“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

I am a huge fan of David Mitchell’s first three books, particularly number9dream and Cloud Atlas, which were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet recapitulates many of the issues that have motivated all his fiction, investigating the history of colonisation, globalisation and the relationship between individuals and larger social change. But, on a formal level, The Thousand Autumns is extremely different. Mitchell’s early books weren’t so much novels as they were cleverly stitched together collections of short stories; Cloud Atlas, for example contained six interconnected long stories that fit inside each other like Russian dolls. The Thousand Autumns, however, presents one more or less continuous narrative, but unfortunately this more traditional narrative structure doesn’t suit Mitchell’s considerable talents.
The book is set in Nagasaki, Japan, just around the beginning of the 19th Century. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch shipping clerk who has just been posted to Dejima, an artificial island that is the only available port of entry for Western goods into Japan, whose xenophobic laws prohibited both any contact with non-Dutch westerners and explicitly outlawed the practice of Christianity. To Mitchell’s credit, both the historical detail and the alien culture of Japan’s closed society are beautifully evoked.
The plot is more or less divided into three sections. The first section details Jacob’s new life in Dejima where he must navigate the conflicting interests of the corrupt Dutch traders on the island. Jacob’s situation is further complicated when he falls in love with a Japanese midwife, named Orito Abigawa, who is studying under Dejima’s resident physician, Dr. Marinus. The second section of the novel takes a gothic turn when Abigawa is abducted by an evil monk (who oddly resembles a malignant Yoda), named Enomoto; he intends to use Orito’s medical knowledge for mysterious, but unsavoury purposes. The third section details the British Navy’s attempt to capture Dejima in order to secure a monopoly on Japanese trade, and Jacob’s response to the British attack.
But this novel falters for several reasons. For one, the three principle characters, Jacob, Orito Abigawa, and a Japanese translator named Ogawa, are all paper-thin; flat characterisation can be used in exceptionally wonderful ways, but in this long historical novel, it’s hard to care about the fate of these people. Mitchell tries to draw the reader in by expressing these characters’ thoughts in italics, but this device ultimately feels forced and awkward. Many of the minor characters, however, are wonderful, particularly Dr. Marinus and the crew of the British naval ship The Phoebus, and they effectively upstage the protagonists throughout the narrative.
But the biggest problem is that the novel seems unsure of its own genre. To be fair, this is almost certainly intentional, since Mitchell’s books have often explored different genres: Cloud Atlas, for example, contains narratives that alternately fall under the category of historical fiction, crime/thriller, and science fiction. This genre switching works in Cloud Atlas, however, because each genre is matched to a separate narrative thread. But The Thousand Autumns tries to be everything at once: a historical novel, a romantic melodrama and a gothic thriller. It fails on all counts. The historical detail is undermined by the gothic mysticism, the romantic subplot is rendered both unbelievable and uninteresting by the thin characterisation, and the book fails as a page-turning gothic thriller for the simple reason that it is, at points, an absolute chore to read. Even Mitchell’s usually sparkling prose disappears for hundreds of pages at a time.
This book is a rare misstep by an author who has produced nothing but excellent work thus far. Mitchell, himself, has admitted that he significantly rewrote the book three times, and I believe him, because you can see his effort as you’re reading the novel. But this, of course, is the problem: the whole point of working and reworking prose is to give it the illusion of being effortless.
Despite its fantastic setting and the interesting historical source material it uses (largely drawn from Hendrik Doeff’s Recollections of Japan, which I am now keen to read), the languorous temporal duration suggested by the title The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet may unintentionally evoke the endurance-testing experience of reading Mitchell’s newest novel.

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