Monday, March 21, 2011

The Sound of One Thousand Autumns

Much has already been said--and been said better than I ever could--elseweb about David Mitchell's stellar historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  Reviews at The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Salon are well worth checking out.

What I'd like to talk about is how beautifully the novel sounds.  In fact, if the publishing world had the equivalent of a Best Sound Mixing Oscar, there's little doubt Mitchell would be toting home a golden statue of an ear.

Briefly, for those who haven't yet read* The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: the titular character is a clerk in a Danish company who is deployed to Japan in 1799 to help keep trade running smoothly and to play patty-cake politics with the xenophobic locals.  While there, he meets and is enamored by a medical student who, despite her sex, is garnering a reputation for her skills as a midwife.  Things happen**, the girl is sent to a remote mountaintop monastery where even worse things happen*** and Jacob is tortured by guilt over his inability to prevent tragedy.  Oh yeah, there's also a very robust naval bombardment.

Through it all, I kept marking sentences and entire paragraphs**** where Mitchell fully engaged all five of the reader's senses ("Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall. A hairy beggar kneeling by a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog," etc.).  This novel all but comes with a Scratch-n-Sniff strip on every page.

It's the soundtrack, however, that struck me the hardest (and loudest).  Throughout the book, cicadas sing, ship timbers grunt and sigh, snow falls from a pine tree with "a flat thud," and an artisan's loom goes "tack-ratta-clack-ah, tack-ratta-clack-ah."  One section begins: "Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting."  There's poetry, overt and covert, in a sentence like that.  But it's not an isolated case in these 484 pages.  Some of my other Kindlighted passages include:
Blood ejaculates from the shorn stump with a thin, whistling sound.
Doves trill, a peaceful sound on this frightened afternoon.  A gardener rakes the white stones by the bronze pond.
All the dogs are barking and the crows are crazed.
And, please pardon the graphic nature of this moment as a ship enters the harbor, but it's another good example of how the soundtracks runs in a constant stream beneath Mitchell's words:
     A man in the heads, a few feet down and a few feet forward, groans.
     “The Japanese, I read,” says Talbot, “give florid names to their kingdom …”
     The unseen sailor issues an almighty orgasmic bellow of relief …
     “‘The Land of a Thousand Autumns’ or ‘The Root of the Sun.’”
    … and a turd hits the water like a cannonball. Wetz rings three bells.
     “Seeing Japan,” says Talbot, “such poetic names seem precise.”

Indeed, there's a very precise music threading like a baroque air around every paragraph of this book.  If you can stand it, even bowel movements get a few notes.*****

A writer friend of mine is always giving me advice about my novel Fobbit: "Make them smell Iraq.  Make them hear it.  Put them there in the moment."  Mitchell must have been listening to the same friend because he has doused this novel in sensuality.

Put another way, as Akira Kurosawa was to color in Ran, so David Mitchell is to sound in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

*And if you haven't, get cracking on it!  You'll thank me later.
**Which is a short way of skipping over 250 pages of plot.
***Another 100 pages.  But I wouldn't tell you what happens anyway.  I'm not a spoiler kind of guy.
****In fact, my records show that I highlighted 45 passages in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  That's three times the amount I normally highlight.
*****At this point, I'm tempted to make a joke about "that's some good shit, dude!"  But I won't.

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