Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Mitchell

Houdini and Sisyphus

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David Mitchell

What’s important is a really simple question: is it good or not? Is it any good or not? If you are true to yourself, then originality happens by default, because every single person in the world has [as] original a personality as their iris…If you mine yourself deep enough then the metals you will find will be precious and original. So originality isn’t a thing, it’s the absence of other things, which is great news…

Christian Bök the poet…talks about Sisyphean constraints, and the more Sisyphean the constraints, provided you can—just to turn Houdini into a verb—as long as you can Houdini your way out of the Sisyphean constraints, then originality happens.

David Mitchell, in an interview with The Book Show

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February 22, 2015 at 9:00 am

Is storytelling kid’s stuff?

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John Tenniel's illustration of the Red Queen

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. When you’re a full-time dad, you’re constantly in search of places where your child can romp happily for half an hour without continuous supervision, and our library fills that need admirably: it’s full of physical books, toys, activities, and new faces and friends, so I can grab a chair in the corner and take a richly deserved minute or two for myself while Beatrix goes exploring within my line of sight. Sometimes, when it looks like she’ll be staying put for a while, I’ll get up to browse the books on the shelves, both with an eye to my daughter’s reading and to my own. I’ll often pick up a title I remember and find myself lost in it all over again, and it’s a pleasure to discover that old favorites as different as The Way Things Work, The Eleventh Hour, and D’Aulaires’ Norse Myths have lost none of their fascination. There’s a considerable overlap between what kids and adults find interesting, and the best children’s books, like the best movies, can hold anyone’s attention.

I recently found myself thinking about this more intently, after discovering a shelf at the library that I’d somehow overlooked before. It’s a section devoted to classic literature for kids, and all of the usual suspects are here, from Anne of Green Gables to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the latter of which is still the best children’s book ever written, and possibly, as Alan Perlis observed, the best book ever written about anything. But there were also many titles that weren’t originally written for younger readers but have been retroactively absorbed into the young adult canon. There was a generous selection of Dickens, for example, not far from Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the same process has already gone to work on J.R.R. Tolkien. Novels of an earlier era that were written by grownups for other grownups start to look like children’s books: neither The Last of the Mohicans nor Huckleberry Finn nor To Kill a Mockingbird were conceived as works for young readers, but now we’re as likely to see them here as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

David Mitchell

There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, none of which are especially mysterious. Most of these books were four-quadrant novels in the first place: Dickens, like J.K. Rowling, was devoured by everyone at the time who could read. Many feature younger protagonists, so we naturally tend to classify them, rightly or wrongly, as children’s books, which also applies to stories, like the Greek myths, that contain elements of what look today like fantasy. And a lot of them are on school curricula. But there’s also a sense in which the novel, like any art form, advances in such a way to make its most innovative early examples feel a bit naive, or like more primal forms of storytelling that appeal to readers who are still working their way into the medium. Plato says that if the mythical sculptor Daedalus were to appear and start make statues again, we’d all laugh at him, and something similar seems to take place within literature. As the opening paragraph of James Wood’s recent review of the new David Mitchell novel makes clear, critics have a way of regarding storytelling as somewhat suspicious: “The embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” It feels, in short, like kid’s stuff.

But it isn’t, not really, and it’s easy to invert the argument I’ve given above: the books that last long enough to be assimilated into children’s literature are the ones that offer universal narrative pleasures that have allowed them to survive. Don Quixote can be found in the children’s section, at least in its abridged form, but it’s also, as Harold Bloom says, “the most advanced work of prose fiction we have.” A bright kid wants to read Homer or Poe because of the virtues that make them appealing to everyone—and it’s worth noting that most libraries keep two sets of each on hand, one in the children’s section, the other for adults. Every generation produces reams of stories written specifically for children, and nearly all of them have gone out of print, leaving only those books that pursued story without regard for any particular audience. The slow creep of classic literature into the children’s library is only a mirror image of the more rapid incursion, which we’ve seen in recent years, of young adult literature into the hands of grownups, and I don’t think there’s any doubt as to which is the most positive trend. But they’re both reflections of the same principle. Storytelling breaks through all the categories we impose, and the real measure of value comes when we see what children are reading, on their own, a hundred years from now.

A writer’s routine: David Mitchell

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David Mitchell

I do my thinking on paper, and act on my thinking on the laptop…

Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift—something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints.

David Mitchell, to The Paris Review

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February 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

What I need to do better

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

I’m a pretty good writer. At least, I’d like to think so. There are certainly things I’d change about my career if I could, and I’ve taken plenty of wrong turns, but I’ve still managed to sell a couple of novels, a fair amount of short fiction, and occasional freelance work, not to mention my daily grind on this blog. I’ve also thought a great deal about the process of writing itself, and I’d like to believe that I know a good piece of work when I see one, even if I don’t always live up to my own standards. Yet there are always ways in which I could do better. Writers are inevitably plagued by doubt—to the point where the phrase “frustrated novelist” strikes me as redundant—and we tend to question ourselves, and our choice of vocation, on a daily basis. But it’s also important to stand back every now and then and ask ourselves how we could take our fiction to the next level, even as we’re tempted to stick with what works. My own list of resolutions is lengthy and constantly evolving, but as of today, at a time when I’m taking a break between projects, these are my top three goals for my own writing:

1. Learn to be simple. This is the big one. As I’ve said many times before, I love complexity, and part of the fun of writing a novel is seeing how far I can push the envelope in terms of density and intricacy of plot. All the same, I also see this as a limitation, which is one point on which my occasional critics and I can agree. There’s a sense in which complexity can be a form of timidity, a flight from the sort of exposure that simplicity brings, when there aren’t any tricks or gimmicks to cover up a writer’s real shortcomings. As much as I’m drawn to complicated plots and structures in the books I read, many of my favorite novels—the works of James M. Cain, for instance—are marked by rigorous focus and economy, even as they open into ever greater depths. That’s the mark of a truly gifted writer, and it often takes far more effort to achieve than a plot in which the wheels are constantly turning. A few of my short stories, like “Ernesto,” have something of this straightforward quality, but it’s something I haven’t yet had the courage to explore at greater length. And I’m not sure when I will.

Cloud Atlas

2. Get more quickly out of the gate. Here, again, Cain is my great example: Tom Wolfe has justly praised his famous momentum, the sense that the action begins at the first line and never relents, which is something I don’t always see in my own stories. I do my best to hook the reader, of course, and each of my published novels opens with a pretty good opening scene, but I still can’t shake the sense that they take longer to ramp up than they should. To my eyes, both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles are at least interesting from the start, and I hope that their opening chapters at least encourage the reader to keep going, but in both books, things don’t really get cooking until after the first hundred pages. Part of this is due to the structural complexity I mentioned above: both novels have a lot of moving parts and parallel plot threads that need to be set in motion before they can interlock in a satisfying way, and if nothing else, I’d like to believe that they ultimately reward a reader’s patience. But I’d love to write a book that moved so quickly that this wasn’t an issue at all.

3. Focus more on voice. I’ve spoken a lot about how I value clean, transparent prose, which I still think is the right call. If nothing else, it means that I can read the stories I wrote in my late twenties without wanting to go back in time and intercept them on the way to the post office. Yet voice is one of the most powerful tools available to a writer, even if it’s been abused and made suspect by authors who don’t seem to care about anything else. In some ways, this is the trickiest resolution of all: I still believe that clarity and lucidity are the obvious choice for the kinds of stories I write, and any attempt to experiment with voice could easily backfire. Still, I envy writers, like David Mitchell, who take clear pleasure in their acts of narrative ventriloquism, and it would be interesting, if nothing else, to try to write an extended narrative in a voice that wasn’t my own. This sort of experimentation is best done in private, and it’s likely, even probable, that the results would never see the light of day. I wouldn’t do it without a good narrative reason. But it’s still something to keep in mind.

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January 14, 2013 at 9:50 am

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The glorious fiasco of Cloud Atlas

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A few months ago, I wrote a piece for Salon on whether there was such a thing as a New Yorker feature curse. I was largely inspired by the example of John Carter, in which the magazine’s highly positive profile of director Andrew Stanton was followed shortly thereafter by a debacle that deserves its own book, like Final Cut or The Devil’s Candy, to unpack in all its negative glory. Judging from the response, a lot of readers misunderstood the piece, with one commenter sniffing that I should read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World before spreading so much superstition. My point, to the extent I had one, was that the New Yorker curse, like its counterpart at Sports Illustrated, was likely a case of regression to the mean: magazines like this have only a limited amount of feature space to devote to the movies, which means they tend to pick artists who have just had an outstanding outlier of a success—which often means that a correction is on the way. And although my theory has been badly tested by Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, which is now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, at first glance, the recent failure of Cloud Atlas, which follows a fascinating profile of the Wachowskis by Aleksandar Hemon, seems to indicate that the curse is alive and well.

Yet at the risk of sounding exactly as arbitrary as my critics have accused me of being, I can’t quite bring myself to lump it into the same category. This isn’t a movie like John Carter, which was undermined by a fundamentally flawed conception and a lot of tactical mistakes along the way. Cloud Atlas has its problems, but as directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer after the novel by David Mitchell, it’s a real movie, an ambitious, entertaining, often technically spellbinding film that probably never had a shot at finding a large popular audience. I’m not a huge fan of the Wachkowskis, who over the past decade have often seemed more intelligent in their interviews than in their movies, but I give them and Tykwer full credit for pursuing this dazzling folly to its very end. Cloud Atlas is like The Tree of Life made in a jazzy, sentimental, fanboyish state of mind, and although it doesn’t succeed entirely, under the circumstances, it comes closer than I ever expected. It’s the kind of weird, personal, expensive project that gives fiascos a good name, and it’s one of the few movies released this year that I expect to watch again.

And with one exception, which I’ll mention in a moment, the movie’s flaws are inseparable from its fidelity to the underlying material. I liked Mitchell’s novel a lot, and as with the movie it inspired, it’s hard not to be impressed by the author’s talents and ambition. That said, not all of its nested novelettes are equally interesting, and its structure insists on a deeper network of resonance that isn’t always there. Some of its connections—the idea that Somni-451 would become a messianic figure for the world after the fall, for instance, or that she’d want to spend her last few moments in life catching up with the story of Timothy Cavendish—don’t quite hold water, and in general, its attempts to link the stories together symbolically, as with the comet-shaped birthmark that its primary characters share, are too facile to be worthy of Mitchell’s huge authorial intelligence. (You only need to compare Cloud Atlas to a book like Dictionary of the Khazars, which does keep the promises its structure implies, to see how the former novel falls short of the mark.) And the movie suffers from the same tendency to inform us that everything here is connected, when really, they’re simply juxtaposed in the editing room.

All the same, the movie, like the book, is one that demands to be experienced. There are a few serious lapses, most unforgivably at the end, in which we’re given a new piece of information about the frame story—not present in the original novel—in the clumsiest way imaginable. For the most part, however, it’s fun to watch, and occasionally a blast. Somewhat to my surprise, my favorite sequences were the ones directed by Tykwer, an unreliable director who also offered up one of the best action scenes in recent years with the Guggenheim shootout in The International: he gives the Louisa Rey narrative a nice ’70s conspiracy feel, and the story of Timothy Cavendish, which I thought was unnecessary in the novel, turns out to be the most entertaining of all. (A lot of this is due to the presence of Jim Broadbent, who gives the best performance in the movie, and one of the few not hampered by elaborate but frequently distracting makeup.) The Wachowskis can’t do much with the journal of Adam Ewing, but the futuristic ordeal of Somni-451 is right in their wheelhouse. It’s a movie that takes great risks and succeeds an impressive amount of the time. And as far as I’m concerned, the curse is broken. At least for now.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2012 at 10:02 am

Quote of the Day

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September 21, 2012 at 7:30 am

“A multitude of drops”: Thoughts on Cloud Atlas

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While I was in Los Angeles over the weekend, I finally finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which over the past few years has gradually emerged as a consensus choice for one of the major novels of the decade. It first gained critical attention, and a fervent cult following, both for its striking structure—six nested novelettes, arranged like a series of Russian dolls, with each story commenting obliquely on its predecessor—and the virtuosity of Mitchell’s language and command of genre, which ranges from  dystopian science fiction to thriller to period pastiche. And while I do have some mild reservations about the novel, which is probably unavoidable for book that pushes the envelope so consistently, there’s no doubt that Mitchell is a formidable talent, and an author I’m looking forward to reading for years to come.

The element of Cloud Atlas that I enjoyed most, surprisingly, was its commitment to genre and plot. Despite what other critics have said, I don’t think the tone of the individual stories ever degenerates into simple parody, not even in “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” which some have called a satire of an airport novel. For my own part, I feel that Mitchell loves and respects his sources too much to dismiss them so easily. If anything, “Half-Lives” reads more like a tribute to The Crying of Lot 49 by way of a 70s thriller, which turns out to be a surprisingly heady combination, even if it’s likely to be underrated simply because it’s so readable. The same is true of “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” which, until its rather predictable closing twist, qualifies as a near-great science fiction novella, and the work of someone who clearly has great affection for the form.

That said, I also suspect that Mitchell’s fondness for the genres he’s inhabiting prevents him from weaving the novel together more tightly. A work like Cloud Atlas needs to walk a fine line between seeming too tidy or contrived and spinning apart into its separate components, and I think it strays a bit too close to the latter: I wanted more resonance, more jangling, between the constituent parts of the story, and the connections seemed either too obvious (the birthmark that all but one of the central characters share, with the implication that they are reincarnations of the same soul, perhaps on its way to Bodhisattvadom) or nonexistent (as in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” a segment which, while fun to read, fails to justify its presence). Obviously, this is a matter of taste. But I can’t help but thinking that a writer like John Barth or Nabokov would have given us a more elegantly structured edifice, even if it might have been less true to the genres of the stories themselves.

Still, it’s only been a few days since I finished the novel, and on going back, I’ve already begun to appreciate some of Mitchell’s more subtle associations. I also have a feeling that this is a novel that will gain much on rereading, which is something I plan to do fairly soon—certainly before the movie version comes out. The adaptation that has been announced, with Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis directing, seems utterly unnecessary: if anything, it should be an anthology piece, with a different director tackling each segment, or at least a virtuoso acting challenge, with the same actors tackling roles in various time periods. Neither, it seems, it going to happen, which makes me skeptical about the outcome. No matter the result, though, we’ll still have Mitchell’s novel, with its richness, its ambition, and its only occasional lapses into tedium or obviousness. It’s a startling hydra of a book, and seems likely to endure for a long time.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

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