Fat Books & Thin Women


#Longreads: Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books


When I was eight or nine years old and learned that Carolyn Keene wasn’t the writer of Nancy Drew – that Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a name stamped on books written by a number of ghost writers – I was crushed. Briefly, I became suspicious of my other favorite series. Was Ann M. Martin not a real person? How about Francine Pascal?

I got over it in about a day, because I loved the Nancy Drew stories. What I most loved about them was that they seemed to never end. Whether I examined my reasoning or not, I came to accept that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person because the number of writers working on the Nancy Drew books gave me so much more reading material than a single writer ever could. I could read the old yellow hardcover books, the newer trade paperbacks (whose numbers began where the hardcovers’ left off), the mass market editions following Nancy through mysteries + romantic entanglements (The Nancy Drew Files) and college (Nancy Drew on Campus).

Enter Meghan O’Rourke’s fun article, “Nancy Drew’s Father,” which is about not Carson Drew but Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the syndicate that published the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, among others. O’Rourke does a great job of contextualizing Stratemeyer’s success in producing these books, looking both at the company’s workings and at the social changes that left a space for inexpensive hardbacks children would want to buy with their own money. The popularity of the syndicate’s books is hard to believe.

In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list.

Clearly there was a need and desire for the sorts of books Stratemeyer produced. As anyone familiar with the uproar over James Frey’s syndicate knows, it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable with the treatment of novels like any other assembly line product. Stratemeyer’s books fascinate especially because some of them have lasted so long. It’s hard for someone like me, who grew up reading the Nancy Drew books, to imagine a day when they’re not being devoured by children. (To my readers who have children: do they still like these books?)

The Nancy Drew books had a clear house style, and the writers were tasked with filling in the details of the plot outlines provided them by Stratemeyer, producing books that would make a literary critic shudder but thrill legions of young readers.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

It seems to me that Stratemeyer got something right in the characters he was offering readers. Nancy Drew was someone a young reader could look up, could aspire to be, but she wasn’t necessarily someone a mother or father would want their child turning into, despite her good manners.

I’m curious, if you grew up reading the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books: when did you figure out that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon weren’t real people, but pen names? Did that change the way you read the books, or not matter at all? And do you, like me, still hold that dream of writing as Carolyn Keene, despite the horrifyingly low pay and lack of creative freedom?

Read Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed

Advertisements


My 11 Days with Emily Giffin

As a reader who’s been known to rail against “chick lit” as a worthy genre (this despite my weakness for the film equivalents of the books), it is with some shame that I admit I spent eleven full days doing little but reading the oeuvre of Emily Giffin. I know, I know; the distanced tone I’m trying to take here doesn’t exactly fit with the fact that I spent a week and a half devouring her books, forgetting to shower until nearly 4 PM every afternoon (this being when my water goes out), and littering my talk of Albania after the fall of Communism* with references to Giffin’s characters.

I gave Something Borrowed and Something Blue their own reviews on the blog. I was surprised, and really pleased, by how much I enjoyed the two books. Reading them, I felt like I was watching TV – but a clever show, one that delved effectively and sometimes movingly into its characters’ psyches. I might have felt a little ill by the time I finished the books, but that was as much due to the speed with which I flipped pages on the Kindle (I never knew you could tire out a thumb…you can) as to the content of the books. Rachel and Darcy weren’t always likeable characters, but I was able to maintain a certain admiration for them because they were both women with a focus on their careers and on bettering themselves, regardless of what dudes might be hanging around them. Rachel may have been the more sympathetic of the two (mainly because it’s so easy to see myself in her; she lives in a crummy studio apartment, hates her job, and for most of her thirty years is a total failure, romantically speaking**), but both women were so carefully drawn by Giffin that it was hard not to be sucked in by their romantic plights.

As I kept reading Giffin’s works – the other three being Baby Proof, Love the One You’re With, and Heart of the Matter – they began to blend together. Also, I began to suspect that my constant queasiness wasn’t only the result of my sore thumb and inability to tear myself away from the novels long enough to head out on milk and cereal and water runs, but of the novels themselves. The freshness that marked Giffin’s first two novels mostly disappears in her later works. The women in them still feel real, and they’re not bad people to spend a few hours with, but the situations Giffin was writing about seemed increasingly contrived.

Love the One You’re With is probably the best of the bunch, following a recently married woman who runs into her first love on the street, then attempts to negotiate her feelings about this man (who suddenly seems to want her, and care about her, in a way he never did while they were together) and about the compromises she has to make as part of a married couple. In Baby Proof there’s the seemingly well-adjusted and committed married couple who fall apart, and push through the quickest divorce on record, after the husband inexplicably decides that after over thirty years of not wanting children, he does, and becomes kind of an asshat when pushing his wife to want a baby as well. Heart of the Matter is unique among Giffin’s novels for alternating chapters between two women, but the event on which the plot hinges – that the six-year-old son of one of these women falls into a campfire while at a sleepover, somehow managing to burn one side of his face and the opposite hand badly enough that he has to stay over a month in the hospital, and return for repeated follow-up surgeries – is shaky and hard to trust.

I think what it was, though, wasn’t so much what was happening in these novels, as what Giffin’s women began to look like. She has the habit of bringing former characters back in minor walk-on roles, presumably to allow her readers the pleasure of seeing where everyone wound up years later. (Not unlike the lame epilogue J.K. Rowling tacked on to the final Harry Potter book.) Rachel, Darcy, Ethan, Dex – all these characters from earlier books appear unreasonably happy and well-adjusted when Giffin reintroduces them, and this in some essential way cheapens their earlier stories by suggesting that after a few emotionally wrenching months, they are able to settle down to uninterrupted happiness. There’s the fact, too, that Giffin seems to take some pleasure in removing her women from the workforce. Miserable as Rachel was at her job in Something Borrowed, it’s unpleasant (at best) to see her reappear as a contented housewife, hanging out with the kids while Dex is at his high-powered job.

When Giffin writes about her later characters, though, they often struggle with these decisions about work that Rachel apparently has made so easily. Ellen of Love the One You’re With attempts to give up her New York home and career (and, yeah, another thing about Giffin – she gushes about New York like nobody’s business – kind of cheap, but also appealing to someone like me who sometimes gets mopey and misses the States on rainy days) to live with her husband Andy in Atlanta, Georgia, but fails miserably as she realizes that she isn’t happy in the life that Andy is happy with, or that Andy’s sister and her best friend is happy with. Tessa, of Heart of the Matter, has given up her job as an English professor to stay home with her children, and the degree to which she feels trapped by her decision is suffocating to the reader as well as the character.

If I read these books for escapism – and what else was I reading them for? – I have to wonder if I preferred Giffin’s earlier books because they were about lives I could better imagine for myself. These were women who were a few years older than me, who were making decisions (about where to work, where to live, who to love and who to settle for) that I can see myself making when I am having my version of Rachel’s thirtieth birthday party. Giffin’s other characters, though, are all a bit too far from me; it’s not that their lives are too good for me to imagine at this stage of my life,*** but that their lives are so far from anything I ever want to imagine for myself. If I was reading Giffin’s novels to escape from the two weeks of rain Tirana saw (seriously. My entire apartment was leaking by the time it let up), the last thing I wanted was to escape to a stifling world of talking with four-year-olds and debating the best way of getting kids into the private preschools that would make their future. Part of me admires and appreciates that Giffin’s characters have changed over time, and that she is not simply writing variations on the same story, told by the same few characters, again and again. But the rest of me – let’s be honest, the bigger part of me – wants exactly that of Giffin. As well-read and culturally advanced as I may claim to be, it turns out that sometimes what I really want is the literary equivalent of Knocked Up**** – a story that I can turn to, again and again, with thanks for its repetitive qualities.*****

* To make myself feel cultured, I allowed forced myself to read Albanian history as a counterpoint to the hundred pages of chick lit I was reading an hour.

** I should here mention that I actually live in a very nice apartment and have a jealousy-inspiring job (to sit around reading about Albania, and sometimes writing about Albania, with regular walking breaks), so what Rachel’s life really reminds me of is when I was 22, living in a poorly placed and tiny apartment in Philly, with a not-exactly-dream-job job.

*** Being a 26-year-old fortunate enough to have lived abroad for coming up on three years, but with no prospects on the husband or baby fronts.

**** Which I have seen, probably, over twenty times by now. It is almost time for me to watch it again! And let me add, here, that one of my dream jobs is to one day be a writer for Judd Apatow’s movies. How to achieve that?

***** With Knocked Up gaining those “repetitive qualities” (I am being so honest today) mostly…okay, entirely…because I’ve seen it so many times.

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed



Story Sunday: Matt Getty’s “Keeping Susie Whole”
February 26, 2012, 7:27 pm
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: , , , , , ,

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Matt Getty’s “Keeping Susie Whole” is such a gorgeous and strange read. At first the central image of this story, that of a girl literally coming apart when she’s upset, seems little more than a clever conceit. As the story continues, though, it becomes far more, a meditation on what it is to be a parent, to want something for a child, and to watch that child fail to meet unexpressed expectations and in time find her way to some private understanding of her self.

Really, what is there to say about the story? It opens with an image that seems, again, a play, but Getty never stops developing Susie, her relationship with her parents, and the ways she comes apart.

Susie was two when parts of her body started falling off. At first it was minor—fingertips, earlobes, the pinky toe on her left foot. Sheila and I would find them lying around the house, discarded, collected in small piles like forgotten toys, bits of cereal she’d spilled from the high chair.

What I like so much about this story is the very honest way Getty’s characters shift in their attitudes and reactions towards Susie coming apart, and the ways that even those comings apart change over time. Susie, Susie’s husband, and her mother and father, shift between accepting and promoting her gift, and wanting to keep it something hidden within the confines of their home, or tamped down altogether. And the early images of the narrator and his wife trying to fit Susie back together are simply remarkable.

Often, Sheila had to pin her shoulders as I struggled to snap her legs back into her hips. Other times she sat on Susie’s feet as I pieced her face back together, eyebrows furrowing angrily as soon as I pressed them down, lips curling into a frown as soon as I pinched them back over the edges of her mouth, tongue thrashing about as soon as I’d anchored it back into her throat, giving voice to screams that made the hairs on my forearms stand up.

“Mine!” she shouted. “My face. No! No want face. Leave me alone. My face!”

A clever and moving story.

Read “Keeping Susie Whole” online

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed



Review: Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone
February 24, 2012, 10:30 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone follows a southern Albanian city, Gjirokastër, through the occupations of the Second World War. Kadare, who grew up in Gjirokastër, offers as narrator a boy slightly older than Kadare himself at the time of the events he writes about. Although the narrator offers little real understanding of the war or the occupations, or of what these things mean for his town and for Albania, in its place he gives a certain personhood to the city itself. Chronicle in Stone is divided into chapters, featuring the boy’s first-person narration, and of pages between those chapters composed of either anecdotes from the boy or selections of the local papers. These selections from the papers at times offer the reader a way of better understanding and placing the events the boy writes about, but even without them the novel would be one notable for the ways Kadare views history as almost a part of the landscape, and that landscape as having a selfhood all its own.

Time and again Kadare writes of the life the city holds. Although it would be hard to think of the Albanian mountains as offering any tenderness, over the novel’s course the city begins to take on a sympathetic cast, appearing not so much harsher than the people living in its confines, despite Kadare’s early description of the city and its people.

Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales. It was hard to believe that, under this powerful carapace, the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced.

Kadare’s prose manages to be both solemn and lighthearted, shifting easily from these moments of almost ecstatic description to jokes and off-color observations. Although the novel has been translated twice – from Albanian to French, from French to English – the translator, David Bellos, has done an admirable job keeping intact the text’s unique style and description. See the continuing description of Gjirokastër:

It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and it was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house – a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks.

Yes, a very strange city indeed. In some places you could walk down the street, stretch out your arm, and hang your hat on a minaret.

Gjirokastër during the Second World War is marked both by its occupations – with Italian, Greek, and German soldiers changing places so often and quickly that residents sometimes wake to find a new occupying force has moved into place – and by the growing forces of Communism. Enver Hoxha, the man who would make himself as Albania’s dictator for forty years (entirely shutting the country off from the outside world, so that the only televisions and cars were owned by the State), came from Gjirokastër, and he and his partisan forces receive some attention near novel’s end as the city’s young men and women join the partisans in the mountains.

The narrator’s version of these events, again, are curiously limited. This is a boy who never ventures out of the city, who early on questions, “What were the villages like? Where were they and why didn’t we ever see them? To tell the truth I didn’t really believe the villages existed.” The world he describes in Chronicle in Stone seems formed as much by his reading of Macbeth as by the war; the city, and all the inanimate objects in and around it, take on their own personalities and reasoned actions in our narrator’s eyes. When the occupying forces build an air field outside of the city, the boy writes lovingly of one of the planes:

Only the big plane was free of all suspicion. Even if all the other planes were evil, my plane couldn’t be. I still loved it just as much. My heart swelled with pride when I saw it lift off the runway, filling the valley with its impressive din. I especially loved it when it came back exhausted from the south, where there was fighting.

Even memories and sentences take on a physicality, suggesting some sense of being:

Bits of memory, fragments of sentences or words, splinters of trivial events swarmed about, shoving and catching one another by the ear or nose with a brusqueness sharpened by the speed of my steps.

This sentence echoes an earlier one, when the boy is still reading a borrowed copy of Macbeth. It’s the sense of the action contained within the book’s covers that in time seems to spill out into the boy’s world, rendering everything in it worthy of note and suspicion, down to the neighbor who regularly carries cabbages (reimagined as human heads) past the boy’s house. The boy views the book with an absolute wonder that in time encompasses everything in his world.

I couldn’t get to sleep. The book lay nearby. Silent. A thin object on the divan. It was so strange … Between two cardboard covers were noises, doors, howls, horses, people. All side by side, pressed tightly against one another. Decomposed into little black marks. Hair, eyes, legs and hands, voices, nails, beards, knocks on doors, walls, blood, the sound of horseshoes, shouts. All docile, blindly obedient to the little black marks. The letters run in mad haste, now here, now there. The h’s, r’s, o’s, t’s gallop over the page. They gallop together to create a horse or a hailstorm. Then gallop away again. Now they create a dagger, a night, a ghost. Then streets, slamming doors, silence. Running and running. Never stopping. Without end.

That is the same sense that emerges from the novel as a whole. Not of a story without end, but of a place without end. As the occupying forces move in and out, as the partisans become a part of daily conversation, the city sustains itself, carries on without end. There is a tremendous, indescribable beauty to the life Kadare has given his city in this novel, to the way even a war can seem a bit player next to the city’s life. Kadare doesn’t just offer beauty, of course; his description can veer sharply, shockingly, in the other direction, as when one character is shot while eating and “[m]orsels of half-chewed meat mingled with blobs of Azem’s brain as they rained down together onto the low dining table.”

Chronicle in Stone is a gorgeously imagined and written novel. The strength of the narrator and the ways he considers his world will stay with you long after you return the book to your shelf, as will Kadare’s Gjirokastër, improbably holding strong to its mountainside perch, guarding its inhabitants but with little care of the world surrounding it.

Gjirokastër

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed



#Longreads: Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Theth, Albania

I’ve been holding off on posting about Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance” for a few months now, because of the risk of reasserting or reaffirming some of the stereotypes about Albania. This is, to say it early and just one time, a beautiful country – one not without its problems, but home to some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Anderson’s article about Albanian blood feuds, published about thirteen years ago, gives a glimpse of northern Albania, and of traditional blood feuds, that makes for compelling reading. It is also a picture of Albania that is far different from the Albania of today. While the country has its problems – with building infrastructure, with education, with corruption – I doubt anyone would now describe Albania as “an economic ruin, its government is largely theoretical,” as Anderson does in his article.

Anderson considers not only the question of blood feuds in Albania, but the question of what causes violence in the Balkans.

What is it about the Balkans that so defeats all efforts to calm them? In searching for an answer, observers have naturally focused their greatest attention on the succession of conflicts that have torn apart the former Yugoslavia. And in so doing, they have tended to conclude that the Balkans are singularly riven by centuries-old ethnic and religious hatreds — that these are people, or better, groups of people, who simply can’t live together.

Rather than labeling Balkan violence the inevitable result of religious schisms, Anderson considers the issue from the city-village divide. He relies heavily on the idea of the kanun as the guiding force behind the blood feuds; as he writes:

…many Albanians […] once again openly embrace the traditional laws and loyalties of the village. These are spelled out in the kanun (pronounced ka-NOON), a book of rules and oaths. By the dictates of the kanun — there are actually several versions, most of which came into being centuries ago — one’s primary allegiance is to clan and community, not to the state. In accordance with this allegiance, taking revenge in order to defend the honor of one’s family is not only permissible but also a sacred duty. Of course, unlike medieval times, now that duty can be carried out with modern weaponry like assault rifles.

A lock-in tower, as used to be used in blood feuds

Anderson may rely too much on the idea of the kanun – as James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers write in The Albanian Question: Reshaping the Balkans (I know, I know, I am dangerously far into “things none of my readers care about” territory) the kanun has essentially become an oversimplified lens Westerners can use when viewing Albania. The kanun may not be as wholly responsible for guidance of village life as Anderson writes, because during Enver Hoxha’s Communist rule strong local power structures developed and were able to reemerge following the collapse of Albania’s post-Communist government.

Anyway, back to the article! Anderson considers these questions of Balkan violence and what governs these northern Albanian towns and villages by writing about a blood feud in which a man was gunned down in one of northern Albania’s larger towns, Shkodër. Anderson speaks with the families on both sides of the blood feud, and in doing so highlights some of the difficulties with these feuds – that they can go back and forth for years, as neither family is willing to abandon a “blood” after a member of their family has been killed. Anderson’s visit to an Albanian man who negotiates ends to blood feuds is a telling moment, too, as the man describes having to bring the entirety of both feuding families together for a ceremony, to avoid the possibility that one absent family member will claim he is not tied to the peace settlement.

Anderson does an admirable job of reviewing Albanian history, from Hoxha’s rule to the fall of Communism to the pyramid schemes that collapsed in 1997. This is an engrossing read whether or not you’re familiar with Albanian history, and raises necessary questions both about the “Balkan mentality” and about the ties Albanians – that all of us, really – hold to family and community.

Read Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance”

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed



Review: Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars
February 20, 2012, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars is like seeing the journalist version of my twelve-year-old self: Roach is endlessly curious, prone to digressions, and drawn to potty humor. This makes her a fantastic if sometimes frustrating guide through NASA’s history, and training and testing processes. She alternates between making seemingly unconnected ideas and stories “click” into satisfying place, and leaving her readers with a mass of information on something connected to NASA in only the most generous of terms. Her habit of preceding some throw-off fact with “I read somewhere…” smacks of occasional laziness (just tell us where you read it!), but Roach always recovers herself through the sheer enthusiasm with which she attacks such topics as how to use a space toilet, and whether a Russian porn film was really filmed in zero gravity.

Still, there isn’t anyone I would rather follow on a tour through NASA. Roach has an eye for the absurd and the uncomfortable, and appears to take some pleasure in noting how frequently her questions (about toilet use, sex in space, and so much more) are evaded. She provides a view of the astronaut’s life that is sometimes startling for its divergence from the grade school dream. Astronauts, it turns out, spend most of their time not being in space – a disappointing discovery for someone like me, who maybe hasn’t held close the dream of journeying to outer space, but who nonetheless never paused to think about how unromantic the astronaut’s life is.

Roach’s greatest discovery here, though, may be in finding the NASA employees who are as willing as she is to joke about the odder elements of life in space. She also has a special talent for finding the few worthwhile, gut-busting lines from transcripts that run for hundreds of pages, as when the Apollo 10 crew members find themselves plagued by some “floaters.” (Seriously: shit, in space, does not always stay in the toilet or bag where it’s been deposited.)

CERNAN: …You know once you get out of lunar orbit, you can do a lot of things. You can power down…And what’s happening is –
STAFFORD: Oh – who did it?
YOUNG: Who did what?
CERNAN: What?
STAFFORD: Who did it? [laughter]
CERNAN: Where did that come from?
STAFFORD: Give me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.
YOUNG: I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.
CERNAN: I don’t think it’s one of mine.
STAFFORD: Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.
YOUNG: God almighty.

[And again eight minutes later, while discussing the timing of a waste-water dump.]

YOUNG: Did they say we could do it anytime?
CERNAN: They said on 135. They told us that – Here’s another goddam turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here, give me a –
YOUNG/STAFFORD: [laughter]…
STAFFORD: It was just floating around?
CERNAN: Yes.
STAFFORD: [laughter] Mine was stickier than that.
YOUNG: Mine was too. It hit that bag –
CERNAN: [laughter] I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it nor disclaim it. [laughter]
YOUNG: What the hell is going on here?

Look, this space turd segment is, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments of Packing for Mars – I could not resist the temptation to quote it in full – and it highlights what makes Mary Roach such a fun writer. She knows no shame or boundaries, and she answers the questions we didn’t even know we had. She mixes these (frankly hilarious) moments into more serious examination of all the things we don’t know about space: what would happen to a baby conceived in space, how to keep the human body from deteriorating in zero G, how to handle multinational crews dealing with their fellow astronauts’ cultural quirks, whether it is worth putting a half billion dollars into a mission to Mars that in all odds won’t have any tangible results. Oddly enough, given the way Roach strips away many of our childhood images and myths of NASA, she imbues the organization with slightly more wonder than she pulls away. NASA is a bureaucratic engine, and one that perhaps takes itself too seriously; but even in this it offers us something new, as with the biblical instructions regarding sandwiches that can go into space:

The contraband Wolfie’s sandwich

violated no less than sixteen of the formal manufacturing requirements for “Beef Sandwiches, Dehydrated (Bite Sized).” The requirements cover six pages and are set forth in the ominous phrasing of biblical commandments. (“There shall be no…damp or soggy areas.” “The coating shall not chip or flake.”)

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed



Review: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is such a detailed and well-crafted novel that it’s hard, at times, not to feel you’re watching a movie. Mitchell follows the titular character, Jacob de Zoet, as he moves to a Japanese factory town as a clerk for a Dutch shipping company. De Zoet has landed this job in an attempt to better himself and his prospects, so that at the end of five years he can return home and marry his sweetheart, Anna. Whether Anna feels Jacob needs to better himself or not, her father does. Jacob’s work has, from the start, an air of the prison sentence to it – at least as far as his dealings with coworkers go.

Mitchell doesn’t just follow Jacob, though, and it’s his ability to move between characters and worlds that makes this novel such a remarkable one. Mitchell follows Jacob’s travails as the hated assistant to a man who vows to clean up the Dutch company’s work on Dejima (a factory town on an island off of Nagasaki) and get rid of employees seeking unfair profits; a Japanese midwife as she is forced to move to a shrine run by the Lord Enomoto, a fearsomely powerful man; and the attempts of a British naval captain, John Penhaligon, to rescue his career by taking over the Japanese trade controlled by the Dutch. Mitchell uses each of these characters, in turn, to look at types of power and how it is wielded. Penhaligon, for instance, hopes to both assert his own power over his crew and to declare himself a worthy captain when he arrives home. The longer Jacob is in Dejima, the more he realizes that his “power” is fleeting and dependent on a fickle superior. And the midwife, Orito Aibagawa, early appears to have an extraordinary amount of power and self-possession, though even this proves of slight value against Enomoto’s wishes and her own desire to do right for those she lives with in the shrine.

As Greg at The New Dork Review of Books pointed out in his review of The Thousand Autumns, Mitchell exhibits some stylistic quirks that can impede the flow of the reading. The interruptions – characters talking over one another, characters’ thoughts cutting into conversation, details of the world inserting themselves midway through a conversation – at times run on until it is hard to keep track of the original conversation. One meeting is broken up by numerous times:

‘But what Yoshida-san proposes,’ objects Dr Maeno, ‘would require…’

A radical new government, thinks Uzaemon, and a radical new Japan.

A chemist unknown to Uzaemon suggests, ‘A trade mission to Batavia?’

Yoshida shakes his head. ‘Batavia is a ditch, and whatever the Dutch tell us, Holland is a pawn. […]’

Mitchell’s style does sometimes prove a distraction, but at other times it affords a tremendous energy to the novel. These characters seem to live and breath, in their inability to censor either their thoughts or words. At other times, the sort of rapid-fire description to which Mitchell is prone provides a gorgeous backdrop for the characters. When de Zoet walks around Dejima, early on, it is almost as though he moves before an (very active) movie set:

In the garden, the cream roses and red lilies are past their best.

Bread is being delivered by provedores at the Land-Gate.

In Flag Square, Peter Fischer sits on the Watchtower’s steps. ‘Lose an hour in the morning, Clerk de Zoet,’ the Prussian calls down, ‘and you search for it all day.’

In van Cleef’s upper window, the Deputy’s latest ‘wife’ combs her hair.

She smiles at Jacob; Melchior van Cleef, his chest hairy as a bear’s, appears.

‘“Thou Shalt Not”,’ he quotes, ‘“Dip thy Nib in Another Man’s Inkwell.”’

The Deputy Chief slides shut the shoji window before Jacob can protest his innocence.

Outside the Interpreters’ Guild, palanquin bearers squat in the shadows. Their eyes follow the red-haired foreigner as he passes.

Through scenes like this Mitchell gives us a view of the workings of the whole island, not just Jacob’s small part of that world. It’s these details, provided rapid fire, that make the story such an engrossing one. Whether or not you are interested in Jacob’s early concerns with the trade mission, these descriptive sentences, sprinkled liberally throughout, offer a view of Dejima that is hard to resist.

As the novel progresses, Jacob becomes less a moving figure in front of the backdrop of Dejima, and more a part of that backdrop itself. He becomes involved, too, in the lives of Dejima’s Japanese residents. Mitchell does this so carefully, so gradually, that you don’t realize how fully Jacob has become a part of the island’s life until long after he is.

Mitchell has so many parts of this story moving at once that some elements are left to the side after a brief moment as seemingly central elements to the plot. Even this seems carefully orchestrated; Mitchell may move away from certain storylines, most notably that of Orito and the shrine, but this has the feel, again, of real life. Some characters on missions we would expect to be vital elements of the plot are lost, killed, forgotten; but their missions and lives have ways of quietly reasserting themselves, later on, through different characters and at unexpected moments.

While it may seem at odds to say that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reads like a movie, and that it reads very much like life, this is the only way I can think of it. In shifting between the vision of Dejima as a moving backdrop to the dull life of a shipping company clerk, and a vision of that same clerk as an integral part of life on Dejima, Mitchell makes clear the distinction between living somewhere and being a part of life somewhere. Mitchell has written a book that is at the same moment overflowing with intrigue (holy moly, is there a lot of that; and this review can’t pass without a mention of Enomoto, perhaps best described as “dastardly” – one of the most fully and irredeemably evil characters I’ve ever read) and with the attempt to answer questions of how and where and why we choose to make our lives.

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed