by David Mitchell
Okay, there are two possibilities here.
Possibility one is that I missed the intricate interweavings of the finest filaments of this novel’s plot. I saw some of them: there is a theme of reincarnation and rebirth that is fairly easy to spot, and also a connection based on storytelling. And maybe that’s the whole point: that we live new lives over and over again, and those lives are connected by the stories we tell, the words we write down. That’s a fairly interesting idea, but while I believe in reincarnation of a sort, I don’t believe in straightforward rebirth/transmogrification of the soul from one body to the next, so that connection was lost on me — and without it, the story connection becomes just kinda precious and clever.
Possibility two is that this novel is too precious and clever.
I am inclined, honestly, to believe possibility one. I think I’m a fairly perceptive reader, but — not always; most of my life has been spent reading genre fiction rather than seriously dense literature, which I’ve really only picked up since I’ve been a teacher. The book has a lot of blurbs by pretty impressive people, including A.S. Byatt and Michael Chabon; everyone says this is a magical, unbelievable work of magnificence. So it is entirely possible that I read right past the lyrical wonders of this novel, that this is one of the books which, as I tell my students, can’t be read, but can only be re-read.
But since the first possibility is not the only one, I’m not going to be re-reading this.
So the idea is that the book is a series of nested stories. It starts with an American traveling through the South China Sea in 1850; then it goes to a British composer in Belgium in 1931; then an investigative reporter in California in the 1970’s; then England in 2004; then a near-future Korea, and finally a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Then it goes back: Korea, England, California, Belgium, South China Seas. Each story is in some way recorded — the first guy wrote a memoir, the second a series of letters to a friend, the third story was novelized, the fourth turned into a movie, the fifth recorded an interview. And each person in the following story encounters the recorded story of the person before; and each of them, it seems, is the reincarnation of the one before. But my trouble with this book is: that’s it. That seems to be the only logical link. I was looking for more; I was hoping that the South China Seas/Korea/Hawaii connection would be meaningful, but I don’t think it was. I was hoping that there would be a causative link, that the revolution hinted at in the Korea story leads to the apocalypse which the Hawaii story is post-. That the composer in Belgium would have something to do with the modern-day England story, in terms of the plot of one connecting to the plot of the other.
And maybe those links were there. But if they were, I missed them.
So it seems to me that the novel is a set of short stories, without a common theme, with dissimilar main characters — because they may each be the reincarnation of each other, but that’s all they have in common — and no real plotline that runs through the whole thing. They are interconnected only the way a book of short stories set in the same town might be interconnected, which is — not really at all. Though of course, with Joyce’s Dubliners (which I’ve never read) and Faulkner’s Abercrombiewhateverthehellit’scalled County novels (which I’ve never read) and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (Which I did read, and liked) all having that sort of connection, I guess that’s enough to make this a tour-de-force that lives up to its blurbs. But for me, it was not terribly exciting.
I probably should have taken the hint when I mentioned to my wife that I was reading this, and she said, “Yeah, it was a movie. We watched it.” Even though I have absolutely no memory of watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I slept through it. I should have slept through the book, too.