Part One: Holly Sykes – The voice is intimately chatty and thus most reminiscent of Black Swan Green (my least favourite of Mitchell’s novels) except this time, instead of an adolescent boy, we have an adolescent girl, Holly Sykes. Early on there’s a moment when a line is drawn in her life. Middle aged common sense stamps its censor on youthful idealism and is proved right. Holly is triggered into perhaps her first recognition of the distinction between idealism and delusion. Then there’s the radio people, very Murakami-ish so we’re back to Mitchell’s first two novels which were so clearly influenced by the Japanese writer. The Murakami quotes keep coming, first with the mysterious appearance of a wise old supernatural figure and then a potential soulmate for Holly in Ed Brubeck (named after a jazz musician: jazz, another recurring Murakami motif). It’s kind of strange (and a bit intriguing) that Mitchell is returning to quote Murakami so brazenly in this work.
I think Mitchell’s doing a pretty good job of grounding Holly in the ordinary concerns of a teenage girl through her diction without sacrificing his virtuoso talent for telling observation and similes. The voice of a 15 year old girl obviously limits his scope as a writer and sometimes you can feel the strain of the restraint he’s having to exercise to keep Holly credibly ordinary and largely unformed but his relish for language and the pulsing vitality of his imagination is still very much evident. So many sentences that are resplendent with a kind of early morning dew on them. He nails the teenage girl voice. Holly is likeable almost in spite of herself, her defensive disdainful surface self, in exactly the way rebellious teenage girls can be likeable which often involves reading between their lines.
And what about the fantasy side of the novel? The bloodbath jarred for me. A bit too pantomime, a bit too slapstick. Too early to know much of what’s about to happen but it would appear we have two warring forces – the good guys known as Horologists and the bad guys known as the Anchorites.
Mitchell’s last book was historical fiction set in a place and time that would have demanded a lot of painstaking scholarly research. With this novel it appears he only has to use his own memories and his imagination and he does seem to be enjoying himself, as if this book is a kind of adventure playground for his talents. First impressions are that this doesn’t so far have the exciting dazzle of Jacob de Zoet or Cloud Atlas.
Part Two: Myrhh is mine, its bitter perfume. “What is born must one day die. So says the contract of life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be…rewritten.” So says the wonderfully captivating Immaculee Constantin, the same Miss Constantin who was at the centre of Holly’s “weird shit”.
Hugo’s a great creation as a character because no matter how unlikeable he should be we can’t help warming to him. We warm to him partly because of his virtuoso ability to charge up a constant current of vitality through language and partly because he succeeds in convincing us that, whatever he does, the real parasite of the story is the self-satisfied Chetwynd-Pitt. Also, whenever we’re on the point of disliking him he does something surprisingly tender or willingly makes an ass of himself – helping the tramp and losing the skiing race (great scene that) for example. I also really loved the passage where Mitchell makes everything vanish in the ski resort until we’re left looking at “the skinny girl in the mint-green ski suit”. Real virtuoso writing that.
Hugo highlights the telling distinction between liking and enjoying a character. It always baffles me when people criticise a novel because they don’t like the characters, as if they only want to read about people they’d have tea and scones with. It’s impossible, for example, to like Osmond and Madame Merle in The Portrait of the Lady but it’s a piece of cake to enjoy them. Though I think if the author wants you to like a character you don’t then you start having real problems with the book. I had that problem with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Sometimes an author can be too heavy handed in trying to manipulate your emotions through the lead character.
Once again though I had problems with the fantasy stuff. There’s a sense that it’s too overshadowing, too all powerful and thus belittles the human concerns of the characters. All the complex and compelling dualities of Hugo are wiped clean at the end of this part when he signs the pact with the Anchorites. As if in one stroke his human life is reduced to little more than an irrelevant dream.
Part Three: The Wedding Bash: In case we had any doubt that this is a novel grounded in the real world Mitchell brings in one of the most pivotal historical events of recent times: the Iraq war. I’m a bit baffled by this section. Mitchell clearly enjoyed writing the Iraq passages – he’s great at creating high tension moments. Almost a waste that he posited one or two of these passages in the past tense so we know beforehand that no real harm will come to Ed. He sacrificed a lot of thrilling reader angst by doing so.
Okay, Ed is being attacked for his reluctance to submit to domesticity and the attacks grow steadily more decisive. (Worth remembering there’s always ego involved in journalism unlike, say, aid working which has a more genuinely humanitarian and altruistic foundation.) Brendan’s attack is ego-based and irritating and easy to ignore, Holly’s attack has more kudos but seems to him unfair, his daughter’s attack is searing rudimentary emotional blackmail and so hard to ignore, Eilish’s attack in the form of the invitation, is very subtle, it’s mystical but probably the most effective of all in that it reaches deep down into Ed’s psyche. It’s like Ed is being broken up here into his various components: manhood, ego, heart, soul. The fortune teller was a nice touch – bringing in the mystical in its most crass form and paving the way for the truly mystical in the form of Eilish. One of the ghost bridges between the real and the fantasy.
But this wedding? What’s that all about? I enjoyed the reverend’s speech. But isn’t there a lot of idle chit-chat? And another cluster of characters who will probably disappear once this part ends. I guess the wedding is like the divide between two territories, past/future, ego/heart – a threshold that symbolically might force Ed to choose which path to take. I think Holly, despite her prickly reactionary persona, is more spiritually evolved than Ed. Mitchell’s deep prevailing interest in Buddhism is well known and certainly one of the recurring tasks for characters in Mitchell’s fiction is overcoming ego. I get the sense that there’s a lot of ego involved in Ed’s attachment to his journalism. He likes the praise. I never really got the feeling it was much about caring for his fellow man. That seemed more like a rational construction he placed over his motives. Holly’s work, on the other hand, does seem to have empathy and compassion as its impetus. So for me, in Buddhist terms, Ed is the child here and Holly the adult. Except perhaps Mitchell has done a clever job in inverting them superficially so we tend to sympathise more with Ed’s perspective when we should be behind Holly. At the beginning of the next part Mitchell foreshadows criticism of his own book with the quote, directed at Crispin Hershey’s fictional novel, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions.” As the Iraq section is, so far, the most concentrated attempt to address “the state of the world” I gave some thought to how well Mitchell is succeeding in incorporating into this novel a creative historical account of our times, which does seem to be one of his aims, albeit in his incorrigibly playful fashion. Certainly it was courageous of him to take us directly to the front line – though Holly seems to imply these moments of history are ultimately less important, on a personal level, than domestic life. A macro micro clash. Ed’s emotions over the disappearance of his daughter, much more engulfing and soul destroying than anything he experiences in Iraq, seem to bear Holly’s wisdom out. You could say Ed lives on sensation until sensation begins to turn round and bite him, first with the hotel blast and then the disappearance of his daughter.
I’m also surprised by how low key the fantasy is. It was pretty full on in the first part and my expectation was it would have a growing claim on the narrative. I’ve deliberately kept myself ignorant of the novel’s plot – not read any reviews or interviews – but so far the fantasy element could be described as a few telling but very subtle strokes of paint on a pretty large canvas, like a mythological animal painted bewitchingly into the background of a vast landscape. It’s there and it continues to mesmerise but it doesn’t really diminish the haunting realism of the painting.
Part Four: Crispin Hershey’s lonely Planet: I found many aspects of this part hard work. Aphra Booth was ridiculous, so much so that I felt a bit embarrassed on Mitchell’s behalf. Richard Cheeseman, pivotal in bringing about Crispin overcoming the bitter narcissist within, struck me more as caricature than character and as a result made Crispin’s transformation harder to swallow. This whole chapter contained too many office in-jokes for me. I think Amis did a much better job of sending up the competitive narcissism of writers. And my feeling was that Mitchell is beginning to overindulge his playfulness, which at times had the exhausting exuberance of the antics of a six week old puppy in this chapter. Just seems to me he disciplined his will to mischief much better in his other novels. At times here it’s turning into whimsy. Most of us began this novel believing everything in the text was intended and relevant. I don’t feel that anymore. More I get the sense of kitchen sink syndrome. Half way through this part. Crispin may or may not be modelled on Martin Amis but the literary rivalry is certainly Martin Amis material (The Information) and my take is that Amis did this so much wittier and better.
Mitchell’s done a good job of isolating Crispin in an orbit all of his own – the lonely planet: so detached from the core of his being that he refers to himself in the third person as if he’s his own fiction. But his detachment from all but negative energies makes him difficult to empathise with. I’m guessing there will be a reversal in his determination to see wrong everywhere and I’m hoping it’s soon. Each part of this novel so far has always grown more compelling as it moves towards its denouement so I’m hoping same is true of Crispin.
This part was also more self-contained than any other. Too self-contained perhaps. It cleared up all the mysteries it posed. It killed off its protagonist. What unanswered questions did it carry forward? I can’t think of many. It’s like we’re now back to the drawing board.
An example perhaps of how uncomfortably the fantasy is interacting with the realism was the utter decline of Hugo as a character. From fascinating complex vampiric rake he becomes a cartoon baddie. I still want to know what happened when he had to return to England and face the music. Also, I found the showdown between him and Crispin a bit daft. Hugo has all these supernatural powers yet his purpose for confronting Crispin is to ask a series of essentially banal question. Have to say this exchange didn’t exactly get my hopes up for the exposition of the fantasy world when it arrives.
I enjoyed this part most whenever Holly was involved. Then it was recognisably part of the novel I’ve been reading for the past ten days. The flipping of the coin was a great scene. Also enjoyed the mystery of the poetess and Holly’s prophetic riddle.
But, on the whole, I’m now pretty sure this, for me, will remain a less accomplished novel than either Thousand Autumns or Cloud Atlas.
Part Five: The Horologist’s labyrinth – I enjoyed Marinus (the ancient mariner) revisiting his past lives which was a great piece of writing. In fact I enjoyed this part until the battle. Though I even enjoyed that in the way one enjoys pantomime once I had accustomed myself to its hammy over exuberance and cheap plot devices. There was a lot of Dr Who in this chapter, intended I’m sure, with Marinus as the doctor and Holly as the female assistant to whom everything can be conveniently explained in layman’s terms and who switches from smart to dumb according to plot requirements. There’s no question Mitchell had a lot of fun writing this but there is a sense he allowed himself too much licence to send up the fantasy genre. Either that or, like a child, he just got too carried away with his game.
At times it could seem Mitchell was sending up the SF genre. It seems unlikely to me that such an intelligent and usually conscientious novelist would resort to such slapstick unless it was somehow intended? Obviously there’s a great deal of mischief in this novel but perhaps one problem is he went over the top?
So yep, the terminology was awkward, as was the device of using Holly as a conduit for every inconvenient plot problem. The villains were all slapstick, though we had a warning this was going to be the case with Hugo’s earlier meeting with Crispin. But I feel a bit mean being so critical cos I have really enjoyed reading this novel despite all its flaws. You can’t deny its vitality and its rampant joie de vivre.
Part Six: Sheep’s Head – Visual media has vanished from the last part which, as well as containing a dystopian vision also contains a utopian one – in the form of the back to nature theme and the community spirit which Mitchell went to great pains to create in this part. The world was thus both a better and worse place without it. He kind of lets us decide. So I think the influence of visual media did play a big and intended part in this novel. Ed was a reporter and through him we saw the Iraq war behind the newsreel so to speak but it very much called to mind the television footage. And I also think that Mitchell had oodles of fun smuggling into the text emblems of his own favourite television experiences, like Dr Who, Eastenders. What was clear at the end of the novel was that Mitchell wanted to create a genuine community spirit – thus, the endless procession of new characters. Almost a kibbutz spirit except created through necessity rather than social idealism. The horologists too were a community. So I think Mitchell was ultimately coming out in favour of community as a social model (attacked in the novel by, in turns, economic, ideological and religious zealotry). Though on the one hand, he was painting a bleak picture of life without modern technology and the resources we rely on, he was also perhaps offering a criticism of how these props have isolated us from one another and even dehumanised us. Mitchell’s vision of the future might appear at face value a bleak one but I think there’s also a powerful subtext of optimism about the human spirit and this was most poignantly personified by Holly herself. Holly grows in the novel. She becomes an admirable fully evolved human being capable of transfiguring gestures of love, nurture, empathy and sacrifice. You could say Mitchell gives us a narrative of history through the experiences of one ordinary individual woman’s life – an achievement Virginia Woolf once said was completely missing from our understanding of the nature of history. At the same time for all its exuberance and quotable one liners I ultimately felt there was a hollow ring to this novel. Probably because the fantasy overview, like some global multinational corporation, sucked so much lifeblood from the individuals. James Wood expresses it much better than I can.
“What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle. Mitchell has written a theological novel of sorts, and just as certain kinds of theology threaten to rob human life of intrinsic significance—since theology exists to convert worldly meaning into transcendent meaning—so Mitchell’s peculiar cosmology turns his characters into time-travelling groundlings, Horology’s dwarves.”
Mitchell’s principal writing tool seems to be vitality. Perhaps more than any other writer i know he lets himself be carried along (away?) by his sheer love of storytelling. It’s like its always galloping him ahead of the usual disciplines of novel writing. I kind of wonder if his penchant for the novella as a form isn’t simply the solution he found to give full expression to his prodigious vitality. Anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel will know how hard it is to commit to one idea, one character and discipline oneself to see the relationship through. Mitchell’s like a charming and mischievous cad of a writer whose imaginative vitality makes it hard for him to commit to long term relationships. He has so much creative energy his impulse is to spread it far and wide. He wants to play the field. And he does it with verve and audacious multi-lingual flair. His novels always pulse with a full-blooded generous heart.
PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 14: English writer David Mitchell poses during a portrait session held on December 14, 2011 in Paris, France. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)