The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

August 18, 2010

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tended to focus on characters who were disestablishmentarians. Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, and Somni-451, at least, were all standing or fighting against the entrenched order. Cloud Atlas was also suffused with change, both cultural and scientific. Of course, characters in fiction must suffer at least “modest calamity” to keep the reader interested. In Cloud Atlas, the themes explored in each of the sections generally revolved around power and so-called progress. Mitchell is neither a lone pioneer nor the first explorer of these ideas, of course, but he is something of a present day virtuoso. He weaves grand stories that turn and sparkle the truth so that we see facets of the world that are newly impressive.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet follows that tradition. Some reviewers have called Jacob de Zoet a step back for Mitchell. There is some validity in that position. The middle section contains a number of echoes of “An Orison of Sonmi-451” and, in that sense, is a return of sorts.

The nuns on Mount Shiranui are forcibly impregnated and their newborns killed. They are fed “solace”, an addictive substance that may turn to poison if discontinued. The mothers receive fabricated letters of their babies’ wonderful lives as they purportedly grow to adulthood outside the nunnery. The mothers are promised that they will eventually be reunited with their children and will be provided a comfortable pension while they live out their days in familial bliss. The nuns are similar to the womb tanks of “An Orison of Sonmi-451”. Fabricants are fed “soap” which makes them more pliable and prevents escape by killing them if they do not continue to ingest it. Further, the fake letters from the nun’s children are strikingly similar to the fake promotion ceremonies for the “Twelvestarred” in Cloud Atlas. Fabricants are promised a life of leisure after years of service when, in fact, the fabricants are slaughtered. The corporation perpetrating this fraud produces testimonials and videos of Twelvestarred fabricants purportedly living out the dream. The parallels are obvious and must have been intentional.

Or, maybe they were not. David Mitchell states on The Bat Segundo Show that he had not thought about the symmetry between the baby farm on Mount Shiranui and the womb tanks in Cloud Atlas. This makes me question whether my entire take on the novel is a bit off. Damn authorial intention. It’s the words that count.

Even if I was wrong about the connections between womb tanks and nuns, there are many connections between the novels. Mitchell explicitly refers to Cloud Atlas at least once:

West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.

And there are more subtle allusions to that and other works (of both his and other authors) as well. Adam Ewing sails aboard the Prophetess in Cloud Atlas; Jacob sails out of Dejima on a ship named Profetes in Thousand Autumns. A character mentions “some Yankees from Connecticut”. That last one could be my own imagination again.

But none of this really answers the question of whether this is a good novel or what its strengths might be. Mitchell has stated that he tries always to write in a new way, to avoid writing in a distinctly Mitchellian style. For this, people sometimes criticize him as a mimic or ventriloquist rather than an accomplished stylist in his own right. I am not sure either the criticisms or Mitchell’s stated goals are entirely valid. His efforts to forge new stylistic ground leads him, in this novel, to tell his story in what, to some readers, is annoying prose. As an example, I give you this scene, in which Uzaemon, an interpreter, asks Shuzai, a swordsman, what it was like to kill a man:

”Afterward,” says Shuzai, “in marketplaces, cities, hamlets . . .”

The icy water strikes Uzaemon’s jawbone like a Dutch tuning fork.

“. . . I thought, I am in this world, but no longer of this world.”

A wildcat paces along the bough of a fallen elm, brdiging the path.

“This lack of belonging, it marks us” – Shuzai frowns – “around the eyes.”

The wildcat looks at the men, unafraid, and yawns.

It leaps down to a rock, laps water, and disappears.

“Some nights,” Shuzai says, “I wake to find his fingers choking me.”

I did not find the sentence long paragraphs and the interjection of descriptive prose into what would normally be unbroken dialogue to be disruptive. But I did not find it particularly effective either. I understand how it pulled some readers out of the story more than it enhanced the atmosphere for them. For me, it occasionally worked, occasionally did not. Whether the prose was pleasing or annoying seems to be a major dividing line between those who think the novel was very good and those who do not.

The other reason I pulled this quote is because of the prominence of religious references. The idea of being in the world but not of the world is, if not pulled from, then synchronous with John 17:11 and 16 of the New Testament. Likewise, Shuzai’s feeling that he has been marked in some way is reminiscent of Cain after he killed Abel. Mitchell’s examination of religion and weaving of religious themes into his novelistic tapestry is almost required given the times and the prominent role the conflict of cultures plays in Thousand Autumns, but Mitchell was after something more than satisfying necessity. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas both have sections that are heavily focused on religion and belief. Mitchell has returned for a third time to the topic.

I have not seen many reviews talk about the importance of religion and metaphysical beliefs in this work. I think reviewers are remiss in ignoring the centrality of belief, rationality, and how humans are to reconcile the two.

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, recalled Henry James’s argument that “the novel should press down on ‘the present palpable intimate’” and argued that Thousand Autumns is “only palpable”. He compares it to a fairy tale, as a book that could have been set “in fifteenth-century Spain or eighth-century Britain” with no real change in result or accomplishment. James Wood is wrong.

Henry James alsoEdith Wharton in discussing James said that “every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values”. I have stolen this quote from A Commonplace Blog. That blog’s proprietor, D.G. Meyers, has advocated argued the idea that “an ingenious plot…serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.

The plot of Thousand Autumns is too long and convoluted for me to summarize effectively and, I will assume, that those reading this post beyond the spoiler warning already have some familiarity with the plot. The argument that David Mitchell is putting forward in Thousand Autumns has to do not so much with power and subjugation, but more specifically with belief, faith, and reason. The domination of some humans by others is certainly a major theme, but I think the more focused point of argument is the intersection of religion and rationality. On this view, Dr. Marinus is central to the book, though not to the plot. The plot could merrily clip along without Marinus or without ever giving Marinus a speaking role. But he provides important premises for the plot as argument to work and may well be its conclusion.

Abbot Enomoto is much more central to the plot and, perhaps unwittingly, provides a key premise to the argument when examining silvered European mirrors.

”Silver is more truth,” remaks the abbot, “than copper mirrors of Japan. But truth is easy to break.”

Jacob learns the fragility of truth when he forges a signature, putting himself in a precarious position when he later tries to stand on principle. The plot argues and Jacob comes to a new understanding of the naivete of certainty. Meanwhile, Dr. Marinus stands largely outside the plot and, yet, is a central character because he shares what I believe to be Mitchell’s primary concern. Marinus exposes Jacob to ideas that profoundly affect the course of Jacob’s maturation and, in that indirect way, influences the argumentative plot of the novel.

Jacob contemplates the details, and the devil plants a seed.

What if this engine of bones – the seed germinates – is a man’s entirety . . .

Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree trunks tumbling.

. . . and divine love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?

Jacob thinks about Abbot Enomoto’s questions at their one meeting. “Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”

“Then where” – Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton – “is it?”

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

The important thing in life is not belief, not Jacob’s pious Christianity nor Abbot Enomoto’s potentially true but horrifying cult nor any other character’s particular metaphysical commitments. In fact, those sorts of commitments are impediments to true soul rather than nourishments for it. The seed has been planted in Jacob that his orthodox Christianity misses the point of life, but the full realization does not hit until later, through Dr. Marinus.

[Jacob:] ”I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”

“Oh, Descartes’s methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark . . . So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove . . .”

This is why James Wood missed the point. Enlightenment is central to the book and, crucially, central to Mitchell’s thesis. While Mitchell demonstrates and argues for the best of Enlightenment values, he makes clear that science and the scientific method will not lead to paradise. One only has to look at “The Orison of Sonmi-451” to see that. And Dr. Marinus will tell you that too:

“Please ask Dr. Marinus this, Interpreter: if science is sentient, what are its ultimate desires? Or, to phrase this question another way, when the doctor’s imagined sleeper awakens in the year 1899, shall the world most closely resemble paradise or the inferno?”

Goto’s fluency is slower in the Japanese-to-Dutch headwind, but Marinus is pleased by the question. He rocks gently to and fro. “I shan’t know until I see it, Mr. Yoshida.”

The argument put forward here is similar to ideas put forward in Cloud Atlas, the world, science, man, history, has no directional arrow. The world spins, history repeats, and man regresses as often as progresses. The duty of the individual is to other individuals rather than to ideas, beliefs, or metaphysical commitments.

Contrary to Wood, this argument could not have been made as effectively in pre-enlightenment Spain or England. A Dr. Marinus would not make as much sense there, could not have the same centrality. The setting here is a clash of cultures, but a clash unlike those in fifteenth century Spain and eigth century England. Those clashes had winners and losers; those clashes support the thesis of progress. While Mitchell has stated that he thought that the history of Dejima provided an excellent setting for a story, it would be error to suppose that any number of other dramatic settings would serve Mitchell’s purposes equally. This is not simply an entertaining historical novel. Mitchell is carrying his argument further and Japan at the turn of the eighteenth century is an ideal setting for that argument. Newton, Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers are necessary to the argument, but so too, I think, is a violent clash of cultures which is not aimed at conquest or conversion. This is a clash possibly unique to Dejima and uniquely useful for building on and deepening the arguments so masterfully presented in Cloud Atlas. The Japanese and Dutch strove to coexist rather than to conquer or convert.

Whatever flaws there may be in the prose or storylines or entertainment value of Thousand Autumns, the book is more than a fairy tale. There are serious arguments made here and the plot does push forward those arguments with some force. This is a book that can bear a re-reading, this is a book that “is based on a profound sense of moral values”, this novel does exert “a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure”. I am not prepared to say that this is a great novel, but I believe it is being misread and underread by many, including, specifically, James Wood.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

July 27, 2010

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

September 14, 2009

Ghostwritten, which I really enjoyed, is David Mitchell’s first novel. I had decided previously to read his oeuvre in order which brought me to this, his second novel. Number9Dream is a more significant achievement than Ghostwritten and I also enjoyed it more. I did not get the same rush from reading a new and original author because Mitchell was no longer new to me, but I liked this story better.

Number9Dream2At the beginning of this book, you may feel a little disoriented or pushed off balance by the fantasizing of the main character, Eiji Mayake, a nineteen-year-old Japanese boy. Do not worry, you are in the skilled hands of David Mitchell. He will soon slow the world’s spinning so you can orient yourself to this unique and beautiful world he has created. Whether you like his writing, the man knows what he is doing.

Mitchell keeps ideas and plot streaming at the reader, so that, even when I felt I had not gotten a foothold yet or thought I had become lost, I wanted to keep going. The basic plot driver is pretty simple and serves as an early and effective hook. Eiji Mayake has come to Tokyo to find his father whom he has never met.

The book is divided into nine sections (dreams). In the first, Eiji is sitting in a cafe imagining different scenarios in which he infiltrates PanOpticon, a large office building, to retrieve a file containing his father’s identity. The fantasies are quite boyish, often involving violent confrontations that involve Eiji heroically overpowering grown men or, alternatively, blasting his way to freedom using sci-fi weapons. In this first section, Eiji is a nineteen-year-old adolescent, not yet a man.

By the end of the novel, Eiji has matured as a result of adventures, misadventures, and relationships he has along the way. In that sense, the novel is a coming-of-age story about an orphaned Japanese boy. There is much more to it than that, however.

For instance, PanOpticon figures prominently in this first section. Mitchell has something to say about large, Number9Dreamimpersonal organizations (the ideas of Foucault, for instance, are invoked by PanOpticon) that so often control details of our lives. PanOpticon is a watcher, but it is also watched by Eiji. This theme of watchers, being watched, and power relations is repeated throughout the novel.

At heart, though, the novel is about Eiji’s search for identity, family, and meaning. He has never met his father and his mother abandoned him when he was three. In the second section, “Lost Property”, we learn how Eiji’s only other immediate family member, his twin sister Anju, died at the age of eleven. Eiji and Anju were shuttled from relative to relative throughout his childhood, more so after Anju’s death, and, therefore, Eiji has little sense of family or belonging.

He invests with fantastic hopes the prospect of meeting his father. He knows his father is a powerful and wealthy man. He imagines meeting his father will solve many of his problems, will make him whole again. Of course, the reality is that Eiji’s father cheated on his wife with Eiji’s mother. When Eiji’s mother, the father’s mistress, became pregnant, Eiji’s father abandoned her. The reality is that any reunion is unlikely to be as neatly fulfilling as Eiji imagines.

Also in the first section, Eiji sees a girl with a perfect neck. Here too, his youthful fantasies outstrip reality. Eiji manages to do little other than watch her. But this is a coming-of-age story. As the novel progresses Eiji begins to piece together a reality and become proactive rather than following his usual course which is to escape into wishful fantasies.

David Mitchell manages this transition very well. By the end of the novel, Eiji has matured in a convincing manner to see the world more as it is. Of course, this reality includes plenty of coincidences, an angry stepmother, a mysterious Admiral Raizo who has some connection to Eiji’s father, a girl, a computer hacker who goes where he should not, the yakuza (Japanese mafia), high-class and secretive brothels, a computer supervirus, and plenty of opportunities for Eiji to die. So, while the transition is perhaps the underlying backbone of the novel, the narrative is fleshed out with exciting subplots, red herrings, and action.

Aside from Eiji’s fantasies, Mitchell also expertly manages to weave into the novel several other texts. Eiji receives several letters from his emotionally struggling mother, Eiji reads short stories on the writing desk of another character, and he obtains a journal of a relative who fought in World War II for the Japanese. David Mitchell gives each of these narratives within the narrative its own, authentic voice.

For an example of Eiji’s own voice, there is this passage, early in the novel, in which Eiji is walking down the street after twin humiliations:

Postdownpour sweat and grim regrunge Tokyo. The puddles steam dry. A street musician sings so off-key that passersby have a civic duty to smash his guitar on his head and relieve him of his coins. I head back toward the Shinjuku subway because I have nowehere else to go in this mortgaged city except my capsule. The crowds are beaten senseless by the heat and march out of step. I am beaten senseless by boiling annoyance and tired guilt. I feel I have broken a promise. I cannot understand this. My father’s doorbell is lost at an unknonw grid reference in the city street guide. Could be around this corner, could be halfway to Yokohama…

What Mitchell does extremely well is to weave together multiple genres, really, into a single coherent narrative. Eiji’s fantasies are usually action-packed sci-fi tales, his mother writes grounded, emotional letters, the short stories are fables which anthropomorphize animals, the journal is historical fiction, and the narrative reality swings from romance to gangster noir. The mastery is not simply to include bits of so many genres, but to use this distinct voices in the service of a deeper meaning. Each element pushes forward Mitchell’s exploration of meaning and individual’s need to create narrative to explain the world.

In lesser hands, these elements could fly apart. Mitchell is too talented to allow any such thing. What we get then is a novel that often seems on the verge of spinning out-of-control or into incoherence, but is pulled deftly back into orbit around engaging philosphical questions. The novel seems to improve as it goes forward until, by the end, it is quite a good novel indeed.

Too expose much more of the plot would reveal too many delightful surprises. Be assured that there is both depth and humor to go with the action:

Here comes my killer, checking his gun. What was it all for? Anju was overwhelmed by the ocean. I am just underwhelmed. I sneeze again. Sneezing, now! I want to ask my nose, Why bother? The breeze is cool off the drained sea.

Another important element to Mitchell’s fiction are his references to pop culture, literature, and the like. He references both his own prior novel Ghostwritten (with a returning character who has a bit part here) and his subsequent novel (the phrase “cloud atlas” is used by Mitchell in number9dream). He also weaves in references to John Lennon, a hero of Eiji’s, and the number nine appears throughout (John Lennon’s song #9dream is an obvious reference point and Lennon himself was enthralled with the number nine).

Ultimately, I think this is a book about meaning and the way meaning shifts. Or maybe ideas of family and how those ideas shift. Or both. Eiji initially defines his life as a search for his father, as if meeting his father will make the pieces of his life fit neatly into place, give him meaning. The reality, of course, is that life is messy. As soon as a chosen hill is crested, there are others from which we must choose unless we simply stagnate. As Eiji learns, life does not have one fixed meaning for everyone or even for an individual. Meaning can be reduced to something as banal as locating someone who shares your DNA or it can be something deeper and more fulfilling.

Like meaning, family is not a fixed concept, but a fluid one. We build our families as we mature. Eiji builds relationships throughout the novel that are more important, more genuine, and more satisfying than forced meetings between blood relatives. Eiji discovers this, if not so explicitly, and is much improved for the discovery.

Number9Dream is a very intelligent novel. While I am not entirely enthralled by Mitchell, I am looking forward to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell is a unique voice in literature with something to say about the world. I am quite pleased I decided to enjoy his novels in the order they were published. I think I will get more out of Cloud Atlas having read these two, than I otherwise would have. This is particularly so because of Mitchell’s fondness for referencing his own work. It will likely be a few months before I read Cloud Atlas, but I look forward to it.