Astounding, what David Mitchell can put into one book. His new book, The bone clocks, contains six separate stories that only obliquely connect with each other. What connects them is the character Holly Sykes. She plays a part in all the stories, sometimes as the main character and sometimes in a side role. Holly is the key to getting through the labyrinth that is The bone clocks.
I write labyrinth, because underlying the bigger story is a fantasy subplot that stays well-buried for a long time. To go into detail on this would be spoiling the fun of reading, but the main idea is there’s a long-lasting struggle between good and evil, outside the view of ordinary people. It has to do with souls and time, death and reincarnation; quite interesting stuff really. Reading these scenes I even had an occasional Harry Potter association, something I hadn’t expected in a David Mitchell novel, but as a Potter-fan could appreciate.
These imaginative parts are juxtaposed with moments of highly descriptive realism. An undercover journalist during the 2004 Iraq invasion becomes the exciting point of view for a while. On the heels of this journalist a middle-aged writer suddenly takes centre-stage and we follow his failing struggle to write a book as brilliant as his debut. The confusion after a Baghdad suicide attack, or the powerplay behind the scenes of a literary festival, Mitchell masterfully describes it all.
His style of writing is why I read literature. He has such a grasp of language that he always uses the word you don’t expect. Cliché phrases he throws around to make them fresh again, for example changing the expression 'the shit hits the fan' into 'Shit, meet Fan. Fan, this is Shit' (p. 48). I constantly had a pencil ready to write down another unexpected reference or underline a funny sentence.
Stylistically, reading Mitchell is as always pure enjoyment. Structurally, this book was a bit of a struggle I must admit. I enjoyed the many stories in The bone clocks (Mitchell is great in telling a story within a story), I liked following Holly Sykes throughout the book and I was intrigued by the fantasy parts in between. Yet, as a whole I don’t know what to make of it, it doesn’t really glue together.
It is not Cloud atlas or The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet then, but it is the new David Mitchell. And reading a David Mitchell book is always a feast, whether we completely follow him or not.

2 February 2015

Sceptre, 2014
595 pages


If we compare literature to a landscape I feel like I’ve just climbed Mont Blanc. Not quite the Himalayan heights of Ulysses or Remembrance of things past, but a rather challenging peak nonetheless. This week I spent reading Cloud atlas and I’m still a little out of breath. Around the time the movie version entered the cinemas last year I gave the book my first try and failed. It felt too complex and uninviting and I put it away after 15 pages or so. I realized this is not a book to be taken on too lightly. Lately, I’ve read some smaller books and discarded a few others, so I felt ready to try Cloud atlas once more. I started confidently and read on in three long bursts. Find the thread and follow it; don’t let go, because if you put it away too long you lose it.
Cloud atlas consists of six stories placed in chronological order. You start in the 19thcentury, going from the 1930’s and the 1970’s to our time. The last two stories are set in the future, starting at least one hundred years from now. The book evolves like a pyramid,

        5   5        
      4       4      
    3           3    
  2               2  
1                   1

so it’s always clear in which story and time you are. The stories are related, but in rather subtle ways. Mitchell gives you only a few easy-to-overlook clues.
A brilliant and challenging aspect of Cloud atlas is the language. Mitchell fits the language of each story to its time. Thus, not only do you have to get into a new story six times, you also have to adjust to a new style of language. The first, 19th century story takes some getting used to, the 20th century stories allow you some breathing space, but especially the fifth and sixth story are mindboggling at first. Compare it to coming first into the world of A clockwork orange. A strange setting, words that seem familiar in a way, but require you to give them meaning, not the other way around. The sixth story, the top of the pyramid so to say, may be about 80 pages, but I took almost a day to get through it. Once you get through there it starts going downhill again as you revisit the stories you discovered before.
Perhaps at this point I should also emphasize I enjoyed reading Cloud atlas a lot. The bigger the struggle, the bigger the reward, as I derived huge satisfaction from solving all the puzzles in this book. In the first part of the book all of the stories end with a cliff-hanger, so you can imagine the pleasurable sense of closure you get when you can finally continue these stories after a few hundred pages. As I mentioned already, there is a deeply buried thread connecting everything; rediscovering it again after having plodded along unwittingly for some time feels good.
David Mitchell has a lot of faith in his readers, because he doesn’t make anything easy. This is exactly what I like about him. He sets you to work, sharpens your mind and constantly provides exactly the right amount of plot tension. I cannot even begin imagining writing such a book. Mitchell holds up many balls in the air and pulls it off, seemingly without effort. Every page is necessary, there are no redundant passages; for a 500+ page book it actually seems condensed. Reading such brilliant books makes you wonder why you would ever waste your time on anything of lesser value. On the other hand, I suppose you can’t go on reading masterpieces all the time.
Just to give a small taste of Mitchell’s writing I’ll write down a few quotes from the book, each from the beginning of a story:

p. 3
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cindery sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away.
~The book’s first sentence. Notice the immediate focus on time, with the footprints. A reference to Robinson Crusoe as well.

p. 44
Labouring types surrounded me with bad teeth, parrot voices and unfounded optimism. Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat can alter a man’s social standing so irreversibly. Those shopworkers, cabbies and tradesmen had more ½ crowns and threepenny bits squirrelled away in their sour Stepney mattresses than I, Son of an Ecclesiastical somebody, can claim. Had a view of an alley: downtrodden scriveners hurtling by like demisemiquavers in a Beethovian allegro. Afrain of ‘em? No, I’m afraid of being one.
~A bit of James Joyce, a bit of T.S. Eliot´s The wasteland. Bleakness from the Lost Generation, after the First World War.

p. 90
´My guru, Luisaaa, my guru! He´s on his last reincarnation before—’ Richard’s fingers go pufff! Nirvanawards. ‘Come to an audience. His waiting-list normally takes, like, for ever, but jade-ankh disciples get personal audiences on the same afternoon. Like, why go through college and shit when Maharajah Aja can, like, teach you everything about . . . It.’
~Hippie-speak seems already slightly over the hill and wannabe cool. Must be the Seventies.

p. 153
Knuckle sandwich was actually a well-written gutsy fictional memoir. Culture-vultures discussed its socio-political subtexts first on late-night shows, then on breakfast TV. Neo-Nazis bought it for its generous lashings of violence. Worcestershire housewives bought it because it was a damn fine read. Homosexuals bought it out of tribal loyalty. It shifted ninety thousand, yes, ninety thousand copies in four months, and yes, I am still talking hardcover.
~Nice satire on a crappy memoir turning into a bestseller. Not hard to picture that happening right about our time.

p. 187
It was a sealed dome about eighty metres across, a dinery owned by Papa Song Corp. Servers spend twelve working years without venturing outside this space, ever. The décor is starred and striped in reds, yellows and the rising sun. Its celcius is adjusted to Outside; warmer in winter, cooler in summer. Our dinery was on the minus ninth floor under Chongmye Plaza. Instead of windows, AdVs decorated the walls. Set into the eastern wall was the dinery elevator; the sole entrance and exit. North was the Seer’s office; west, his Aides’ room; south, the servers’ dormroom. Consumers’ hygieners were ingressed at north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west. The Hub sat in the centre.
~The world of science fiction and dystopia, like Orwell’s 1984. Emotionless, functional language gives a good sense of the empty atmosphere.

p. 249
Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart-axle in draggly clothesies. Evenin’ catched us up early so we tented on the southly bank o’ Sloosha’s Crossin’, ’cos Waipio river was furyin’ with days o’ hard rain an’ swollen by a spring tide. Sloosha’s was friendsome ground tho’ marshy, no’un lived in the Waipio Valley ‘cept for a mil’yun birds, that’s why we didn’t camo our tent or pull-cart or nothin’. Pa sent me huntin’ for tinder’n’firewood while he’n’Adam tented up.
~‘Clothesies’ immediately brings to mind Gollum. Set furthest in the future, this language sounds more like American frontier around 1850 or so, Huckleberry Finn style. A little bit like The road too.

31 March 2013

Sceptre, 2004

Comments (1)

(Originally read 6 February 2011)
This might just be my favourite book. Regrettably, I read this during a time I'd stopped writing down my thoughts about books. It should be interesting to see what I can come up with almost two years afterwards. Because this book holds special memories for me I felt it couldn't be left unmentioned. So here goes, what makes this my favourite book?
First, I have a very clear recollection of how I started it. We were on a short sailing trip to Altea in Spain in the beginning of the year. In Holland it was still cold, but there the Spanish spring was already in the air during the afternoons. No wind that day, so we waited at the harbour. Most sailors then start talking shop, in other words, talk about sailing endlessly. This bores me. Luckily I'd taken my book along. I hadn't even started it yet, so I took a seat behind some boats (in the sun of course) and opened The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Sometimes you read a book and you know after only a few pages: this is going to be perfect. Jacob de Zoet immediately felt good. I don't suppose I got very far that particular afternoon, what with bored sailors coming around for a chat and having to politely fend them off; I'm reading here! But like I said, the start was already very promising. You should probably say that this book takes some time to get into. David Mitchell has his own unique style - in this case having to portray Dutchmen speaking their language in an English book, an interesting dilemma I can tell you - and that always requires some extra thought. Fortunately, with every thought, you make this new world your own and start to understand it better. What's ideal about this is that main character Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman sent out to a very small island-colony off the coast of Japan, also has to understand a new world. This immediately creates a strong bond between reader and character. With this learning-game you get lured into the first part of the book, which is all about Jacob de Zoet discovering the island Dejima, getting to know his countrymen but especially coming into sparse contact with some of his Japanese neighbours. Their different cultures is what it's all about.
Halfway through the book the perspective suddenly shifts. Jacob de Zoet is put on hold, so to say, and we now follow his Japanese friend Orito, a disgraced midwife who's locked up in a mountain monastery. Here the plot takes a sharp turn and starts building up steam. Orito has to be freed and, what's more, English invaders threaten to capture Dejima from the Dutch. Once you reach this second part it's almost one rush to the end. Needless to say this makes for an exciting read.
What doesn't this book have? There's love, friendship, betrayal, war and corruption where two opposite cultures interact and clash. Personally I loved reading about such an obscure but highly interesting part of Dutch history (written by an Englishman!) and especially enjoyed some of the colonial battle scenes between the Dutch and the English (then again, I'm a sucker for war scenes). The nice thing is, however, that another reader might very well care more for Orito's predicaments in the monastery or her and Jacob's Japanese friend who tries everyting to get to her. In other words, there's something for everybody in this book, that's what I strongly believe.
I realize I've used quite a few words to come to this conclusion, but I hope this clarifies my decision somewhat to name this website after Jacob de Zoet and why I go on about this book so much. I'm almost scared to read more by David Mitchell now. Although with a movie of his preceding book Cloud atlas in the cinemas I should certainly like to try.

21 November 2012

Sceptre, 2010

Comments (4)

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