Monday, 16 April 2012

David Mitchell: A Litfic Praetorian

It seemed to me that [Ian McEwan's] Saturday quite bolshily said, 'OK, you accuse us of a neurotic obsession with insularity and a certain milieu. I'm going to take the most extraordinary political event that has happened in Britain for however many years and I am going to doggedly interiorise it and depoliticise it with a certain type of limpid prose . . . It was a combative novel that met that sense of there being a crisis and de-crisised it through its absolute fidelity to a set of generic tropes.

I don’t like [McEwan's] novel, but I do respect it as an adversary.

Unlike much previous soi disant Literary Fiction, the LitFic Praetorians will understand i) that they are a genre among many, ii) that their esteemed position is under attack. And they will decide to take the fight to the enemy. [...] Thus, for example, the redemptive power of art will be affirmed in the bloody imperial rubble of Iraq; musings on the melancholy of age and the rediscovery of life-affirmation in the arms of somewhat younger women will unfold before a backdrop of polemical dream-logic; and poignant stories of family betrayal and infidelity among academics will be set during alien invasions.

It's not dissimilar from Zadie Smith's skewering of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland
(online here: )
 which Mieville has praised as a useful assault on an outdated type of writing. Smith argues that the "lyrical realism" that has dominated the novel since Flaubert appears to have reached crisis point, and that O'Neill's book displays anxiety about how valid the style of fiction it represents really is. She sees his as one of the most "masterful" examples of  a style of writing which she "cautiously" hopes will survive, but which nevertheless is unfairly allowed to dominate over the Avant-Garde.

The flaw with Mieville and Smith's arguments is that bad writing cannot be blamed on a genre. McEwan's Saturday fails because of the stupidity of its plotting, the clumsy attempts to hammer political opinions (and reactionary ones at that) into the shape of fiction and its deeply unconvincing characterisation. Smith can't quote such bad passages from Netherland - rightly noting the queasiness of reading a novelist's attempt to turn 9/11 into literary imagery when one would have thought those images were profound and horrifying enough enough - and then claim the book is a masterful example of the lyrical realist mode of fiction that tends to dominate the literary world. A writer's talent dictates his successes and failures, not the genre to which their book can be ascribed. Christopher Priest has a good response to Mieville (available here: )

Hang on, though — what’s all this anthropomorphism?
“… it doesn’t think it is“. Who or what is this thinking entity called it? How can “litfic” have any thought at all? How can it have a social crisis?
If it is anything, litfic is a number of novels and short stories by a number of writers.

For China Miéville to cite or create or claim a new genre, an alleged balance against another, an argument for one genre being an argument against the other, etc., only muddies the water. It adds a new wrong to an existing wrong, and fails to make a right. It’s all very well mounting a case against an under-achieving and over-praised writer like Ian McEwan, but how would that case stand up against (e.g.) Roberto Bolaño, Graham Greene, Jerzy Kosinski, John Fowles, Chuck Palahniuk, Ivan Bunin, Anna Kavan, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Dickens, Richard Powers …? It’s obvious nonsense even to try.

Priest is right: after all, the reason the "Litfic Praetorians" idea is funny is because it supposes that the things that one finds irritating in certain literary novels are conscious tactics shared by a group determined to defeat Team Genre, but it's no truer than a suspicion that the level-crossing guard puts the barriers down earlier when he sees your car coming, or that The Inbetweeners was written and commissioned specifically to annoy me.

Futhermore, Saturday doesn't quite meet the "Litfic Praetorians" criteria because, despite its Iraq War theme and its use of the anti-war protest march, it's a book as easy to mock as an Anita Brookner novel. The protagonist's preposterously talented children, the use of McEwan's house, wife and son, the cameo by one of his own books, the loan of both his real-life encounter with Blair to his protagonist and his friend Craig Raine's poetry to the protagonist's daughter and the monumentally misjudged denouement in which an on-the-spot recitation of Dover Beach repels invading members of the underclass have all rendered the book laughable since its publication. Even John Banville, author of the dullest book to win the Booker Prize, lambasted it as "dismayingly bad" in a famous review in The New York Review of Books (he also found it genuinely unconvincing that a neurosurgeon should not know who Matthew Arnold was, that the protagonist's wife wanted to gave sex with him, and that a father and son would have no Oedipal tension in their relationship: a true Litfic man, Banville) while mainstream hacks as various as Rod Liddle, Andrew Davies, John Crace, Private Eye's "Bookworm" and Anne Robinson have slated it. Of further embarrassment to its reputation is its status as one of both Cherie Blair and Alastair Campbell's favourite books.

A much more worthy candidate for leader of the Litfic Praetorians is David Mitchell. He's a a literary novelist through and through - no imagination, little interest in human beings or plotting, tin ear for dialogue, no real prose style, but a persistence in making his prose idiosyncratic enough to pass as worthy of book pundits' attention. Ampersands, unusual names, narrators with exotically hard-to-piece-together backstories, coyly paced first-person/present tense narration: these are the tools of his trade.

The difference is that Mitchell uses every possible technique to give the superficial impression that his novels are avant-garde, acutely 21st Century, futuristic, experimental and postmodern. Cloud Atlas spans several centuries and several genres - historical, detective, SF - and has an unconventional structure - six narratives which interrupt each other mid-sentence and resume in reverse order. Number9Dream opens in an exotic futuristic Tokyo, with a narrator who switches between reality and his own pulp-inspired daydreams. Once can understand Mitchell's admirers' mistake: how could his work be parochial, dull, enclosed, insular, tweedy, hermetically sealed? Everything about it screams postmodern, innovative, experimental, funky, cool.

However, literature is not about whatever it happens to be about. As David Lodge's Morris Zapp put it, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not about animal cruelty. Jane Austen's novels are about human beings, not financial security and finding Mr Right. Every time we bemoan the modern novel for being too parochial, we confuse subject matter with the quality of the actual writing

The first chapter of Number9Dream contains several descriptions of the narrator's coffee. From the first page onwards, we get the lines "A galaxy of cream unribbons in my coffee cup," "My coffee cup stands empty in a moat of slops," and "The icebergs in my coffee fuse and chink. I pour in the juglets of syrup and cream and watch the liquids swirl and bleed." The logic that tells readers this is "literary" writing and "beautiful" prose is similar to the logic that says a picture of a kitten with a ball of string must be cute, or that a clown's big shoes must be funny. All these lines actually give us is the image of someone drinking coffee. Adding the words "bleed"- a straightforward metonym for suffering and mortality - and "galaxy" - an equally predictable syntagmatic choice, combining the cosmic with the mundanely contemporary - doesn't render it profound anymore than if the narrator had seen his very soul in the froth, just as adding "juglets" and promoting ice to "icebergs" reminds me of a passage in a bad crime novel I once skimmed in which the author attempted to make the experience of preparing a jacket potato in the microwave more interesting by using the word "nuked." These are dead sentences, as surely as "a shot rang out" or "It was a dark and stormy night."

I attempted Cloud Atlas at the same time I read Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. The latter is set in and around a provincial red-brick university, with a linear, traditional plot and no overt experimental techniques. It fits the pattern of the parochial novel as surely as Cloud Atlas fits that of its opposite. However, I found myself rereading passages in Amis's book before I'd even finished it. The prose seduced me. Amis's curious style and his distinctive comic techniques stimulated my imagination: they didn't feel like writing. This passage in which Jim is brooding over an interminable article on ship-building he has to write for an academic journal is priceless:

"In considering this strangely neglected topic," it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what?

That's an extraordinary passage, in which playfulness with language, satire and characterisation are seamlessly mixed. That's literature. The same goes for Amis's remarkable gift for conveying speech, and his ability to turn comic motifs into thematic ones (the facepulling Jim indulges in, his desire to laugh at those he hates and the discrepancy between his mental language and the things he is forced to say aloud gradually turn from funny recurring gags into affecting and poignant imagery). There's a remarkable climactic moment when Jim, in a confrontation with Bertram, an embodiment of pretentiousness, finally has the guts to let his inner language invade his speech:

The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem pole on a crap reservation, Dixon thought. “You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem pole on a crap reservation,” he said.

That's what real literary prose looks like. The book has no timeshifts, no slavery metaphors, no mixing of genres, but if only one of the sentences in Cloud Atlas came to life the way that one - from a mere campus novel - does, how richer it would be...

Similarly, Muriel Spark's novels tend to take place in suburban or metropolitan settings and feature comfortably middle-class characters, yet there are few less parochial novelists, few more innovative and none with creepier imaginations. Those weird little masterpieces The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie take us further than the author of Cloud Atlas could ever dream of, create far more vivid and disturbing characters and do things with prose that make the English language seem brand new, but they're about a home for poor young girls and an Edinburgh schoolteacher respectively.

Cloud Atlas isn't about a history lecturer or a teacher at a girls' school and it's not set entirely in Kensington, but its big-fucking-deal Russian doll structure draws one's attention to just how dull these six narratives are. The protagonists in the second and third narratives read the journal and letters that respectively comprised the preceding sections. If both had found them to be exercises in tedium, Mitchell would have gained this reader's respect, and would certainly have created characters with which one could sympathise.

Adam Roberts, in a rare dissenting review available here

What is the novel saying? It is saying that Racism is Bad; that we ought to take Care of The Environment; that People Can Sometimes Oppress Others and Be Nasty To Them and that this, like Racism, is A Bad Thing. And above all it is saying that, although it may not appear so to a superficial analysis, in fact We Are All Connected In This, Like, Cosmic Oneness That Transcends Time and Space Or Something.

The actual literary devices Mitchell uses to disguise these banal ideas are the kind of stuff that seems impressive when you're doing English at A-Level: a comet-shaped birthmark shared by several characters (such a winsomely literary icon, that: it bats its eyelashes at you and purrs, "make notes about me in the margin," like the oh-so-teasingly misremembered sorbet flavour in McEwan's Enduring Love) an attempt at sub-Riddley Walker broken English, a 19th-century journal ripe with ampersands,and letters from a ne're-do-well composer hiding out in 1920s Belgium who addresses his correspondent as "Sixsmith, you ass!"

Mitchell's least admired novel Black Swan Green offers none of these cosmetic details, and so in that book we find Mitchell's limitations quite nakedly on display. The book relies on an Infuriating habit of using casual 1980s pop-culture tidbits as referents: "Dad's got an answering machine like James Garner's in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape", Dad's swivelly chair's a lot like the Millennium Falcon's laser tower" "the girls screamed with laughter like the tv audience on Happy Days" - while the story itself suffocates us in Butterscotch Angel Delight, Creme Eggs, Paul Daniels, Open All Hours, The Great Escape, Moonraker, British Bulldogs, Lord of the Rings, Superman 2, Terry's Chocolate Oranges and Sesame Street. What's striking is not merely that the Adrian Mole books are so much funnier, but that they give us a far superior fictional response to the same period. Adrian's response to the Sunday Times's Hitler Diaries hoax and his slavish support for the launch of breakfast television with selina Scott and Frank Bough capture the 80s with far more wit than Mitchell's endless Stuart Maconie-esque namechecks, just as Adrian's grandmother coming round to check the fridge for Argentinian corned beef ("Grandmother has got a funny look in her eye. My mother says it is called Jingoism but I think it is more likely to be cataracts forming. We did them at school so I speak from knowledge"), Adrian failing to locate the Falklands on a map after a crumb conceals them, school bully Barry Kent wearing a union jack t-shirt to school, his shouting nasty names at two Asian kids and his unexpected membership of Rock Against Racism tell us so much more about the same period, and through far more engaging characters, than Mitchell's endless Falklands lip service.

Similarly, the memory of what a better time one had  devouring William Gibson's splendid Neuromancer hangs over Number9Dream. Mitchell peppers his prose with words like bioborg, but they aren't allowed to become potent: he moves away from silly little genre to the Big Important Literary Stuff like Slavery, Destiny and Whatever's floating in his coffee cup. Number9Dream begins with the protagonist drinking coffee, then shifts him to a pulp scenario in which there are little hints that this isn't really anything as vulgar as SF or a thriller (a Walther PPK is called a Walther PK, Blade Runner-style Replicants are slightly misdefined and the film they come from is namechecked at the same time). It's a technique reminiscent of Ted's references to "Icey tea and Snoopy Snoopy Dogg Dogg" in Father Ted and Alan Partridge's to "The Steptoe Wives". It's then revealed that this was all a daydream and our hero is still in the cafe with his hot beverage. Juglet time again.

To read Gibson, by contrast, with his genuinely intriguing mirror-shaded, razor-fingernailed femme fatale, genuinely terrifying vat-grown Cloned Ninjas and his evocative and unsettling opening line "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel", is to read a novelist who does justice to his ideas. Gibson doesn't need to pull the "that was just a dream" routine on us, because he knows a dream as powerful as this can tell us far more about reality than if his hero stays behind and gets lyrically caffeinated. Books like Neuromancer and Lauren Beukes's Zoo City have so much more guts than Number9Dream: their authors combine a sharp awareness of where the outside world is heading with the attentive prose, characterisation and structure that one requires of literature and a determination to make their genre figures (Gibson's ninjas and razor girls, Beukes's heroine with a sloth on her back and pair of heavies with a Maltese Cocker Spaniel and a Marabou Stork on theirs) irreducible and compelling in themselves. That old Stephen King analogy for genre vs litfic presents itself again: Mitchell's novels are cars with a lot of effort put into the paintwork, Gibson and Beukes's novels are cars with engines.

It's unlikely Mitchell will be read by future generations, but while he is in vogue, the enemies of good fiction - those for whom the main object of a work of literature should be for it to feel literary, for whom difficulty and scattergun idiosyncrasy are desirable in themselves rather than as a way of achieving something else, for whom good books are instantly recognisable rather than confounding or shocking, and for whom the delight in narrative is a vulgar concern - have the perfect leader of their Praetorian guard. David Mitchell really does write fiction for the 21st Century.

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