Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I wasn’t totally turned off by this book, but it didn’t do much for me either. If I were to date Mr. Jacob de Zoet, I’d probably tell him “You’re attractive, I guess, but there’s no spark.” Then again, I’ve never been one to fawn over the showoff. The “look what I can do” guy never appealed to me. I’ve always wanted to ask “why?” to that guy: “Why, why in heaven’s name, do you want to jump off that swingset?!?”

As a disclaimer, I have no context for David Mitchell. I know that he has intertextual tendencies and that his body of work is wildly varied. (Anybody out there that read and loved one of his previous books? Recommend them!) I’m not sure what his pet issues are or whether Jacob was a labor of love. All I know is what is put in front of me.

This novel is told in three parts, each with its own close focus on Dutch, Japanese, and British characters. Unfortunately, the separate sections made it hard maintain my level of investment/interest. The cast switched with each part, and the characters from the last section took their sweet time reappearing. This frustrating effect may have been remedied with a uniting tone, but each section had its own distinct diction and pacing. Subsequently, Jacob felt a little schizophrenic, more like three novels than one. (To me, the most successful parts were the gripping prologue and the second section, which focus primarily on the Japanese cast.)

I wish the novel added up to the sum of its parts. Mitchell pulls off a slew of genres (heroic journey, bildungsroman, thriller, dystopian, political commentary, war story, intrigue) in isolation, and his attention to historical detail was impressive. There’s some neat storytelling buried in here! He works hard to subvert expectations, constantly playing a shell game with the reader. The subterfuge, outmaneuverings, and shifting allegiances enliven the sometimes dense diction. One great scene reminded me very pleasantly of The Princess Bride: “Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!”

Other the other hand, the characterization didn’t do it for me. The majority of the time, it felt like Mitchell was moving chess pieces around on a board (with a few exceptions). It’s always interesting when a character chooses the least sensible thing possible, but when you can see the machinations, it’s unappealing.

Mitchell clearly has an affinity for language and dialogue. I loved the interaction between the Dutch and their Japanese translators, and their back-and-forth was an illuminating way to showcase cultural sensibilities. I also stumbled across pieces of lovely phrasing in his prose (“ruckled” to describe snow), though his dialogue was hit or miss. Parts are playful, but mostly the extended conversations veered on self-indulgent. At times, Mitchell was more parrot or ventriloquist than author. Some of his characters simply ran away with him, like he didn’t know when to cut them off. These over-the-top discourses just made me want to scream “Restraint, please, restraint!” (And I read a TON of YA.)

I had a professor who told me once that modern writers love to “wallow in the piss and shit and excrement of life.” Well, yes. Jacob, in short succession, gets peed on by a monkey in front of his forbidden ladylove and slips on human feces after he gets demoted. Look, we get it. This guy is on the receiving end of life’s suck, but that just seems gratuitous. Not to mention the graphic depiction of gout sores. These episodes don’t really serve the plot, but they say to the reader “Check out how gritty and real I am.” (Hey, I’m all for graphic violence and gross-out when it serves the story.)

Ultimately, what kept me from really liking Jacob was how self-aware it was. Every time I’d finally settle into the story, there would be a moment that would pull me out: “Oh, I’m reading a ‘Novel,’ aren’t I?” The author never disappeared.


  1. This one's been on my list for a while...just waiting for my boat load of library holds to come in. The only thing I've read by David Mitchell is "Cloud Atlas" and I would HIGHLY recommend it--although reading your criticisms here makes me think you might not like it. It's basically a lot of the things you disliked here amplified: 6 different sections/casts of characters instead of 3 and a whole lot of machinations/self-awareness. However, I think that it all worked in Cloud Atlas because the machinations were kind of the point of it. There is beatiful prose, too, and intense observations about the human condition, but you can't help but be aware of the structure and how it all fits together. That's not a bad thing, though. I don't know, it's hard to just have to read it ;)

  2. I'll definitely get around to CLOUD ATLAS. My housemate has a copy that I've been eyeballing. Maybe in a less traditional novel setting, I'll see what he's all about. Who knows? It might change my mind retroactively about this one. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. :)

    (Still waiting for our Hunger Games discussion!)