I have something that approaches love for David Mitchell. He’s such a good and eminently decent man. He worries about all the right things. And I really do wish there were a thousand more David Mitchells in the world. Although I admire and respect Mitchell for his moral sensitivity and colossal talent (especially as a writer of conceptual fiction, which I’m now firmly convinced is his forte), I do not love his most recent effort in The Thousand Autumns of
Jacob de Zoet, sadly.
The basic idea of the novel is fundamentally sound: In 1799, a young man and enterprising clerk is sent to Dejima, a man-made island in the Bay of Nagasaki and a trading outpost for the Dutch East India Company. A fastidious and conscientious man, Jacob de Zoet is responsible for exposing a decade of fraud and corruption and setting the company’s ledgers straight. He’s eager to earn a small fortune and rise in the world through hard work and fair play. Amid the unfamiliar sights and sounds of Dejima, Jacob meets Miss Aibagawa, a beautiful midwife and scholar, and Mr Uzaemon, a loyal and thoughtful interpreter. A poignant love triangle forms. Unfortunately for our protagonists, men and women of conscience, as anyone knows who’s familiar with Mitchell’s typologies, will suffer on the downside of power before their great reckonings.
As tantalizing as the novel’s premise and setting are, Mitchell’s storytelling goes sideways in its execution. His prose is studded with stylistic blemishes. Of course, there are lazy metaphors and other oddities, to which we should turn a blind eye: Jacob’s skin “is frying like bacon,” as he steps outside into the brutal heat, or beneath “his glaze of sweat he sweats,” or an “eighth of an hour later,” which everyone knows is 7.5 minutes.
There are, however, other mannerisms that are not so easy to ignore. As Trevor over at The Mookse and Gripes points out, Mitchell’s treatment of characters’ thoughts is quite clumsy. Indirect and free indirect discourse is italicized throughout. As if Mitchell is worried that readers aren’t sensitive enough to the subtle modulations of literary prose or doesn’t trust his own ability to weave action, dialogue, and thoughts into a narrative that hangs together. On far too many occasions, I found myself invoking the spirit of Saramago, who is so bloody talented at indirect and free indirect dialogue, through nothing more than elegant stresses, pauses, and transitions in his prose.
Beyond a few howlers and a fetish for italicization, there’s something else that I find troubling. Mitchell employs a nameless technique, so far as I know, of narrating dialogue or a scene and punctuating it with a hard stop/return and then including a brief, encapsulated yet entirely incidental moment. Encapsulated because read on its own, the prose—often, but not always—has an attractive quality about it. It bears re-examination like an insect in amber or bears rereading like a crumpled bit of paper from a fortune cookie. Incidental because it literally has no bearing whatsoever on the action of the story. Here are just three (from a veritable litany of possible) examples of my grievance
This born trader, Jacob suspects, is here to urge me to collaborate.
“—but here’s a word to the wise.” Grote glances around. “Fisher’s lyin’.”
Eyes of sunlight from waves blink and blink on the papered ceiling.
“You have my very closest attention, Mr Grote.”
“Specifickly, he lied ’bout van Cleef bein’ keen on the deal.”
“Ogawa stipend is safe, and we involve sappanwood trade via Dejima, and so Father agrees. We meet next in shrine on wedding day.”
The buoyant moon has freed itself from Mount Inasa.
“What about,” Jacob speaks with sake-inspired frankness, “what about love?”
And lastly here:
“The doctor’s disbelief is caused by his sentimental attitudes to savages…,” says Fischer.
“The doctor’s disbelief,” Marinus [replies], “is a natural reaction to vainglorious piffle.”
“Your accusations, “Fischer retorts, “deserve no reply.”
Jacob finds an island chain of mosquito bites across his hand.
“Slavery may be an injustice to some,” says van Cleef, “but no one can deny that all Empires are founded upon the institution.
“Then may the Devil … take all empires.”
Why these brushstrokes on eyes of sunlight and a buoyant moon and an island chain of mossie bites when Mitchell can just as easily (because unnecessarily) brushstroke on eaves dripping or dogs barking or rashes itching or doors opening? Any of the stylized prose fragments above can be easily replaced by this insect-in-amber without changing the narrative: “A bee hovers around Jacob’s face, and goes.”
Now, I must confess, the first time Mitchell does this in Thousand Autumns it’s pleasantly arresting. But by the 8th, 15th, and certainly by the 27th time (I stopped counting from sheer annoyance), the technique becomes conspicuous, unnatural, and positively painful to behold. Like a prolapsed arm jutting out rudely between labial narrative folds. I can’t be the only one who finds this technique annoying.
Although I’ve hatched three pet-theories, I can’t easily explain this persistent, stylistic feature, try as I might.
The underlying conception of the novel is very good. It’s fertile ground for an exploration of themes that fall squarely into Mitchell’s wheelhouse. Unfortunately, he doesn’t disclose anything new about power and domination, about love and compassion, or about time, textuality, and the eternal play of shadows on Plato’s cave. Worse, he doesn’t reveal anything new about the gorgeous possibilities of rendering an innovative new how to the perennial whats and whys of prose fiction.
Which is why I’m disappointed, and not a little somber.