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)

In Praise of “Peep Show”

In the past two weeks, I have wolfed down all five seasons of Peep Show, a dark and frequently hilarious British television series written by Jess Armstrong and Sam Bain (with additional material from the two lead actors). I am now a fan. I am convinced that Armstrong and Bain may very well be the heirs apparent to Ricky Gervais. David Mitchell (no relation to the great author), who plays a portly Tory named Mark, who tries to pick up a woman by describing the battle of Stalingrad in the first episode, and Robert Webb, oozing solipsistic charisma as the rudderless romantic Jez, evoke an especially subtle chemistry that is one of the show’s silent strengths. Like Oscar and Felix, this odd couple bonds through inept bickering. But they also need each other in odd and self-destructive ways to get through the follies of life.

Yes, much of this plays like farce. But Peep Show is very much the antithesis to Friends. And thank goodness. Because good art, even art delivered through the populist medium of television, shouldn’t always involve pining for the expected. The storylines take unexpected turns, veering into truly godawful moments followed by further cringeworthy revelations.

While Peep Show does throw its characters into a few too many stock situations (weddings, pregnancies, relationships), it frequently refuses to take the easy way out. Consider one episode in which Mark’s sister momentarily moves into the flat to recuperate from a marriage on the rocks. Jez is alarmed to learn that his girlfriend has started to spend time with Mark, and it isn’t too long before he sleeps with Mark’s sister out of revenge. Midway through doing the nasty, Jez realizes that his conquest smells like his roommate and even says, “Tickety boo,” one of Mark’s pet phrases, in media Jez so to speak. And this is just the beginning of a series of remarkable and unexpected embarrassments that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Peep Show is the kind of ballsy television show that is currently unthinkable in America: a program willing to venture fearlessly into uncomfortable truths while likewise relying upon jittery and amateurish camerawork (representing the perspectives of the characters, much like Robert Montgomery’s 1947 first-person film adaptation of Lady in the Lake). Unwanted pregnancy, drunken fellatio, grown men terrified by children, racist drinking buddies, accidental deaths of animals (see the above clip), and wedding disasters are just a few of the subjects the program explores. And when was the last sitcom you saw that featured a character being immersed into a Scientology-like cult while a LAN party was going on in another room?

Unfortunately, you’re not going to find anything more than Peep Show‘s first season on DVD in the States. While Peep Show aired over BBC America, I am fairly positive, given broadcast standards and the bawdy subject matter, that it did not air as its creators intended. But many of the episodes can be found at YouTube and downloaded through more illicit distribution methods.