Tastes Great, Less Filling?

Mark’s posted a fantastic comparison between Cloud Atlas and The Great Fire, daring to put his literary sensibilities on the edge while chronicling how his literary tastes have changed as he’s grown older. While I haven’t yet read The Great Fire, I can offer the perspective of a crazed reader who’s just turned thirty (who, by the maxims of another time, can still, just barely, remain trusted). Recently, I read Idoru and Pattern Recognition. It was the first time I had read William Gibson in about ten years. When I first encountered Gibson (through Neuromancer and Count Zero, I was just out of high school and impressionable to wild-eyed language housed within what a plot indistinguishable from a conventional pulp novel. At nineteen, I could relate to characters who had given the totality of their lives to cyberspace and technology (although Doestoevsky made an infinitely deeper impression upon me). Today, at thirty, while I admire Gibson’s language and consider Pattern Recognition to be the best of the Gibson books that I’ve read, I’ve found the comparative identifying experience to be lacking.

There are several reasons for this. Where are these characters’ families? Where are their grand existential destinies? After thirty, how can one find pleasure in a universe where technology comes first (where life becomes a playground devoted to seeking out correllating swaths of footage on the Net and traveling desperately around the world to find the people behind them)? As a quasi-geek, I can relate. But I am not a total geek. There is a line in my personal universe where humanity must thrive, where experience simply cannot be suffocated for the whole. And sometimes the so-called “mammoth” novel, whether it’s The Recognitions, Cloud Atlas, or even Box Office Poison or The Crimson Petal and the White, offer the expanse necessary, whether implied or explicit, to get at the abstract or very real goods that govern the human race.

I still think Mark’s dismissal of Cloud Atlas‘ characters fails to get at David Mitchell’s purpose, which is to profile a bold trajectory for how humanity is influenced by its own tales and actions. That’s not necessarily the ideal form for characters to thrive. Particularly with five interweaving tales, something’s bound to buckle under the impact. But if Cloud Atlas can be judged as a functional novel, beyond the glorious puzzles, it’s absolutely beautiful. And yet, as I read Adam Thirlwell’s Politics, I find myself more annoyed by the book’s stylistic pyrotechnics (the narrator’s Kunderaesque asides) even while I simultaneously enjoy them. One could make the case that Thirlwell’s characters are just as caricaturish as Mitchell’s. And yet Mitchell’s characters feel alive because of the richness of the world that they are immersed in. (And on that score, I have a feeling that Mark would hate the detailed worlds of the incomparable Frederic Prokosch.)

First off, an open note to Mark. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with having conservative literary tastes. On some basic level, judging and loving literature is about what an author does within a framework. Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with leaving a certain passion for the abstract at the gate of one’s own choosing. However, it remains my belief that one should strive for pith and subtext once one has crossed that gate. And I think Mark’s firm passion for Banville and what he describes as a desire to linger, makes his tastes more practically liberal than staunchly conservative. No lesser novelist than Richard Powers has, with his latest offerings, tried to scale down the information overload and pursue a fundamental humanity. And the exciting thing is watching David Mitchell on the cusp of doing the same.

And a happy birthday too to Mr. Sarvas.