1993, Volume 13.2; Web: http://www.centerforbookculture.org/interviews/interview_wallace.html) to chew on:

    “…an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There’s some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to fuck-up-on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there’s an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art. I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being ‘liked,’ so that her true end isn’t in the work but in a certain audience’s good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It’s the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: ‘I don’t really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbitrator of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it.'”

    Re: McElroy. I picked up The Letter Left To Me as an introduction to JE, figuring a short novel is a good place to start. After twenty pages of seemingly straightforward prose, I felt like I was running underwater while being beaten about the head & neck. I tried again: same result. Something about his sentences twists me up in unpleasant knots. I’m ready to accept this as my problem, not his, however.

  6. True, Cloud Atlas isn’t the most obvious candidate (try David Peace’s GB84) but it was the one before me at the time. I also have to say that from what I’ve heard about David Mitchell (we used to share a publisher), he is genuine in what he’s attempting to do.
    Here it is though. On the first page of number9dream, there’s a line about someone emptying one of those little cartons of cream into a cup of coffee. It describes the cream as spinning into a galaxy of droplets or something along those lines. A very clever image. But is that all it is? Does it help us to visualize the scene, or tell us something about it? Does it tell us about the way the character relates to the universe? I don’t think so. What it tells us is that David Mitchell is a clever individual who can produce attractive similes and metaphors. For me, that isn’t enough. And for me, that small example, but writ large, is the problem I have with his work.
    There used to be a belief that if a Gentleman’s attire was noticed at all, then he’d rather overdone it. That’s how I feel about fiction. I don’t want you to notice how clever my writing is, I want you to be moved by the story, to be left dwelling upon it, and for the duration of the reading, I want you to forget that it had an author at all.
    And having said all that, I will give DM another shot, perhaps with Ghostwritten. Each to his own.

  7. Not much time to weigh in here, but:

    “A galaxy of cream unribbons in my coffee cup, and the background chatter pulls into focus.”

    It’s a quick and lyrical way of dwelling upon the distraction of the cream (or the static on the television, or a flickering advertisement, or any number of stupid things that unseat our foci) that we all face before going into a meeting, or progressing forward with life. Mitchell’s implying that there are literally a galaxy of possible distractions that can derail us at any given moment. It’s one sentence that gets into the sensory trappings of the character (or consciousness) and is immediately followed up with a plot-related sentence (“My very first morning in Tokyo, and already I am getting ahead of myself.”) But since it takes very little away from the action, what precisely is wrong with this modest literary embellishment?

    From my perspective, I can immediately relate to that moment and can get a sense of a drifting quality in the protagonist. (Will it play out later?)

    It seems to me, Kevin, that you are advocating a brisk cut-to-the-bone form of novel, possibly a novel as entertainment, where not even consciousness, or the very rhythm of life, is allowed to flourish. If this is indeed the case, I ask you what your novelistic templates are and just how much “literary embellishment” you’re willing to take? I’m genuinely quite curious. Also, what are your thoughts on Ian McEwan (notorious for whittling his plots down to the bone and another of my favorites)?

  8. Hmm, I really do say to-mah-to, and I quite agree that beyond my personal taste, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with DM’s work.
    It’s not a question of advocating – what I practise is a “brisk cut-to-the-bone form of novel”, but which still allows room for “consciousness, or the very rhythm of life” to flourish. Whether I achieve that is another matter. Certainly, some people consider my work too stripped down. My tastes are more catholic than you might imagine. I’m happy with the embellishments of Italo Calvino, Hans Magnus Enzensberger or Douglas Coupland, but none of these writers ever forget that they’re trying to beguile us, that a novel is indeed an entertainment. Finally, Ian McEwan – I’m afraid I’ve only read Atonement and felt it rather hollow, a literary confidence trick. I liked his writing though, and his storytelling. I’m conscious that I should read The Cement Garden.
    Anyway, thanks for the intriguing discussion.

  9. “We are in the business of entertaining people, and any writer who forgets that, no matter what the subject matter, deserves not to be read.”

    I’m surprised this mini-debate has arisen in the wake of these comments, but no one has yet addressed the above sentence (though Ed sort of begins to with his last comment). I find every part of it off-putting, from “business” to “entertaining people” to “any writer who forgets that”, etc… Is this all we’re supposed to get out of books, mere entertainment? Plenty of perfectly enjoyable books do provide that and only that, and that’s fine, but most of what I like to occupy my time with could hardly be called “entertainments”. Am I causing myself unnecessary pain and suffering by reading books that do not “entertain” me, per se? Does a painting entertain? In any event, clearly some people have found David Mitchell to be, if nothing else, worth their time, even, possibly, “entertaining”. (I have not read him as yet, but had added him to my list, on the basis only of word-of-blog, and I definitely want to read him now after this.)

    So it’s not clear what the purpose of this somewhat Peckian line was. And Kevin’s attempt to explain himself further only makes it even less likely that I will be looking to him for any literary recommendations. I’m not trying to slam him (and everyone’s entitled to their own tastes), I just don’t understand the position–its strikes me as needlessly limiting. Those who prefer, I imagine, a more straightforward fiction, often seem offended by the existence of books not somehow fitting that mold.

  10. Although it should also be said (re above comment)that there are plenty of “experimental” or “difficult” writers who have an equally intolerant view of realism/traditional narrative. And I’m someone who is definitely an advocate of experimental fiction.

  11. Okay, five minutes to weigh in further.

    1. Like Carrie, I’d also describe myself as someone invigorated by wordplay — to the point of being wholly disappointed (sometimes downright infuriated) by potboiler prose and language devoid of that additional meaning. I delight in DFW’s word games, yet simultaneously find myself even more delighted by the more substantive direction (as pointed out by The Rake today on The Reading Experience) in the lobster essay.

    Conversely, the Eggers/McSweeney’s school of writing drives me batty with its impertinence for impertinence’s sake. Whereas Amis and Mitchell (in the above examples) are using language to get at a specific meaning or feeling (and I really don’t see it as complacent at all; it seems more instinctive, even if you’re not entirely certain what’s going on), with Eggers, I feel as if he’s using language to pad out a story because he doesn’t have any particular feeling he’s scraping at. Indeed, there seems to be a conscious effort on McSweeney’s part to play it safe and thus limit the possibilities. Which is a shame, because I genuinely believe that Eggers IS a talent and that he and the gang can be even better with more focus.

    The fascinating thing is that with the “difficult” authors, I’ve never felt bludgeoned. I would rather grasp a book and attempt to rise up to an artist’s vision rather than be given an idiot story with idiot sentences, told to idiot readers. This is not to suggest that “entertainment” per se is out of the question, but that the form of the novel demands intelligence and, I would suggest, insinctive playfulness, whether solid entertainment novel like Donald Westlake or the other side of the fence.

  12. I thought I’d written my last on this one, but Richard, you’re a riot. Call me a vulgarian but I see the word “business” as completely benign – Picasso was a businessman, so was Shakespeare. As for your concern for “entertaining people” – are you serious?
    Furthermore, you misunderstand if you think I’ve been trying to explain myself. My position was clear from the outset, and all I’ve done since is discuss some of the counter-arguments. I’m also sorry that you find my comments distasteful enough to render all my literary recommendations of no worth. Apart from the authors I mentioned earlier, I might have recommended, Jane Austen, Stephen Crane, Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, Kurt Vonnegut, Magnus Mills and countless others. Would you really discount them all simply because I like what they’re writing?

  13. Ed,

    I just went & stared at my bookstacks to see about any bludgeoners. I instinctively feel their existence to be true and yet can’t think of any. Perhaps they are not traditionally “difficult” authors, e.g., Gaddis & the ilk? (B/c while I admit to sometimes needing two or three times to get through a difficult book — Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses — I’ve usually found it worthwhile to persist, that is to say, the hard work paid off.)

    I have found certain swathes of Updike hard going and hostile.

    And then, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which is a beautiful book in my view and yet sometimes I suspect it of laying a golden noose on the reader: When I read it I often find myself locked into a standstill. Too much beauty, not enough propulsion.

    Finally: You mention McSweeney’s. I take a warmer view of Eggers’ writing — he’s written several things that have knocked my socks off — but I have sometimes questioned certain McSweeney’s projects as being avant-garde for avant-garde’s sake. (I hesitate to paint with one brush here, as it’s a pretty diverse group of writers, and I like some of the work a lot.) But that’s the trouble with experimentation, I guess: It doesn’t always come off.

    I was thinking about that, which led me to thinking about Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf, whose dedication to her art I admire (I often take her diaries & criticism to bed) and yet I find the actual art impenetrable.

  14. CAAF, I definitely think James was a bludgeoner. The Aspern Papers is a short potentially fascinating literary detective story, based on a true event, and James sucks nearly all of the life out of it. Also agree on Virginia Woolf, and in fact I take a bit of a dig at her in my new book (yes, I write thrillers). And what about Joseph Conrad? Read Under Western Eyes or Nostromo and despair that he can take a great story and make it so leaden. The only recent book I’ve read that falls into the bludgeoning category is the aforementioned GB84 by David Peace, and that suggests to me that it isn’t actually intentional, just that the author becomes so wrapped up in the internal world of the book that they lose sight of “the other” for whom they’re writing it, a little like the central character in Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

  15. Ooh, good call on Chabon’s Wonder Boys — as a writer who’s worked her way down many a blind alley (the kind where you pick up a manuscript later and wonder “what the he-?”), I thrummed with guilty recognition at that character’s plight.

  16. My three minute quota for now:

    Carrie: Funny you mention Updike. While I love the Bech and Rabbit Angstrom books, I found “Couples,” “The Coup,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Gertrude and Cladius” to be either bludgeoning or downright silly. The moment that immediately comes to mind is that early part in “Witches of Eastwick” where one of the three ladies is cooking and then, without any kind of buildup or warning, Updike compares the tomato that she’s peeling to a ripe testicle. When I read that, I had an immediate “WTF Updike?” moment that was by no means isolated. (Anyone who’s read Updike knows of his prurient Calvinistic impulse.) The metaphor was heavy-handed and called attention to itself — what Mark or Bowles might have called an elegant variation. I can also recall a short story (title escapes me and, dammit, I’m not near my books right now to confirm) where water dripping from a boy’s trunks is described in a needlessly licentious manner. The character observing this had no sexual motivation, and the boy himself didn’t have any role in the story. Likewise, one could even make the case that “G&C” was a gimmicky piece of fiction that stifled Updike’s drive.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I love Updike. I savor his sentences. I love his language. I’ve read, I believe, eleven or so of his books. When the man has a kickass plot fueling his wares, he boogies like there’s no tomorrow.

    But in an effort to get closer to the bludgeoning here, I would suggest again that it is the misplaced instinct, the need to shock without purpose, or the skilled writer losing focus that lies with this disruptive impulse the reader feels. It is a moment I would compare to a smooth flight disrupted by turbulence. Perhaps in DFW’s case, he’s perfectly cognizant of this sensation and his bludgeoning is deliberate.

    I would suggest that the hostility has more to do with the writer not being wholly conscious of what he’s putting down. In some cases, it comes across as bludgeoning — perhaaps because there isn’t an instinctive sense. Perhaps in other cases, it comes across as tomfoolery that gets closer to the narrative direction.

    Even when sifting through Beckett, Nabokov, Gaddis or Pynchon, you feel this instictive command. You feel as if every moment has been justified. You feel as if every semantic decision is true. The interesting question is how much the author is aware of this instinct, or whether the art of the novel itself is, with some authors, a complete act of mere process.

  17. I’m jumping into this conversation a little bit late, but I would just like to ask one question, if anyone still happens to be reading this: what is everyone finding so difficult about Cloud Atlas?

    Could it be the length? 528 pages isn’t so daunting when you think about it; it’s not even two short novels these days. Is it the language used by the characters? It only takes a few pages to adapt to the old world speak of Mr. Ewing, as much effort as adapting to the dialogue in an Irving Welsh novel or a Mark Twain novel, and the pidgin is not much different (and so wonderfully fascinating to linguists). The “difficulty” in reading these dialects crystallizes the story surrounding the language. Is it the fact that, as the Telegraph (non-)reviewer stated, “Cloud Atlas is wilfully confusing and impenetrable, jumping from 19th-century Sydney to 1930s Belgium to 1970s California, sometimes making the jump in mid-sentence”? The stories are broken in a very symmetrical and logical manner, and the reason for the mid-sentence break is explained in the next chapter. I just don’t see what the fuss is about. And I’m not trying to brag: I’m finding Fitzgerald difficult to finish lately. The argument “sometimes you have to work hard to appreciate a great work of art” shouldn’t be needed anywhere near this book. Bottom line: No one should go into Cloud Atlas expecting Ulysses. It just isn’t so. It’s certainly a unique structure and approach, but never would I use the word “difficult” or “bludgeon” to describe this great work of art.

    (And, yes, I’m a big fan of Mitchell’s other books as well.)

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