Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Davids

I took two books with me to Vietnam, both by authors who’ll be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival next month, both are authors of previous books I’ve enjoyed, both are authors with the first name David. The similarities end there I reckon…

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetMitchell's Cloud Atlas is a flawed, uneven and at times frustrating novel but I love it. It was part of the inspiration behind me trying to write a linked HTML novella, which degraded with time to become the story 'Orbital Resonance' in A Man Melting.

I've also read Mitchell's follow-up, the more straight-forward and presumably semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, which was less breath taking, but in some ways a more ambitious (for Mitchell at least) divergence from his previous novels than Cloud Atlas was from its predecessors.

Black Swan GreenThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is both a leap back to the ambitious, imaginative feats of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas days, and a continuation of the use of more linear and focussed plots exhibited in Black Swan Green.

The novel is set around the turn of the Nineteenth Century in Dejima, the man-made island which was the base of Dutch trade with Japan and one of the shogunate's few windows to the world beyond its borders. Aside from rushing through the later years of de Zoet's life in the final chapters, Mitchell focuses the action over a period of only a few years, and all within a few districts of Japan.

The ambition and imaginative feats are evidenced by the reconstruction of this cloistered world of 200 years ago. In the essay on historical fiction included at the end of the book, Mitchell makes it clear the amount of time and research required to pull such a historical fiction off convincingly. And the high points of the novel are those scenes where the reader feels privy to a little known but still historically convincing world, such as the childbirth scene that opens the novel and the goings on in the Nagasaki Magistrate's Room of Sixty Mats.

There is still some unevenness in this novel, due to the shift in perspectives through the various sections. The first section focuses on the Dutch trading efforts, particularly the new clerk Jacob de Zoet who is tasked with documenting the corruption under the previous Chief Resident and falls in love with a Japanese medical student. The second section shifts to the Japanese perspective, and it takes a while to re-engage with the story, but eventually we are gripped by the quest of a Dejima translator's quest to rescue de Zoet's love interest (who the translator also had/has feelings for). The third section introduces the perspective of the British on board the Phoebus under the command of Captain Penhaligon, who is charged with kicking some Dutch butt on Dejima and flying a Union Jack from the flagpole. Sadly, the Phoebus incident is a bit of an anti-climax and doesn't compare with the intrigue of the previous two sections, but it's still interesting on the level of historical insight. The novel rounds out by returning to the Dutch and Japanese perspectives. Plot elements are resolved. Time moves on. The novel closes.

Cloud AtlasThe biggest sore thumb to me was the single chapter to open section three told in the first person (only chapter to do so) from the perspective of the slave, Weh, who may have been mentioned twice earlier in the novel and does not feature in any further part of the story. I can see how this chapter links with all the 'my hard life and how I came to be here' stories which which 1000 Autumns teems. These stories are as much the meat of the novel as the ostensible plot (the intrigues of the Dutch traders, the love story, the quest for rescue, the British attach, the Magistrate's action against the evil Abbott Enomoto), but Weh's felt like a loose end that survived successive drafts…

But one can overlook a couple of odd pages out when the novel is as entertaining and transporting as 1000 Autumns.

I look forward to meeting David Mitchell at the Auckland Writers Festival (we're both appearing in a panel on the Sunday) and asking him about Weh's chapter and whether he has any goss on the Wochowski's efforts to turn Cloud Atlas into a movie.

Caribou Island by David Vann

Caribou IslandLast year I read and loved Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Of the books I read last year I only rated works by Janet Frame and Herman Melville higher, and with greater hindsight I might now nudge Legend slightly above Owl’s Do Cry.

And so to Vann’s follow-up book, the novel Caribou Island. Did I love it? No. Did I hate it? No. Why the lukewarm response? To answer this requires a…

Spoiler Alert: I will discuss the twist/end of both ‘Sukkwan Island’ and Caribou Island, so leave now if you wish.

Legend of a SuicideLegend of a Suicide is a short story collection with a very long short story in the middle called ‘Sukkwan Island’ – it’s the best story in the book, but (counter to the French version which omitted all the other stories) it relies on its preceding stories for its true impact.

The preceding stories in Legend all feature a narrator, Roy, whose father committed suicide in Alaska when he was a teenager. ‘Sukkwan Island’ is a third person narrative that sees a teenaged Roy go on a camping trip with his father, and at the point at which we expect the father to commit suicide, it is the son who blows his brains out. Wham. Twist-o-rama. But the story is only half done and we now switch to the father’s perspective and must bear witness to the terrible minutiae that follows a son’s suicide in the Alaskan wilderness.

The great power exerted by ‘Sukkwan Island’ comes from the way this fiction deviates from the previous lighter fictions (in that they appear to stick closer to the autobiographical truth). The story become a kind of fantasy, both a revenge from the son David Vann on his suicide father, an act of empathy, an attempt to inhabit his father, and perhaps even self-sacrifice, if only within this fiction.

Caribou Island is like 'Sukkwan Island' in more than just name. It is set in Alaska and features suicides of parents/children. They both feature adult males who set out to live though the winter with little planning or knowledge and bring someone else along for the ride/misery. They are both told in the same flattened male register and are unrelentingly bleak.

Caribou Island also has ties to the shorter stories in Legend as there’s a womanising dentist similar to the father in Legend and the murder suicide of the dentist's partner's parents. But these are not the same characters as the stories in Legend were set in the past to correspond with the author’s own age at the time of the events, while Caribou Island is set in the present world of email, cellphones and iPods, though these don’t feature a lot, as one might expect in an Alaskan frontier story.

Caribou Island, like 'Sukkwan Island', is told in the third person, but covers a number of character’s perspectives. In addition to Irene and Gary, the fifty-something married couple being rent apart by forces neither can do much about, we also sit on the shoulder of their daughter, Rhoda, her partner Jim (the dentist), and Monique and Carl, two visitors from Washington DC who get caught up in Rhoda and Jim’s lives briefly.

Monique and Carl fade away from the story by about the two-thirds mark, when Gary and Irene finally start constructing the cabin on Caribou Island which Gary has dreamed about for 30 years (but never got around to considering the practicalities of constructing this dream). Similarly, Rhoda and Jim’s intrigues are discarded as the tension builds…

As with Legend, we know something terrible this way comes from the first page. Irene describes finding her mother after she hanged herself and the tone of dread remains until…

Spoiler Alert reminder: The ending of Caribou Island will be described in three… two… one…

Irene shoots Gary twice with a hunter’s bow and arrow and then hangs herself.

As with the precise descriptions of Roy’s decomposing body and the efforts to move him in ‘Sukkwan Island’, readers are treated to the nitty gritty of how to hang yourself in a poorly constructed log cabin (including measuring the drop height, selecting the knots and securing your own hands so that you can't reach up at the wrong moment).

This finale is much less affecting than the events in ‘Sukkwan Island’ because there is no twist. This tragedy was inevitable, and dwelling on the practicalities of the murder/suicide – though it dovetails well with the practicalities of constructing a cabin together (which is the overwrought symbol for the degradation of their relationship) – feels tawdry. It is less an act of empathy than a mechanical need to culminate the tension, pain and suffering brewed up by the preceding 250 pages.

That said, Caribou Island does plunder the depths of its characters (less so Monique and Carl) and provide a compelling anatomy of one failed marriage (potentially two if Jim and Rhoda ever tie the knot).

This is not a light summer read by any stretch, and it pales in comparison to Legend of a Suicide, but it’s still an accomplished work and I’m sure the ascension of Vann up the ranks of American writers will continue apace.

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