Yes, finally, the moment when I put down this 500 page book has come. And you know what? I’ve been dragging it on (5 pages a day is not exactly reading, is it?) for a month now and it’s totally and completely my fault. The book is gripping, well written, interesting – a good read basically, even if kind of (too) gimmicky.
David Mitchell’s novel was shortlisted for the Booker in 2004, but Alan Hollinghurst won that year for The line of Beauty. And I’m too lazy to dig up the rest of the nominees :D
Now then, about this novel. It’s made out of 6 apparently independent stories that take place in different times (& spaces) and what I meant by gimmicky is the way these stories are presented: for the first half they are interrupted mid way, and they continue in the second half. Kinda like poetry rhyme: 1a- 2a- 3a- 4a- 5a- 6 – 5b- 4b- 3b- 2b- 1b – see what I mean? And while this technically doesn’t allow you to read the novel as a short story collection and forces (in a good way) you to see the connections between characters and times – it still feels slightly counterfeit. Like the fun Guy Ritchie movies where form takes over content.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – that’s story no. 1 – takes place in the 1800s and follows the trip of a San Francisco notary to the Polynesian islands. There’s talk of whites destroying aboriginal civilisations under the pretense of religion, there’s sailors – presented in a very adventure novel sort of way and, overall, it reminded me of the travel novels I used to read as a kid.
Letters from Zedelghem – my personal favorite, is a collection of letters written by aspiring composer Robert Frobisher in 1931 to his friend (and former lover Rufus Sixsmith) while he stayed in Belgium as an apprentice to composer Vyvyan Ayrs. Apart from his complaints about his family back in England and his affair with Ayrs’s wife, Frobisher describes his attempts at creating his own masterpiece, a sextet called Atlas (whose structure is the same as that of the novel). In the Zedelghem library, Robert finds Adam Ewing’s journal, published in book form by his son.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – a Pelican Brief like thriller taking place in Caifornia in the 70s is a quick read and the connection to the previous story is through Sixsmith whom Luisa meets and whose letters she gets to read.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – takes place in the early 21st century, where Timothy Cavendish, a 60-something year old publisher (whose character seems to belong in a Martin Amis or Philip Roth novel) tries to escape his creditors and ends up being locked in a nursing home (by a nurse Ratched sort of character) which he can’t escape. He receives Luisa’s story in the mail, as a prospective novel.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 – a shout out to Huxley and his dystopian future shows the “ascension” of a server (a very human-like robot – skinjobs, I immediately thought – created and programmed to do the lowly jobs) to knowledge and its part in a supposed revolt against the ultimate consumerist society. Best idea: the “souls” implanted that are, in fact, microchips by which the “Corporation” can see whether an individual is accomplishing his/her share of purchase and consumption. Sonmi 451 tells her story to an archivist in a “orison” (egg like recording device) and mentions watching a dramatisation of Timothy Cavendish’s ordeal.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After – a post apocalyptic future in Hawaii, where Sonmi is revered as a God and people have reverted to a primitive life style after “the fall” of civilisation Only one, Zachary the narrator, will get to see the orison (now in the possession of a prescient, a group who has still conserved elements of the civilised world) and know the truth about his god. This was the hardest to read, and the quote should tell you why ;)
“Herdin’ my goats up Elepaio track, I didn’t say nothin’ else. Past Cluny’s dwellin’ a bro o’ mine Gubboh Hogboy, shouted Howzit Zachary! for a discussin’ but when he seen Meronym he awked an’ jus’ said, Go careful Zachary. Oh, I wished I could shruck that woman off my back, so I say-soed Stop draggin’ you slugger-buggahs, to my goats and hiked harder hopin’ to wear her out, see, upstream thru Vert’bry Pass we went but she didn’t quit, nay, not even on the rocky trail to Moon’s Nest. Prescient tuff is match for goater tuff, I learnt it then. I reck’ned she knowed my thinkin’ an’ was laughin’ at me, inward, so I didn’t speak nothin’ more to her”
And that was just a random quote, a full hundred pages of that can pretty much tire you.
All this trailing through time and space has, at its core, the idea of reincarnation: the characters are supposed to be the same soul, reincarnated (and you know them by the comet-shaped birthmark). This approach feels a bit like it belongs in a different era and it reminded me (don’t judge, I still haven’t let highschool that far behind) of Adam and Eve (the book, not the biblical characters).
For the good reviews, to to the Guardian (review by AS Byatt) or to NYTimes (where they go on and on about what a difficult book this is – but don’t listen to them ;) ).Me, while I did enjoy the ride – I also stayed on the carousel for waaay to long and now I’m just happy to be off it :D
Finally & unrelatedly, a song that’s been etched in my brain for quite a while now: Rescue, Lucinda Williams. It’s just one of those things you stumble upon (I heard it in an episode of this really soapy TV show that’s kind of a guilty pleasure) and you end up loving to bits.