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Another fine mess

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell My first [UPDATE 5/12 -- "only"... *sigh*:] win on First Reads.

*MarvAlberty* YESSS.

Which kind of review do you want? (Well... why do you read?)

Some 400 pages into the novel, various narrative fuses burning ever more quickly toward combustion and the promise of a big closing bang, one of the protagonists (Dutch clerk/naif/all-around good guy Jacob d Z) climbs out on the roof of a brothel. He's joined by his superior Van Cleef, one of the four hundred twenty-seven well-defined supporting characters, who proceeds over the next few pages to light a new, short fuse -- he spins a tale of how he came to the Dutch trading island/port of Dejima, a tale of illicit sexual relation, briefly yet compellingly sketching the sociopolitical milieu of Cape Town, a quick rush of a ripping yarn, as revelatory of Van Cleef's character as it is ripping. And then the men retreat from the balcony and we are reminded of what furious nailbiting tension had existed--before those few lovely pages' prestidigitation distracted--and we're right back in it.

Mitchell manages here a balance between an overarching narrative momentum and a desire to travel each digressive back-alley and back-story. The book hums and thumps and gallops with Story, a thousand "and thens" of possibility and consequence. (And unlike his prior novels, it all seems more cohesive, more fully integrated, without sacrificing his--and my--delight in narrative proliferation.)

I get my gee-whiz from other novelist gewgaws, too. Some (see below), with good reason, lament Mitchell's overreliance on Writing, maybe rather than story. His sidetracks can seem more authorial play, to some, than readerly invitation. Yet for me, distraction and attraction run in the same direction--Plot is served by plots and by Play, and when the prose flirts with language games (or, hell, climbs on the leg and rigorously humps away), or when the structure is as visible as the stream of story, I am in the best writers' hands even more fully engrossed, even as I'm constantly paying attention to the writing (and not just the story). Back to the magic analogy: I'm as happy watching the trick when I can see the wires and the stagecraft as when I'm dumbfounded. The performance can be just as dazzling, just as delirious--and I still want to see the volunteer sawed in half even if I am watching for the mirrors and the deception. Here, for those aggrieved by DM's earlier games, I think you get the best of all possible magic acts -- you can keep your eye on the saw and the box and the body, and delight in the trick, but you can also step back and marvel at the joy of the visible Writerly trickery.

I imagine others read for so many other good reasons, so many of them fully embodied here--a deep sense of place and history? Check. (And yet effortless! So often I read historical fiction in a wikidaze, endless oatmealy detail gumming up the narrative works, every moment some fine-grained attention to some fine point of contextual research, but here Mitchell delights in the rich idiosyncratic otherness of the past. A similar complaint could be defined around Traveloguerhythmia, but Mitchell's Japan avoids the Clavellesque--de Zoet not on some fast track to Shogun, the collision of cultures a prompt for Mitchell's nuanced attention to misunderstanding, of the endless complexity of knowing one another.) And so on, and so on.

It's a gorgeous epic feast of a novel, with all kinds of writerly and readerly courses for any number of tastes. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and whatever your prior experience with Mitchell--fan, foe, ignorant--I think this could be a wonderful surprise.