The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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.

Mitchell’s prolapsed arm

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 proseoften, but not alwayshas 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
made flesh:

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.”

Then here:

“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.

A sorrowing admirer

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.

17 Responses to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. Oh. Noooooo! I was so looking forward to this as my first foray into Mitchell. I can see why the bad metaphor thing could be irritating, but I’m not sure I see why the “nameless technique” of narrating dialogue annoyed you. It seems like you felt it was just too heavy handed, and “unnatural,” yeah?

    Story itself: Good? Dull?

    Thanks for a great review!

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Greg, read Mitchell! If not Thousands, then ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas — and honestly, you should still read Thousands. It may resonate with you. You may hear things to which I’m tone deaf. I wouldn’t say this about any author, but Mitchell is one of our most notable writers at work today. As for the prolapsed arm, it’s a cumulative thing. Eventually it makes you wince. Like a bearded mole on a woman’s chin.

  2. Trevor says:

    I love your new term of art, the prolapsed arm! You assume correctly when you say you can’t be the only person who found that annoying. I can’t believe how many times he interrupted a perfectly straightforward sentence with some detail or even a “he said” or some such thing. And then he mimicked it throughout with those annoying similar interruptions brought on by an ellipsis.

    It was annoying, but I could forgive him if the rest of it were better. Unfortunately, there isn’t much there, is there. I really cannot fatham what Dave Egger’s was referring to in his review in the weekend’s New York Times when he said this was not an easy book and that it is very deep indeed.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Trevor, because our literary sensibilities spring from the same DNA, I agree with you, per usual. Mitchell creates the expectation that the novel has a deep significance by dropping such clues as “Everything that happens in the Orient is a signal,” etc. but without actually rewarding the effort when one digs beneath the surface, as one can do, for instance, with the fluttering white moths and black moths, only to find in them a “neat” correspondence with the shinning white and black pieces as Enomoto and Shiroyama seek to reverse each other’s fortune in a game of Go.

  3. nicole says:

    I’m just speculating here, but the “prolapsed arm” issue seems to me like it might be part of an attempt to imitate some aspects of genre fiction, specifically thrillers, since there are so many elements of that genre in at least parts of the book. I think the italicization may also have to do with this. But I would have to do more thinking and re-reading to decide whether that really made sense, and regardless it doesn’t necessarily make any of it okay.

    The “eighth of an hour” thing was niggling me as well, by the way. I kept thinking I should look it up and see if that has something to do with either how the Dutch or the Japanese typically tell (or told) time. It’s the kind of thing I can see him slipping in for some kind of jarring accuracy, but it was definitely jarring.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Nicole, let me know if you discover anything about the “eighth of an hour” expression. I plan to revisit Thousands and closely examine the prolapsed arms as well as any lurking symbolic structures. I sincerely worry that I wasn’t reader enough for Mitchell.

  4. Dear Kevin,

    Having read a great deal in Japanese literature–the techniques you describe are used extensively in poetry, prose, plays, and diaries but they have a set schema and purpose. Plum blossoms are meaningful as is the moon, regardless of phase. My problem with these (pardon the reference) interpolations is that while they are true to Japanese form, the experiment they try to effect will elude most western readers, and stylization is nearly impermeable to the irony implicit in post-modern handling. So, as I wrote, I found the stylization interesting and intriguing, but ineffectual because it did not seem to tend toward a furtherance of the book as a whole and certainly did not add the dimension that it would in say Kawabata or Endo.

    All in all, it appears we are agreed in the final analysis, although perhaps for different reasons.

    I did though find the whole NOH cycle set-up intriguing–if indeed it was deliberate and not a figment of my imagination as I read so many other deliberate uses and abuses of traditional Japanese forms.

    One last point on the use of traditional forms–I did not read carefully enough to see if he had developed a deliberate schema of interpolations–but they do not make any sense if read in the traditional Japanese way.



    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Steven, thank you for this, very interesting. I find no evidence of a schema or purpose. Sometimes the fragments are random. Other times they’re decorative like a flourish in calligraphy. Sometimes they’re metronomic like continuous narrative-clicks to register the passage of time. And other times they’re microcosms of larger narrative happenings like a Blakian grain of sand. They’re all over the place, without rhyme or reason, so far as I can see. A bit frustrating…

    • Colleen says:

      This is what I was going to suggest, but in fewer and shorter words. I looked forward to this book for so long and now I’m afraid to read it!

  5. Tony says:

    I have completely ignored your whole post and the comments…

    …because I am currently on page 44…

    …back in a few days 😉

  6. Been hearing a lot about this book, must be something to it. Gonna check it out.

  7. […] Interpolations (perhaps describing some of those same details: “Like a prolapsed arm jutting out rudely between labial narrative folds.”) […]

  8. Tony says:

    Just finished, and I have to say that I agree with the general consensus of bloggers and professional reviewers who say that it didn’t come off but that it’s still better than a lot of writing out there.

    I’ll review this in the next week or so, but I will be focusing more on the ideas (the usual speculation about the inherent trade-offs between positives and negatives in progress, the idea of trust, intercultural communication) than the stylistic issues debated here.

    If I had to sum this book up in a few sentences, I’d say that Mitchell was showing off a bit here on a subject he was fascinated by. I’m not sure that the umpteen years spent researching and writing the novel were the best use of his time…

    …speaking from a totally selfish point of view, of course (I’m sure he’s more than happy with himself!).

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      I can’t wait to read your riff on trust and progress. A good deal of important thematic content to explore… Cheers, Kevin

  9. I’m at about the half-way point of this, and am putting toegther thoughts for my own review. Your’s is very good; I’m having similar misgivings about the book.

  10. […] of which I have little or no understanding. Granted, it’s not as hip and cool as “Mitchell’s prolapsed arm,” but it’ll do. I give you: the “smudge,” and I count six instances of a […]

  11. […] I receive lots of requests but always politely decline free books and ebooks. I’m just not interested in them. David Mitchell once kindly sent me an ARC of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, for which I was enormously grateful. It didn’t influence my review at all. I panned it. […]

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