Thursday, March 22, 2012

David Mitchell and Cormac McCarthy

David Mitchell

As far as living fiction writers go, I've discovered two whom I've inducted into my personal pantheon of Great WritersTM.  (I'm sure there are more to discover.)

David Mitchell has written five novels in the last twelve years.  Judging from the quality of the three I've read, that's prolific.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas, and number9dream were each outstanding.  Not "good," not "entertaining."  Outstanding. 

Consider this passage from number9dream:
Inside, a man flies through the air, and through a mirror on the far side of the room. The mirror breaks into applause --the man drops out of view, to the drone-packed parlor below. The scene lurches. I gape --did I do that? Pachinko din from downstairs fills the office, unfiltered. Morino watches me from behind the desk with a finger on his amused lip and one ear cupped. I just have time to register the three horn players --they did the hurling -- and Mama-san knitting, before the chain reaction from below breaks out. Chaos, screaming, shouting. Morino rests his elbows on the desk. His smile is deep contentment. A jag of mirror falls from the frame. From outside Leatherjacket closes the door behind me. The cyclone subsides as the stampede clears the pachinko parlor below. Lizard and Frankenstein peer through the frame to inspect the damage. Morino sort of smiles with his eyelids. "Fine timing, Miyake. You witnessed my declaration of war."
This paragraph is packed full of information.  Note the brilliant use of metaphor:  "The mirror breaks into applause."  "The cyclone subsides..."  Note how descriptions of the characters reveal their natures:  "Morino sort of smiles with his eyelids."  Note how the paragraph pushes the action forward:  "A jag of mirror falls from the frame."  Masterful.

Mitchell writes with charm and humor.  But he can (and does) go dark.  He has a down-to-earth diction that is easy to channel.  

But more than his brilliant prose, it is the way Mitchell experiments with structure that sets him apart.  I'd call it ground-breaking.

Cloud Atlas, for example, is actually 6 subtly related stories, separated by centuries and spanning continents. The stories are nested within each other (recursive story-telling, if you will).  Each story is delivered in a different narrative voice (read my review of the novel here).  Mitchell's mastery is revealed in how he flits between them with pitch-perfect authenticity. 

Mitchell lists his profession as simply "novelist" which I find perfectly apropos.  Mitchell is blazing new trails.  He's redefining the art form. Reading David Mitchell makes me feel like a fool for even sitting at a keyboard.  I plan on gobbling up the remaining two novels, Black Swan Green and Ghostwritten, in the near future.  Plus anything Mitchell writes from here on out.  Mitchell is only 45 years old, which means, with any luck, I'll be reading his work for the rest of my life.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is the author of 10 novels, 2 screenplays, and 2 plays.  He's a brilliant writer, steeped in the tradition of that uniquely American genre, Southern Gothic.  I've read three of his novels, No Country for Old Men, The Road, and Blood Meridian.  McCarthy novels are like strong drink:  they should be taken in careful measure.  The worlds that he creates are dark and horrifying.

Consider this passage from The Road:
They went through the last of the cars and then walked up the track to the locomotive and climbed up to the catwalk.  Rust and scaling paint.  They pushed into the cab and he blew away the ash from the engineer's seat and put the boy at the controls.  The controls were very simple.  Little to do but push the throttle lever forward.  He made train noises and diesel horn noises but he wasn't sure what these might mean to the boy.  After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the track curved away in the waste of weeds.  If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same.  That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again.
Can we go, Papa?
Yes.  Of course we can.
The laconic narrative creates a sense of solitude and hopelessness.  His sparse punctuation and use of sentence fragments mimic human thought.  "Rust and scaling paint."  "Little to do but push the throttle lever forward."  Insight is delivered in lines weighted with painful wisdom:  "If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same.  That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again."

McCarthy's eloquence is what first won me over.  At times, when reading him, I've been so horrified that I've been tempted to slam shut the book and try to forget what I've read.  But then he delivers one of his sublime, poetic passages that compel me to continue, to face the truth that he presents.  It's an act of courage.

As McCarthy himself said, "You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget."  

If you love literature, you can't go wrong with either of these authors.  Read anything by them that you can get your hands on.

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