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[NOVEMBER 2005.]

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

I suspect I would have liked this more if I liked Calvino more. Mitchell can write, and when he's not overreaching he manages fine things. Unfortunately, the best ventriloquism is in the outer two sections (nineteenth-century South Seas journal, letters from a down-and-out interbellum composer), followed by a journey into less interesting territory: a fake thriller, a contemporary picaresque, a predictable dystopian story, and a section in postapocalyptic argot that owes something to Hoban's Riddley Walker, though it’s easier to read and less wowing. The links between the segments are generally gimmicky and sometimes don’t make sense—why on earth would a revolutionary of the future want to prepare for her execution by watching a comic film about the misfortunes of a British publisher? Clearly Mitchell is aware of using trite material; the segments tend to comment on the excesses of those preceding, and his contemporary narrator even announces the coming dystopian segment with a quote from Soylent Green, of all things. So it’s a pastiche of cliché, which is not automatically damning; Ulysses is a pastiche of cliché too. The question is what it adds up to.

In this case, the answer is “not much.” Halfway through the book, once it began to loop back through previous sections, I felt the same frustrating hollowness as at the end of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the realization that the connections are superficial and that the whole thing is an exercise. It’s impossible to take any message from it beyond some airy sentiment on the order of “Wow, reading is neat... and we’re all... connected....” I did finish it, since it concludes as it begins with the best two sections; but the overall effect is that of a quite talented writer producing an uneven story collection whose publisher has screwed up the page ordering.


Autobibliography (3)

1986: A Field Guide to Dinosaurs, David Lambert

No nonsense. Laid it all out—how big, which continents, which section of the Triassic or Jurassic or Cretaceous, all taxonomically arranged. There are two orders of dinosaurs, the Saurischia and the Ornithischia, distinguished by their hip structure: the Saurischia split up into the theropods (Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Compsognathus) and sauropods (Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus which dino geeks know is the correct name for Brontosaurus). Ornithischia are different sorts of plant-eating dinos (Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus), except for Troödon, which was thought to eat meat. Pterodactyls are technically not dinosaurs but related archosaurs (ruling reptiles!), plesiosaurs are even more distant. Better stop here.

1987: My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell

I read almost all of the Durrell books the year my family lived in England, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but this was the first. A family friend recommended it because everyone knew I was into animals, but of course the animals were a gateway into the arch and dry British memoir, which was a sort of humor that I had not previously encountered and which I took to immediately. I tried to write about my own family in a similar style (every child takes as an article of faith that their family is crazy!), but I did not have Corfu at my disposal, nor water snakes, nor a literary older brother, so they never amounted to much.

1988: The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani), transliterated, translated, edited, and generally explained by the inestimable E.A. Wallis Budge

I had to turn to something after we all tired of the Catholic church. I remember my mother coming up to me one afternoon, as I was reading through this book for the fiftieth time, and hesitantly asking “You don’t actually believe this stuff, do you?” “No,” I cried instantly, which was mostly true, but I do remember pressing blades of grass from the backyard into small sheets of papyrus, which I then whitened with Liquid Paper and covered with short hieroglyphic spells. Whatever their goal, it was not achieved; but Egyptian religion seemed a jolly life-affirming affair on the whole, kept interesting by a heavy lacing of mystery and menace, and by the key benefit of a magical language. Budge’s edition had three parallel texts: the hieratic script rendered in a beautiful hieroglyphic font, then the transliteration with all of the missing vowels filled in per convention by the letter e, then the word-by-word translation whose syntax you had to rearrange yourself. I never quite expected to find myself before the scales of Anubis, should a heart attack take me in the night; but I did know the proper incantations to pass through, just in case, and given the alternative of fourth grade turning into fifth grade, it was starting to seem an unobjectionable fate.



The sun hangs so low in the sky; it seems lower than previous autumns at this latitude. The earth is tilting, no one was warned.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt: early in the book the family cat dies. Why that of all things. Only because my own cat is fourteen years old and mortal, I guess. Of course I kept my composure, that’s what I do nowadays. Technically I was at work, holding my Starbucks office hours that no one attends. Often I wonder how I will ever become a teacher when the least aspects of the job seem so draining. I could lead a section next semester, the department is short on staff and looking for people, I could use the money, but I’m too far behind in coursework because of my book.

The book has been out at sea for three weeks, maybe more. Radio silence, still waters. In a year something will float back, a sodden corner torn from a map of an unfamiliar continent. I know how I will write the next one. It will be shorter. But peace to do this work, the only possible work, without distractions: little enough to ask, far more than anyone ever gets.


Autobibliography (2)

1983: The Book of Knowledge, Grolier

A ten-volume encyclopedia for children that, so the web tells me, has been around in one form or another for about ninety years. This particular version, scored by my father at a garage sale, I think dated from the fifties. It had a salutarily inclusive view about what counted as knowledge; it wasn’t alphabetized, and between the articles about dams and the population of Canada I first ran into Blake’s “The Tyger” and a long extract from “Alice in Wonderland,” including the immortal verse:

“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”
said cunning old Fury,
“I’ll try the whole cause,
And condemn you to death.”

There was also some nonsense about how to be a good citizen and have proper table manners, but I’m glad they didn’t shrink from the creepy stuff.

1984: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

My parents were of the generation that would spraypaint “Frodo Lives!” inside subway tunnels (not that my parents, personally, did this sort of thing), so it’s not too surprising they would pass on this one. The best parts were the ring, the giant spiders, the song about breaking Bilbo’s plates, and of course Gollum; the dragon wasn’t bad, but toward the end it became clear that Bilbo had to fade from the story so some boring muscular guy out of a Norse saga could do his monster-slaying, and I wasn’t on board for that. Around this time I wrote my first fiction, which was about dragons and dinosaurs; one group, I forget which, ate the other.

1985: The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, illustrated Edward Gorey

Tripods, the heat ray. Didn’t see the film; I think it would be disorienting to have it happen in Los Angeles after associating it with rural England for twenty years. “Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” was perhaps the first scrap of prose that lodged in my brain and never left. It should have been frightening, especially the blood-drinking bit, but something about the Gorey drawings made it seem wondrous; the human figures were so tiny and black, perhaps deliberately meant to appear antlike, as to “sublime” the whole thing, like when Kant heats up a chunk of dry ice.


Autobibliography: One

1980: The Clock, author unknown.

Books for very young children impart the comforting lesson that the world is full of friends, in particular inanimate friends. The clock thinks as you think, only more reliably; it will never miss an hour. It holds order, and therefore safety, pleasure, peace. Kant’s discussion of aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment is largely based on the observation that “the discovered unifiability of two or more empirically heterogeneous laws of nature under a principle that comprehends them both is a ground of very noticeable pleasure.” I like this because it lets you bridge science and art, and because it can account for why, when I was learning to read, my favorite book apparently consisted almost entirely of photographs of a clock face in different positions. The rage for order.

1981: Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss.

The rhymes were strange enough; but what was really mysterious was the ham itself. I don’t think I had ever seen a large hock of ham such as the drawing was supposed to represent, certainly not a green one, and the weird way that the plate of food remained constant, appearing on each page amid the successive scenes of chaos, seemed to point to something that I was too young to understand. The ostensible moral about not being a picky eater went right over my head. My insistence on finishing an umpteenth rereading delayed the trip to the hospital for my sister’s birth, with near-dire consequences.

1982: Comparisons, author unknown.

I have no clue how to search Amazon or Google for a title like this without getting several thousand results. In a lot of ways it was The Clock writ large: numerical measurements of various quantities in the natural world, with lots of helpful illustrations of scale. The size of a paramecium was compared to the size of a mite, a human, a blue whale, a dinosaur; the Fahrenheit scale was plotted against not only Celsius and Kelvin, but also the exotic Réaumur and Rankine, which didn’t seem to exist outside the pages of that book. It was always the tangential that was most fascinating. A table of metric system prefixes began with the mysterious peta- and ended in the enigmatic atto-; lists of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons trailed off into lumps of rock with only numbers for names. I would have lived on them if I could.



It’s done!


rejoice! it shall be a success. we know it.

Thanks! Pica points out, wisely enough, that it would probably be better marketed as “sci-fi crossover” than “book about Guatemala.” “I mean, it’s a book with equations in it.”


A Valediction

Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

—Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, V

Flags in the Dust was a manuscript of nearly six hundred pages, and it needed some revision. But he was happy and confident... Believing that he had written the best book any publisher would see that year and that he had given it a title no one could improve, he was already designing a jacket for the book.

David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work

It isn’t “done,” in the sense that it can be shown to anyone, but it will be done very soon, possibly within the week; and tomorrow I am going to drop three query letters in the mail to the three agents who expressed some quantum of interest in my writing two years ago and who constitute the entirety of my “contacts” in the publishing world. I had forgotten what a fearful and dismaying business it is to try and sell something, possibly worse than the writing even at its most disheartening. The last book, despite its rank unmarketability, at least fit squarely enough into the realism box; I don’t know where this one goes. Which wouldn’t bother me if there weren’t people in New York whose job it is to think in these terms.

I know how good it is. I do know that. Unfortunately I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how I would respond if asked to change or cut anything major; I understand why it has the shape it has, but I am uncertain about articulating that insight in the language of the press release and reading group. There seems something so false about trying to devise a package for it—even sending these letters:

The main character is Isaac Zahl, a mathematician in his mid-twenties who was born in Guatemala but grew up in the United States. His father Kurt, also a mathematician, worked on a hydroelectric dam project in Guatemala during the late 1970s and eventually married Juana Xuc, an indigenous woman from the nearby village of La Fe. In the country’s ensuing civil war Juana was killed, La Fe was destroyed, and Kurt escaped with Isaac, then age three, to settle in Los Angeles. The book’s opening finds Isaac returning to his childhood home to care for his father, who for years has been mentally unstable and is not well enough to manage on his own.

It soon becomes apparent that Kurt is suffering from a series of delusions. He claims to have proved a longstanding conjecture in mathematical set theory, believes that he is building a time machine in the basement, and most provokingly has begun to claim that Juana might in fact still be alive in Guatemala. Eventually Isaac arranges—partly in search of his origins, partly to escape the duty of nursing his father—to accept a yearlong position teaching high-school math in Guatemala City.

So on, so forth. But is that what the book is about? Of course not. If it were paraphrasable, there wouldn’t have been any need to write it.

I know these are necessary drudgeries, preconditions for getting the book out there at all. They wouldn’t bother me if I thought it had much chance of making it. But to consider the industry practically for the first time in two years has forced a recollection of what an inhospitable place it is, and I dread the coming task of sending out my work to perish on its steppes.


Frankfurt School Swimsuit Issue

Adorno on the beach (Isle of Rügen, Baltic Sea):

From Adorno: a Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm, reprinted in the Times Literary Supplement, 30 Sep 05. Next week: Marcuse in a one-piece!

: O


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