“Do you think of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet as a departure, or as another step along the path laid down by the first four novels?”
Mitchell: “It’s on the same path, but the path has passed through a gate into a new garden.” (from The Paris Review)
Tuesday, June 29th is the U.S. release date for David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. In case you were blissfully unaware, Mitchell is, like, totally my favorite author! (Check out my early, brief bit on Thousand Autumns, posted back in December 2009. I was a very lucky boy.) Briefly, back in the Spring, Random House used my early comments on the manuscript in their advertising campaign – you can see my blurb on the novel’s website, http://www.thousandautumns.com/. My words have now been relegated to the “Comments” section, as if I were a common paean or a book club member. Don’t you know who I think I am?
Anyway, there is a great interview with Mitchell in the current issue of The Paris Review, a pretty snobby literary quarterly that you might be able to find in your local indie bookstore (not available at Warwick’s.) And there’s also an article on him in the June 27th New York Times Magazine. Mitchell is the critical darling of the moment, it would seem, and his new book will do much toward pushing him further into the light where the general reading public can see him. Or at least, I hope it does.
Because of the wide-scope of his influences and the differing styles he manages to utilize in his work, he has often been (wrongfully) accused of being nothing but an expert mimic, rather than a creator of original ideas. A bunch of bunk and hooey. This new book – although I suppose other literary influences can been seen within it if you look hard enough – should dispel this myth. There is no denying his various influences, and there is nothing wrong with being amongst their company: Borges, Italo Calvino, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Herman Melville, Two Years Before the Mast, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Matrix, Patrick O’Brian, Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Cooper, Isaac Asimov, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was actually a Tolkien reference in his Paris Review interview that really turned my head, simply because of the way his thoughts mirror ones I’ve always had myself:
“I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there? The empty spaces required me to turn anthropologist-creator.”
Not only does this remind me of my own childhood daydreams on what sort of folks lived near the Sea of Rhun, but also puts his style of creative writing into wonderful perspective. He is truly an anthropologist dressed as a novelist in the way that he explores the intricacies of human interaction. I suppose, deep down, that this is what drew me into his work in the first place.
“The reason we love the books we love – it’s the people. It’s the human mud, the glue between us and them, the universal periodic table of the human condition.” (NYT Magazine)
His previous novels – especially Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas – were complex, multi-layered forces of nature that bent and reshaped the face of narrative fiction. His latest is much different, in nothing if not for its straightforwardness, but equally excels in transporting the reader into a new David Mitchell world. Set mostly on the manmade island of Dejima in the middle of Nagasaki Harbor in 1799, Thousand Autumns is generally about Jacob de Zoet, a low level clerk for the Dutch East India Company who, along with the rest of his Dutch brothers, is not allowed to set foot on Japanese soil. The foreign traders are welcome for their goods and trade, but may never walk on the shores of the tantalizingly close empire of the Shogun. In an earlier post, I wrote this handy synopsis:
“The Dutch survive as Japan’s sole trading partner through an uneasy alliance based on the certainty of supplies from the outside world – what happens when something goes wrong on the supply chain? Jacob is faced with internal corruption and vicious political manuevering, the delicate balancing act of the Japanese partnership, a daunting language barrier, the mysterious banishment of the woman he loves, the hushed-up financial collapse of his employer, and an imminent attack by foreign invaders, all of which test the limits of his faith – a faith strictly forbidden in Japan on the cusp of the 19th century. There are multiple narrators throughout, as is Mitchell’s wont, but it is structurally done in such a subtle way that you hardly notice – you are just swept along in the flow, wondering, as a foreigner like Jacob, how much of the lush, inner world of Japan you will be allowed to glimpse.”
“I’ve come to realize that I’m bringing into being a fictional universe with its own cast, and that each of my books is one chapter in a sort of sprawling macronovel. That’s my life’s work, for however long my life lasts. Of course, it’s important that each of the books works as a stand-alone, so that readers don’t have to read everything else I’ve written to make sense of the novel in their hands. But I write each novel with an eye on the bigger picture, and how the parts fit into the whole.” (from the NYT Magazine)