I am trying to read 40 books this year. It’s not a random number. Goodreads prompted me to make a goal, and I went back into the pen-and-paper record I’ve kept since…it looks like…2002? And in my most productive college year I read 40 books, not counting those I was required to read for classes that I did not enjoy. So I thought I would try and match that.
I’m already behind, I guess. And I’m currently halfway through The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. And the whole time a litany has been running through my head: yes you have to forgive him, you’ve met him, he’s decent and he was better than decent to your husband, who doesn’t always encounter people who are. I tried to read this book closer to my period in Japan and put it down in disgust. Now I’m plowing through and it’s true–I do have every intention of forgiving David Mitchell for these moments that squick me. These moments that preen themselves as being so unique but–I am aligned entirely with Dr. Marinus on this, and I suppose I should be grateful there exists in this book a character who will put words to it–are so patently regurgitated by every lovesick white boy come to Japan to gawk at all the delicate lilies who would never stand up to him, make him feel like he had unfair privilege, the way those girls back home would. The guys who sleep with their language teachers then claim true love, and brag about offering vittles up to their dead relatives every night. The guys who, if they can’t have kids (because of course the culture treats adoption like the plague, and it’s an option rarely discussed outright, and then only with shame, so obsessed with blood and bloodlines is everyone), refuse to adopt anyone but a Japanese child. Embarrassments, all of them, to everything they claimed they believed in before they came over and reverted to a kind of self-congratulating manifest destiny.
But where I hope this story is going is for blundering idiot de Zoet to realize just how involved Orito’s life is outside his own–how, no, she wasn’t sitting there pining for his hairy pink hocks all day, because she has a life deeply entwined in politics and medicine completely beyond his ken, a life that doesn’t invite some ham-fisted foreigner with an itch in his pants to come in playing the knight errant and whisk her away from the dastardly monk on his evil mountain. I don’t want Orito to abscond with de Zoet abroad–where could she possibly feel welcome? as if de Zoet’s Europe would let a woman into a Royal Society meeting, or anything of the sort, at this time–and I don’t want de Zoet to die in some heroic way, either. Let him go home to his small life with a better understanding of how small it is, one that he might try to instill in whatever progeny he brings about in the world. Progeny that, I sincerely hope, does not include any child of Orito’s. Because if Mitchell’s point is to tell us that “why yes, she should be able to do better, but as a woman in her position in this time period, her body is pretty much the only capital she can lay claim to,” just, ugh. We knew that already. A better story would be pointing out how that’s still in many ways the only capital a woman can lay claim to in Japan, in the eyes of others if not on paper.
But then, knowing it already, I don’t want to hear that story either. It’s not beautiful or lyrical and he can be both. But he isn’t here. The research has bogged it down in obtuse exposition and description; no one flies above their stamped-out character confines, even in dreams. In his talk, though, he alluded to this–this book being outside a loosely-connected world that ran through his other stories; shimmering stronger in some than in others but always there. Not here.
And I miss it. I think of the short story he read–title-less, some work in progress–that could conceivably turn into the wonderful book I didn’t believe Transatlantic could and did. Where the husband and wife are breaking up but are trying to remove the fireplace stove (he took an aside, I wasn’t sure if it was only to us or was in the actual text, to explain what this was but my heart leapt; I had one growing up) from the chimney first, in order to help sell the home. Like Colum McCann reading the short story that was Transatlantic, Mitchell read beautifully, and I’d pay a substantial amount of money to have it recorded. The timing has to be so spot-on, tugging you along while giving you a chance to breathe and never dipping so far into the manipulative that it comes off as preachy. And it wasn’t. And he didn’t. And he managed to construct a sheen of understanding, the sense that the possible dark places in the world one could descend to had been mapped out already–and that was a good thing, because surviving maps meant the mapmaker made it out–that outlasted even the asinine questions of the students that followed. (I felt older than them, listening, not in a literary way but in a lived one.) And if he could just bottle that up and turn it into another novel I’d be happy. Even if he’d just record himself reading that story the way he read it to us, I’d be happy.
In the meantime I’m stuck with well-meaning but clueless de Zoet. And I will plod through him. Maybe doing the research there got his wife closer to her family for a while. Maybe that’s something they wanted. I discovered the other day that Colum McCann is only 15 years younger than my mom. The earliest book of his that I’ve read (Songdogs, 1995) did not change my life. I gather from his afterword that he has kids. Some authors pay a price when they have them. You can see that they’re trying to wrap their heads around this new thing but it’s going to take them decades. And their writing gets mediocre. And I keep thinking hurry up, kids, grow up and go away so your dad can figure out what you meant.* What you mean. And it takes forever.
I want to hear what Mitchell has to say when they’re gone.
*Yes, I know. “Dad.” I expect better of women. I am disappointed in them more easily. If I’d read someone who stood outside herself long enough to embrace more than one time or place or group or sorrow, and not just more than one but all of them, I’d change the wording. But the women I respect don’t write. They’re too busy living. Maybe after millennia of being allowed to live every which way, men can divorce themselves appropriately enough from the world around them to embrace all of it in prose. Whereas we are still trying to live for the millions who spent their whole lives cooped up somewhere wordless and alone. Living for so many people doesn’t leave you a lot of time for stepping back and reflecting on them. At least not in a way that is breathtaking.