Nagoya Writes

November 29, 2007

Literary Criticism by David Stone

Filed under: Essay,Issue: May 2006,Stone — usbengoshi @ 3:55 pm
Tags: , ,

So anyway, did I tell you about the time I met David Mitchell? At the time, I didn’t know who he was, and he was pretty modest: no mention of Booker shortlisting or whatever. But he said he was making a living as a novelist, so I commented at the time that he must be doing pretty damn well.

I met him when I was visiting my folks. Turns out Mitchell lived in the same town, though he was just about to move to Ireland. Probably for tax reasons: loads of writers seem to end up there. Or it could be the beer. That’d be reason enough for me. I met him through one of those synchronistic twists that appear in his books. Yeah, that’s right, the ones you think are so contrived. But what had happened was that we’d met this Japanese woman in the park. That was coincidence enough: a Japanese woman living out in the boonies. But she said there was another Japanese in town and they were meeting the next day. Would we like to come along? Sure, we said.

So we end up in a back garden; three Japanese women, a bunch of kids, and three husbands, each of whom fancies himself as a writer. Our host had spent ages researching a film script about Boudicca which he was planning to pitch. Then boom! Along comes a Boudicca film, and he’s stuffed. A familiar feeling, for sure. So he’s working in a pizza joint, though I later discover his parents run the town’s electrical appliance shop. Two years later he’s running an Internet café. How’s that for connected, eh?

Mitchell tells us about his first two novels. I’m a little suspicious of what sounds highly gimmicky. To be brutally honest, what he describes sounds like the sort of thing I’ve always tried myself, and you’ve never spared me the criticism I so richly deserve. But I’m intrigued. He’s taught in Japan; his wife has the same name as mine, and when he was a kid he read books in the series that I wrote for. (He never read any of mine, though, the bastard).

So it takes me quite a while to get hold of Ghostwritten. And the first thing that hits me is that the photo on the inner flap looks nothing like the guy I remember meeting.

It gets worse. My folks send me a clipping from the local paper about Mitchell, and there’s another photo. It looks nothing like the one in the book, nor like the man I met. What’s going on? Is he just one of those people who has so many subtle facets to his appearance that no photo can capture a likeness? I’ve known people like that. Used to think it was true of me, which was why I always preferred to be videoed than photographed. Or is there some darker meaning: Was the David Mitchell I met one of a syndicate of ghostwriters?

It would fit his books. They’re as tricky and pretentious as I had feared. But they are also well written, in a variety of dazzlingly executed prose styles. The description of modern Japan is touch-and-feel true, and beautiful to boot. It’s only when you dig beneath the skins of the Japanese characters that the truth fades. At a depth of a few millimeters they transform into Brits. Either an understandable failure to achieve a truly incisive understanding of the Japanese psyche, or a deliberate way of taking the ‘exotic’ and making it feel close and comprehensible to a primarily British audience.

Then, back in Japan, I learn that a film-maker friend has been in discussion with Mitchell’s people with a view to filming one of his novels. Synchronicity, they call it. I suppose Mitchell’s point is that it’s just life.

But anyway, Mitchell’s books, with their quirky correspondences, and structural devices that felt so close to things I’d wanted to try, get me itching to write once more. I have a couple of ideas, so I sit up one evening and decide to write a story. But as I sit there, running through my head all the possibilities, reflecting on imagery and metaphor, I find my imagination taking me further than I had expected to go. Rather than merely confined within the borders of the story itself, I journey beyond its completion, speculating on its reception.

I am talking with a literary confidante of mine. I trust her judgment, which is why I have asked her — in my head, at any rate — to read the story and comment on it. She is obviously troubled.

“What’s it really about?” she asks.

“Literature,” I reply. It isn’t often I am able to answer a question with a single word. I am quite proud of myself.

“What kind of an answer is that? Is this some more of that self-reflexive postmodern claptrap? That’s all old hat, you know. What’s your point here?”

I start to say “But what about David Mitch…” but cleverly cut myself off and wind the conversation back a second or two to seem a little less gauche.

“Actually, it wasn’t really supposed to be self-reflexive. I dislike that sort of thing as much as you do. No, this was about literature in a much more traditional sense. I was trying to establish the value of literature — what it’s worth in a philosophical sense.”

“And?”

“Well, you know that so much modern literary thinking seems to harp on the idea of the self.”

“Of course — that’s all we can really know.”

“But that’s exactly my point: the whole attraction of literature is that it gives the lie to that idea. It holds out the promise of transcending the straitjacket of the self.”

“How’s that? Since Art is the purest expression of self, I’d say that you can’t escape.”

“The thing about Art that no one seems to remember much nowadays is that it’s nothing if it isn’t communicated to someone other than its creator. I sometimes think that there are people out there who’ve solved the Zen koan, who think that like the sound of a tree falling in an empty forest, Art is at its most perfect at the very moment of its creation, before it is actually received by anyone else.”

(Have you ever noticed how much more eloquent you are in those conversations rehearsed and recited in your imagination? The conversations which, like such Perfect Art, involve no audience, and thus, perhaps, no communication.)

“There’s a lot to be said for that idea,” my colleague obligingly observes. “It’s certainly useful in distinguishing Art from mere entertainment. On the other hand, the fact that your story wasn’t very entertaining doesn’t automatically make it great Art.”

“Thank you!”

“No, don’t take it badly. You still haven’t explained what the point was that you were making. There was all that stuff about the hermit setting up his shack in the town square. That just seemed like a wacky scene out of a Jodorowsky movie. It didn’t seem to be connected with the story.”

“It was the story! It was the hub around which everything else revolved. You see I don’t believe any of that stuff about Art being immaculate. At least, I don’t believe it of literature, which is the only branch of art I feel I can really participate in any way. I was trying to say that an artist insulated from his or her audience isn’t really an artist at all. Art only happens when it is seen, heard or read. Literature offers the promise that there is more to existence than the self. It offers us contact.”

“So you think that literature is all about the universal experiences? That by showing that some experiences are shared we can recognize that we share the human condition with others?”

“Well yes, but there’s more to it than that. I think that what makes great literature so special is not just that it manages to evoke the universal, but that it can universalize the particular.”

“What is that supposed to mean? That isn’t what you were driving at with the scene where everyone eats that roasted coyote?”

“I suppose so, though I wasn’t really happy with that. What I mean is that great literature presents something that is particular, that is not within our experience, and which is therefore not universal, but it makes it universal by virtue of it appearing in literature. It becomes a shared experience. Literature in itself — never mind accurately representing the human condition — creates its own shared experiences, which therefore become a part of the human condition!”

“Oh. So that was what you were trying to say. I can’t say I really agree with you. I think it’s just another case of a writer privileging the act of writing.”

“That’s exactly what it isn’t! I’m saying that writers need readers. That literature isn’t literature without a reader. Even that it’s the reader who makes something great literature.”

“Or bad literature.”

“That’s true. It means that there’s no such thing as great literature throughout history, because perceptions may change. But on the other hand there’s bound to be a momentum, as the shared experience of literature created by one generation of readers is passed on to the next, and that’s why we can still regard Shakespeare, for example, as great literature; because enough readers say it is.”

“I thought that was just inertia: the dead weight of tradition.”

“It is inertia. Inertia is a property which maintains movement. It only inhibits movement when a body isn’t actually moving.”

“You semi-educated scientific pedant, you!”

After this the discussion breaks down even more, and the whole scene fragments into a set of apparently disconnected images and much use of the fast forward and rewind buttons.

I sit there, pencil poised. And then I think to myself, why bother writing the story? Why go through the whole business of elaborating the setting, the plot, the characters — and their names! (never my strong point, especially in recent years when they all seem to be taken from Israeli politicians) — and then flinging them together into a seamless, symbol-laden semiotic tapestry of fiction? Why not just skip the whole tedious business, seek out my literary confidante, and just tell her the point I am trying to make straight out?
That is more like it. I throw down my pencil, stuff Cloud Atlas in my pocket and head off to Misfits.
The above is a work of fiction: even the bits that are true. Furthermore, Dave Stone would like to pre-empt all those readers who think he just ripped off Borges, by saying “I just ripped off Borges”. So there.

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