number9dream, David Mitchell

number9dreamI’ve liked most of what I’ve read of David Mitchell’s work.

He writes in interesting ways – never satisfied in telling a story in the most straight forward way, he experiments with genres, styles and, writing forms; even in the same novel, and somehow manages to keep it all coherent.

In number9dream, 19 year old Eiji Miyake has moved to Tokyo to search for the father he’s never known. Every step taken leads him to a disappointing, often dangerous  detour, sometimes real, other times not. Alternating between actual experience and various imagined scenarios.

Mitchell seems to have a talent for incorporating incidents and dialogue with potential to offend or disgust; yet not gratuitous offence for the sake of it.

Those occasions are used sparingly to spotlight the deep moral corruption of a character’s make-up. In this book there are some scenes of gruesome, brutal violence, effectively showing the world of the Yakuza, (powerful Japanese organised crime figures) into which Eiji stumbles.

I enjoyed a lot of this book but it definitely isn’t my favourite example of Mitchell’s work.  One section in particular didn’t work for me, more or less a story within the story, where the protagonist is hiding away for a time and discovers a writer’s manuscripts. The content of the manuscript stories is alternated with the main narrative of the book, but I haven’t got a clue why. To me it seemed like padding and lacked the coherence I mentioned above.

The end of the book was also a disappointment. For those who’ve seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: I felt the book’s concluding section took a surrealist bent like the end of that movie… and then it just

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

ghostwrittenI have strong but mixed feelings about David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.

I love his style and the way he structures this collection of inter-related stories, but some of the content of those stories is jarringly crude.

It’s a similar issue I’ve found with a lot of Stephen King’s books, but unlike King, Mitchell’s occasional use of crudity doesn’t come across as gratuitous but plays a consistent part in revealing character. It’s not to my taste, but I can see the purpose it serves.

Apart from that issue, I found more than enough to enjoy in Ghostwritten. While at times individual stories seemed unfinished, there are clues in following (and even preceding) stories that provided some resolution: incidental characters in one story reappear as major players in another; ripples from events here can become significant there.

Part of the pleasure of the book is re-meeting people who it seemed had been left behind in an earlier part of the book, even if their re-introduction is fleeting and they merely pass through a scene with apparently no effect. They bring an interconnectedness that highlights the roles that chance and choice play in lives of protagonists. Coincidental connections, brief meetings can be insignificant to one, but life changing (even lifesaving) to the other, setting the path for important events to come.

There are some similarities in style to Mitchell’s later book Cloud Atlas, another novel constructed from a collection of intersecting shorter stories in which the shadows of characters’ lives are cast beyond their individual stories. Some characters from Ghostwritten also reappear in Cloud Atlas and other Mitchell books, extending character inter-relationships beyond an individual novel. It’s an aspect of Mitchell’s work that I love, and it’s something I’d previously seen in Tim Winton’s work. I find it creates a sense of authenticity to their fictional worlds, where the lives of people can carry on beyond the experiences that made their own stories worth telling, and how they can play some part in the stories of others.

It’s the kind of thing I think I would have tried myself if I’d been more diligent and persistent with my hope of being a writer, if I’d been disciplined enough to push myself to write despite the lack of deadlines and the need to complete obligatory assignments: those things that forced me to be productive in my university years.

Books (and writers) like those mentioned above excite me – but also stir a sense of regret. They are reminders of why I wanted to be a writer, but also of the opportunities I let slip by.

Another reason for mixed feelings.

Two Weeks Away From Here…

I’m taking a two week break. I’ll be heading to Victoria to spend time in an 1850s granite cottage. A time of relaxation and hopefully a chance to have another slice of one of my favourite cakes, Raspberry Dacquoise, from one of the town’s cafes.

I am also hoping to catch up on some reading – to finish what I’ve started and to reduce my still-to-be-read pile. There are so many books I’d like to read, but deciding which one is a big decision. Choosing one means neglecting others.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been a bit over-stretched, with too many books on the go at the same time. I don’t want to repeat that situation again during my break.

I’ve been listening to some interviews with David Mitchell during my drive to work, and I’ve seen most of the film version of his book Cloud Atlas which I hope to finish watching on the weekend. I’m tempted to read another of his novels, or even to re-read Black Swan Green or Cloud Atlas… but I feel reluctant to start re-reading when I have so many books waiting for a first reading.

Another possibility if I don’t follow the Mitchell path is Zadie Smith’s NW. It all depends on how I’m feeling when I’m ready to make the decision.

While I’m away any comments here won’t get moderated. They will have to wait for approval until I get back

Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

Cloud Atlas: literary seduction

Cloud_atlasMy reading direction in the first few months of this year was set by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. This book inspired a desire to read more “literary” fiction, something I’ve mostly neglected in recent years. I don’t know how long that interest will be maintained. It will probably wane when I come to a book I find tedious and unrewarding.

Having that in the back of my mind I find myself avoiding some books I think I’d like to read, especially some of the “classics”.

My experience with those old favourites hasn’t always been fruitful and I remember having a hard time motivating myself to keep going with Wuthering Heights. It was one of the dullest reading experiences I’ve had.

The first “classic” I remember tackling was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It was on the reading list at High School, but true to form I managed to avoid it during the school year. However a few years later I picked it up and started reading. At the time it was like running a painful marathon, hard going with a wonderful sense of achievement (relief?) at the end. But I enjoyed it enough to read another Thomas Hardy book, Far From the Madding Crowd almost immediately afterwards.

So what about Cloud Atlas inspired me to seek out more “literary” reading?

I enjoyed its structure. It is made up of several different narrative lines from past present and future. Each narrative is interrupted halfway and the reader has to wait for the conclusion of each later in the book. This approach isn’t anything new. It is quite a common practice to alternate different narratives within a story to build suspense, with the conclusion tying all of the separate threads together (hopefully) coherently.

Mitchell’s path differs because there is no concluding convergence of the separate narratives. Cloud Atlas could be seen as a group of short stories linked by interwoven threads and cross references For example, story one is written in the form of journal entries and its first part ends mid-sentence. Story two is written in the form of letters and the letter writer finds the first part of the journal we have been reading in part one and gives us an insight into the reason for the abrupt interruption to the story of the journal. These references can be found, sometimes more subtly, throughout the book

At the halfway point is Cloud Atlas‘s only uninterrupted narrative which is followed by the conclusions of the earlier stories presented in reverse order, until the last section of the book gives us the second part of the bisected journal from the novel’s beginning.

Another interesting feature is the use of language. This is most noticeable in the sections set in the future which are written in “evolved” versions of English. The further into the future the story is set, the more work is needed to understand what is being said. While this initially seems a bit too daunting, it’s probably no harder than reading the Elizabethan language of Shakespeare.

Maybe all of this makes the book seem complicated, but it isn’t. Yes there is complexity, but that was part of the appeal to me – its many layered and unusual textures of language and structure made it more interesting, its complexity being restrained enough to avoid making the book obscure and impenetrable.
Oh yes– I should add that the stories are very entertaining too: comic, tragic, intriguing and thought provoking.

Cloud_Atlas_PosterI’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all translates to the cinema in the recently released film. I can imagine it would have been a huge challenge for the filmmakers to combine so many different story threads into a film without losing too much of the book’s character.