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09/25/13 4:00am

Levels of Life
By Julian Barnes
(Knopf)

In 2008, Knopf published Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of, an essay-cum-memoir that distills more entertainment from the terrifying finality of death than you’d think feasible. Erudite and insightful, it’s a marathon exercise in gallows humor. Extinction is meaningless, terrifying, and absolute, Barnes repeatedly insists, and miraculously he encourages the reader to stick around to hear more. In Barnes’s philosophy, there is no coming to terms with death; all we can do is hold hands and distract one another with talk and laughter until the inevitable arrives. Sadly, he didn’t have a hand to hold for much longer. Around the time the first reviews were published, his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died unexpectedly. They had been married for 29 years.

This is the background to Barnes’s new book, Levels of Life, here and there described as a “grief memoir.” It sounds like snuff entertainment for people with graduate degrees, but then it’s a problematic type of writing. Barnes himself said as much in his review of Joyce Carol Oates’s 2011 contribution to the genre, A Widow’s Story. “In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books, “and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria.” The rawness of grief forces readers to approach these books as evidence rather than art, and if critical faculties are muted then the potential for pleasure is, too.

The other big problem is the perennial one for the memoirist, a difficulty best described by Flaubert in another context: “in the midst of the most intimate confidences, false shame, delicacy, or pity always impose a certain reticence.” We’re not always full of shit, but we’re never quite empty of it either. Oates set out to chronicle the 12 months following her husband’s death in February 2008, but A Widow’s Story makes no mention of the man she met in the fall of the same year, and who in March 2009 became her second husband. No matter how many warts and scars are on display, a memoir is always the portrait the author wanted. The impossibility of absolute frankness is the cue for fiction to enter stage left. In fiction, things slip out that an author might have rather kept hidden.

The first half of Levels of Life is a short story about a love affair between two historical characters from the late 19th century, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt and bluff English officer Fred Burnaby. Burnaby is a ballooning enthusiast, a “balloonatic,” and his aerial adventures provide this short book (only 124 generously set pages) with a fund of metaphor for life’s ups, downs, and midair conflagrations. Burnaby and Bernhardt make a charming ill-matched pair, and their gentle amour pulls the reader into a position of trust. Once everything’s cozy, the floorshow begins in the second half, which is the memoir. Here Barnes spills his guts about the horrors of grief in a series of compelling anecdotes and heart-rending aperçus, thrown into relief by the fiction. The result of this bait-and-switch is harrowing and engrossing. It’s also a concise demonstration of the limits of autobiography and the importance of making stuff up.

11/07/12 4:00am

Sweet Tooth

By Ian McEwan

(Nan A. Talese)

Ian McEwan is much better company now than he was in the old days. His early novellas, from The Cement Garden (1978) to Black Dogs (1992), were sophisticated forays into horror and perversion. Their pages are populated by incestuous teenagers, a couple bent on sex murder, and—as if by some bizarre logical extension—Nazi rapist Dobermans. The books glisten with crystalline sentences but are cold-blooded affairs. It’s impressive to watch young McEwan take a scalpel to the human condition, but you wouldn’t want to spend too much time alone with him.

In Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001) and Saturday (2005), a more mature novelist permits himself a campfire to ward off the darkness. Whereas once the narratives followed victims, here there are actual heroes: cultured, sensitive men who find themselves pitted against the forces of unreason. McEwan has by now developed a conviction that the rational imagination, of which literary fiction is both product and exemplar, is the true engine of civilized life. He has a proper theme to explore, even if there’s something a little angular at times about the variations played upon it. The Bach-loving brain surgeon squaring off against a deranged thug in Saturday is a case in point. But I mention this only to persuade you I’m capable of a nuanced response. These are proper novels, at once exciting, moving, elegant, and thought-provoking.

The new effort is another example of fine craftsmanship. Sweet Tooth follows a Cambridge graduate who has a brief affair with an older man while he grooms her for service in MI5, Britain’s internal intelligence agency. This is 1973 and, once inducted, Serena Frume finds that women employees are confined to tedious clerical work. Then, for obscure reasons, she is sent undercover on a Cold War propaganda mission. She is to funnel funds to a novelist through a front organization in hopes this emerging talent will produce works denouncing the Soviets. With a predictability that is dramatic rather than dispiriting, Serena and the writer fall in love, and he pens precisely the kind of book her handlers despise. She is caught in a relationship born in deceit, forced to follow the orders of a jealous superior.

Politically naïve and occasionally brusque, Serena is a fully realized and endearingly flawed creation, the kind of middle-class Englishwoman who says, “Sometimes not talking is the best way through a difficulty.” McEwan’s prose is always immaculate, but Serena’s first-person narration is distinctive and convincing. It’s flexible, too, allowing for beautifully phrased passages that remain firmly in character. Samuel Beckett’s sensibility, for example, is “a dispensation in which the human condition was a man lying alone at the end of things, bound only to himself, without hope, sucking on a pebble.” An incorrigible bore is “plunged deeper into the misapprehension that he was interesting.”

Sweet Tooth is a companion to On Chesil Beach (2007), another McEwan romance set in the recent past. The dramas that unfold in these books revolve around social conventions and political conflicts that, when brought back to life, are no less alien for having died only yesterday. Taken in the context of their author’s career, these two fictions make a convincing argument that the aging process isn’t always a downhill plummet. It’s made a much better novelist of Ian McEwan.

08/29/12 4:00am

Lionel Asbo: State of England

By Martin Amis

(Knopf)

As book titles go, Lionel Asbo: State of England is spoiling for a fight. It all but beards you with its declaration: “This is satire!” The ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order, is a kind of mini-restraining order for delinquents. It was introduced in 1998 to combat a perceived breakdown in discipline among Britain’s youth. Combine that word with State of England, and you know that Lionel Asbo of Avalon Towers, a “subsistence criminal who spends half his life in jail” and bears a physical resemblance to loutish British soccer player Wayne Rooney, is planted firmly in these pages as a stand-in for national malaise. For Lionel, ignorance carries an ethical imperative: “I wouldn’t learn,” he states. “For me that’s a point of principle.” With his sociopathic dogs and thermonuclear temper, Lionel is all that respectable England most despises. The zinger is that this grotesque wins £139 million in the national lottery.

Lionel hails from the fictional and feculent London borough of Diston Town, where people begin their sex lives at elementary school and reach senility by their mid 40s. Here imagery typical of the conservative British press is inflated to hilarious effect: the hunkering packs of feral teenagers, the half-conscious violence. “In Diston, everything hated everything else.” The place is recognizable, because some parts of urban England are indeed profoundly lacking in salubrity. But if Lionel is any example (and if this is satire, he ought to be), the people of Diston chose to be repellent. That’s an uncomfortable notion, especially when, early on in the novel, Lionel sells a local boy to a pedophile ring. It’s hard to laugh at that; hard to take it seriously, too.

But just when you think Amis has turned reactionary, he goes soft. When Lionel becomes a millionaire, he enters the celebrity world, which, as we all know, arrives pre-satirized. Amis moves from mocking the afflicted to the mockery of the culture that afflicts us, as Lionel metamorphoses into a front-page regular, scrapping with the paparazzi and sinking Dom Pérignon by the pint. Grown rich, Lionel is a nastier but less provocative figure than the thug from Avalon Towers. The character who started the novel as a representative of the British underclass—sometimes derisively labeled a “chav”—becomes somewhere around the midway point an aberration, a freak. We’re told, “the chav was a type. And Lionel was not a type.” Devoid of the broader significance that accrued to him in the early sections of the book, he ends up a mere launch pad for a lot of good knockabout fun.

Amis has spoken of satire as if it’s the only game in town for the modern novelist. But the best satirists operate like Jane Austen, who, to be sure of hitting her mark, chose targets from the types found among her well-to-do readership. In contrast, no reader is going to recognize himself in Lionel Asbo, because Asbo is no reader. This makes Amis’s latest a comic counterpart to certain Ian McEwan novels, such as Saturday or Enduring Love, in which an educated hero defends the homestead from a threatening and irrational knuckle-dragger: campfire stories for the middle classes. They may convey an important a message about the state of England, but if so, I suspect it’s inadvertent.

08/14/12 9:00am

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Let it never be said that the Mobile Theatre Unit is not a delightful name. It conjures up images of dramaturgical first responders speeding through the night to on-stage disasters. (“Quick, Robin, to the Bardmobile!”) To the scene of tragedy, these people bring Tragedy. The Unit—let’s call it that—is currently staging Richard III at the Public Theater (through August 25), following a three-week tour of such hotbeds of dramatic art as Riker’s Island and New Jersey homeless shelters. At these inauspicious locations our selfless thespians ladle out Shakespeare like so much free soup, delivering the good news that among the many things of which the audience has been deprived, it has also been missing out on Elizabethan drama.

This whole worthy concept is enormously off-putting for the interested theatergoer. After all, try tempting along a friend with this line: “It’s great! It’s the stuff poor people get for nothing, but we have to pay!” When I attended, the artistic director gave a pre-performance peroration that made the works of Shakespeare sound like the Bill of Rights. I sank into my seat: Was ever critic in this humor wooed? Was ever critic in this humor won?

Actually, there’s nothing to fear. The production gives the lie to any notion that big-theater Shakespeare, with some Hollywood behemoth in the lead, is the bona fide best to be had. After all, Shakespeare’s plays survive on the strength of language alone, and the poetry is best appreciated with the minimum of show and bombast in an intimate location. At the Public, there’s neither stage nor set to speak of. On the front row, you can feel the actors’ breath; the intimacy is borderline inappropriate.

Ron Cephas Jones plays Richard with suitable relish, much aided by an extraordinary whip-like physique and a face modeled on a stiletto knife. He’d be a shoo-in for Mephistopheles any day of the week. Moreover, his voice has me reaching for my Wine Bible for appropriate adjectives, and his enunciation is so precise it could cut words into stone.

Other than the memory of Jones’s terrifying physiognomy, what I took home from the play was a revived appreciation of Shakespeare’s repartee. When Richard and Anne (Michelle Beck) or Queen Elizabeth (Lynn Hawley) trade barbs, the dialogue comes across as a kind of dark precursor to His Girl Friday. “Your reasons are too shallow and too quick,” says Richard to Elizabeth, having murdered her children. “Oh no, my reasons are too deep and too dead,” she responds. Great fun!

I can’t honestly say whether bringing Richard III to the underprivileged is an efficient use of resources. Some members of the audience will have seen enough violence already. Do they now need it in blank verse? But simple talent justifies the Unit’s existence, and well-off New Yorkers have no reason to turn up their noses. Having taken Shakespeare to the underserved, the cast proves more than capable of delivering it to the city’s undeserving.

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06/20/12 4:00am

Capital
By John Lanchester
(W.W. Norton)

Every now and then a novel comes along that unsettles you in a special way the author did not intend. You are left patting your pockets, as it were, running through a mental inventory: keys (check), phone (check), intellectual curiosity (check), faith in fiction… Now where is that? It normally boils down to a matter of inflated expectations, the enemy of all strong attachments. I’ve been loving John Lanchester’s work since his blissful novel Mr. Phillips (2000), but his new one, about London and the financial crisis, is a heartbreaker.

Capital promises hefty topics and high seriousness: “Epic in scope yet intimate,” as the press release puts it. It even punningly lifts a title from some big book or other that changed the course of history. There’s no doubt Capital is fairly compelling. In fact, it is that vulgar and titillating beast the “page-turner,” a horrible phrase, suggesting that novels are best ranked according to how quickly we dispose of them. What Capital lacks is page-stasis, page-returning: those moments that make a person look up from the print to pause and then reread. And here’s the rub: those epiphanies can be found in Lanchester’s nonfiction account of how banks gambled away the economy, I.O.U: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). It cannot be said that Lanchester hasn’t done his homework researching Capital. The novel’s flatness is a useful reminder that mature fiction requires more than just facts, intelligence and technical skill—a hard lesson for our professionalized age to assimilate.

Capital focuses on Pepys Road, a newly gentrified South London location where, come 2007, the property boom has shuffled together long-term residents with wealthy new neighbors in houses that are suddenly priced in the millions. From this street, Lanchester draws a cast of characters to meet at least the baseline definition of “all walks of life.” Petunia Howe, the senior citizen, is terminally ill; Roger Yount, the trader, is asleep at the wheel when his firm is in trouble; Zbigniew Tomascewski is an industrious Polish builder; the endearing Kamal family runs the corner shop and has a run-in with religious extremists. And so on.

These are uninspired stories told with conviction and holding more than a tincture of truth. Lanchester’s third-person narration picks up nicely on the idiolect of each character as the author shifts between points of view. It’s deftly done, even if the prose is workaday stuff. But where these representative characters should amount collectively to a statement about the way we live now, what actually links them is an empty plot device. Someone is sending postcards to the houses on Pepys Road reading “We Want What You Have.” It’s the first stage in a campaign of intimidation that starts out petty and rapidly escalates into something trivial. I’m not giving anything away by saying that the culprit is no revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask. The mystery only smacks of political conflict, and it’s clear almost from the get-go that the hidden motives will prove banal. I expect Lanchester intended something much more impressive, but the result comes off as a sleight of hand, a trick to make the novel seem bolder than it is.

There’s a general ambience of inoffensiveness that’s out of place, given the subject matter. Anger would not be an unreasonable response to bad decisions, prompted by greed, leading to global recession and massive unemployment. That said, Lanchester’s emollient tone is much in vogue. The latest generation of established novelists—Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Jennifer Egan and the whole Believer–attuned bunch, to pick a few out the hat—is insistently amiable. Contemporary novels are not keen to get tough on human folly. Like nearly all of today’s literary fiction, Capital is devoid of real villains, with its two malign characters, a trader and an Islamist, coming across as immature rather than wicked.

This lighthearted breeziness hobbles the narrative, but it’s also the book’s greatest appeal. Here is Lanchester riffing on the subject of the Internet: “Given the infinite freedom of intellectual movement, it turned out that what people mainly want to do is look at pictures of Kelly Brook’s tits.” Considering fretful parents, he observes: “the person doing the worrying experiences it as a form of love; the person being worried about experiences it as a form of control.” This is good, companionable stuff, but avuncular in the additional and rarely used sense that your actual uncle could have said these things.

Compare those down-home quotes with this passage from I.O.U. about the Cold War: “For decades there was the equivalent of an ideological beauty contest between the capitalist West and the Communist East, both of them vying to look as if they offered their citizens the better, fairer way of life. The result in the East was oppression; the result in the West was free schooling, universal health care, weeks of paid holiday, and a consistent, across the board rise in opportunities and rights… And then the good guys won, the beauty contest came to an end, and the decades of Western progress in relation to equality and individual rights came to an end.” Putting aside the careless repetition (typical of Lanchester), that’s quite a statement. So is this, from the conclusion: “The sad truth is that the real fix is going to have to wait until after the next crash.”

The most powerful nation in the world lost its moral compass just at the moment it affirmed its absolute supremacy. Not only that, but the pain of the recent financial crisis is going to be nothing compared to what’s to come, a sequel made inevitable by a continued lack of financial regulation and one we will be in poor shape to weather. That’s a powerful vision, and one Lanchester has failed to dramatize in Capital.

To be fair, when it comes to fictionalizing the financial crisis, the dimensions of the task are inhuman, and fiction deals in the personal and immediate. Yet, we have grown to expect novelists to respond to current events in the manner of journalists despite the fact novels require long gestation and inner compulsion. War and Peace is about a conflict that occurred 50 years prior to its publication; Dickens, who we think of as London’s preeminent social novelist, mostly wrote about the city of his parents’ generation. If we didn’t demand novels that synch with the news cycle, Capital might have lived up to its name, though we might not be reading it for another 30 years.

05/09/12 8:58am

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You can tell a lot about the state of modern drama from the seats in BAM’s Harvey Theater, sourced, it would appear, from the chapel in a monastery of penitents. Movie houses boast padded recliners; playgoers sit on wooden postage stamps. Obviously, there’s more money in the silver screen, but that’s not the only thing at work. Backsides can be punished here because the stage is meant to transcend mere entertainment. The hard, tiny seats hint at a piousness that does the theater no good at all, and which, dare I say, was always part of Harold Pinter’s sensibility.

Pinter wrote The Caretaker (in revival through June 17) in 1960, when kitchen sink drama was king of the English stage. In keeping with the period, it is set in a grimy bedroom in a rundown townhouse. The first of the stage lights illuminate Mick (Alex Hassell), with his back to the audience, striking a truculent James Dean pose. But the angry young man, the prototypical protagonist of the era, ducks out the room before Aston and Davies enter, a fool and a tramp respectively, characters emerging from Beckett’s coat pocket.

Jonathan Pryce, who stammered and sweated so endearingly in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), is Davies. For this role, Pryce has developed a repertoire of verbal and physical tics uncannily familiar to anyone who has ever jumped on an apparently empty subway car during rush hour. (“You stink from arsehole to breakfast time” is one of the play’s choicest lines and shows off Pinter’s gift for working-class British vernacular.) A real pleasure of this production is that whenever another actor is the center of attention, you can always find Pryce elsewhere on stage being quietly but restlessly batshit. His performance is a prodigy of technique and stamina.

The play opens on an act of kindness, as the laconic Aston (Alex Cox), the bedroom’s resident, offers Davies a place to sleep. Of course, this being Pinter, this is not a story of redemption. What follows is a power struggle, as Davies befriends his benefactor’s brother, Mick, and attempts to get Aston evicted. As well as the conflict, what’s really Pinteresque about the play (more so than those famous pauses) is the sense that every character suffers from brain damage. With Aston, this is the literal truth, as we discover. But essentially the play is a struggle between three mad men to determine who is craziest. The general derangement is the downside to Beckett’s dramatic approach, as adopted by Pinter. It’s like watching King Lear without the regal context, as if Lear had spent his whole life on the heath, ranting at the elements. But that’s the basic MO of the Beckett/Pinter approach: you take away everything inessential from the sustenance of simple human life—hobbies, sports, friends, sex, and what have you—to reveal the naked human being. Unfortunately, what they end up with is something less than human. As Lear puts it, “Ask not nature more than nature needs, man’s life were cheap as beasts.”

This is a funny play that’s brilliantly performed, but it won’t easily let the audience forget what they are sitting on.

12/08/11 7:00am

Krapp's Last Tape
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Michael Colgan

A gala theater event at BAM is a peculiar event when occasioned by a play by Samuel Beckett. Between the foyer and the outside world, the change in demographic pressure is enough to make your ears pop: the median age ratchets up by 20 years and the air fizzes with privilege. Over here, someone expounds on Tarkovsky. Elsewhere, it's O'Keefe. The bonhomie and glad rags on display, the free bar and (What is this?) palatable wine, create a sense of disconnect that opens like a chasm at the sight of that blonde from The Real Housewives of New York. These people, with their perfectly justified self-assurance, convinced as they are of the value of constant self-improvement, are here to see, of all things, a play by Beckett. John Hurt will soon stride the stage as the eponymous Krapp in this one-man play and will flush all the humanist, cultured convictions of this audience down the toilet. Then he will get a standing ovation. It's strange. Why aren't they screaming?

Krapp, a boozy failed writer, takes his desk to sit before any number of successful real writers in the orchestra. In his sixty-ninth year, he listens to his recorded diaries, stored not as mp3s, if it can be believed, but on cumbersome spools of magnetic tape. It is a ritual he has observed for decades. We hear the thirty-nine-year-old version speak from the past to mock the aspirations expressed on tape by his younger self, ambitions still haunting the old man. The middle-aged Krapp pities his younger incarnation for boasting that he is glad to be rid of his youth. But the older man hears the same vain claim from the thirty-nine-year-old: "The best years are gone… But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now." The magnum opus remains unwritten. Life's struggles are circular, the self is a prison. Krapp continues to disown his past while doomed to relive it, and there is no suggestion he could do anything else.

Hurt's features are perfect for the role, his face so deeply lined that half of it is in perpetual darkness. He looks like an anorexic Auden, and his voice leaves one fearing for the last generation of grand mellifluous thespians. When he, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Christopher Plummer are gone, who will there be to shake our diaphragms with rolled Rs, perfect enunciation and the vocal timbre of a cello?

In 55 minutes, the play is over. Hurt stares uncomprehending into the enclosing darkness. Life is nothing more than despair. The audience roars with approval.

Beckett denounces nearly all of what we hold onto for comfort: our faults are insuperable; our goals empty; there is only stasis and then only death. Given this morbidity, why do people, and especially these happy few at BAM, like him so much? Right or wrong, don't we tend to think of literature and art as edifying? (If they are neither edifying nor fun, what is the point?) The dissonance between the praise Beckett receives and the popular assumptions about art is as great as that between the well-to-do gaggle in the foyer and the play they came to see. There has surely been a misunderstanding. The genius presents a gaping void, and the people in the stalls fill it with a human presence, else they wouldn't be here. Neither party is at fault, and a peculiar conclusion suggests itself: Beckett's success proves him wrong.

A vision of such bleakness as Beckett's, like perfect contentment, is a state impossible to maintain. The audience, at some point, ceases to listen and starts to invent, else no one could stand to watch these plays. Beckett fails again. Fails better.

(Photo: Richard Termine)

05/25/11 4:00am

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage

I knew an old fella once who whenever nature called, would excuse himself with one of two lines he owed, respectively, to Hamlet and Julius Caesar: “I must absent myself from felicity a while” or “There is a tide in the affairs of men.” Such is the fun to be had with Shakespeare. Few literate people can fail to be envious of actors employed to speak his words. So, it’s peculiar how rarely the words are spoken. They are yelled, screamed or barked&#8212everything is done to make them incomprehensible. In Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, there’s a moment when one character shouts through a bullhorn from a helicopter. What’s the point?

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear is the most vulnerable to spectacle and misplaced passion&#8212to the actorly desire to “out-herod Herod,”as Hamlet put it. With its eye-gouging and madness, Lear readily degenerates into a cringe-inducing shout fest. So, it was with subterranean expectations that I arrived at BAM’s Harvey Theater to see Derek Jacobi in a production transplanted from London’s Donmar Warehouse (through June 5). Immediately, a curtainless stage of mottled white boards perked me up. Perfect. In the theater, anything other than a minimalist set tends to foreground the problematic elements of Shakespeare. This is a world where psychological transformations happen instantaneously and are pegged to trifles (Cordelia’s reluctance to speak her love, for example) or implausible events (Gloucester’s imagined cliff-top plunge). A change of clothing conceals Edgar’s identity from his father, and so on. Call Lear a fairy tale if you will. Actually, the plot more resembles an exhausted parent’s bedtime improvisation. Anything that emphasizes the mechanical elements of the storytelling will draw attention to aspects of the play a modern audience would rather forget.

The cast soon reveals itself to be excellent, as one would expect from the roster of fine British talent. But then comes the real test: the storm scene, where countless productions have drowned in mock rain and flying spittle. In contrast, Jacobi whispers his exhortation to the elements. No special effects, no hemorrhaging histrionics. Just a thrilling voice intoning language of desperate beauty in the darkness.

From there, Jacobi is stupendous. After Lear has flipped his last marble, he exhibits the affecting simplicity of a child. Jacobi employs a toddler’s gestures and intonation, and the effect is more moving than it is reasonable to expect. Could it be that the wisdom of old age, that hideous inverted childhood, is the 
recovery of youthful innocence.

The play could not be done better, either in terms of the ensemble or its leading man. It’s a peculiarly sad realization. You don’t have to agree with Tolstoy, who thought Shakespeare a fraud, to concede that we’re now so much immured in realism that Shakespeare’s stories don’t quite work. There’s an unbridgeable gap between the brilliance and insight of the language and the oddity and plain silliness of the action. Even a Lear as flawless as this one devolves into a series of compelling moments and speeches, lacking the narrative drive and unity to which we are all addicted. But this production sees the lightning strike often enough, illuminating the play with an imagistic genius. And Jacobi is a rare beast: an old theatrical lion, majestic in his pacing and sparing in his roar.

(photo: Johan Persson)

07/07/10 2:00am

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
Random House

At first glance, the setting of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet appears so random it might have been chosen to fulfill the terms of a bet. The place is Dejima, a tiny manmade island in the bay of Nagasaki. In the era of the Napoleonic Wars, this outpost was the property of the Dutch East India Company and the only point of contact between Japan and the Western world. David Mitchell has a reputation for a globe-galloping scope, but it’s a really confined, claustrophobic environment&#8212with all its dramatic potential&#8212that puts ink in his pen. Dejima, all 11,000 square yards of it, makes perfect sense for him.

Lowly Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives on the island in search of the money he needs to make a respectable marriage. Instead of wealth, he finds intrigue, and his determination to stay honest casts him on choppy seas. Rejected by his fellow Westerners as a company snoop, Jacob falls for a scarred Japanese midwife, Orito. That’s the first 150 pages or so and, thus far, the depth of vivid descriptive detail is astonishing. Mitchell fleshes out Dejima’s residents with a satisfying variety of scars and warts. But then comes the change of gear. Autumns isn’t a collection of brilliant shorts, like the putative novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, but it’s still more of a trilogy in one volume than a unified whole. A third of the way in, Orito falls foul of the wicked Abbot Enomoto, and it is her story that is narrated for the next 150 pages. Enomoto imprisons her among a sisterhood of disfigured women, isolated from the world in accordance with ancient tradition. There is a daring escape; there is magic. Hey presto: we’re in sword and sorcery territory. You think there’s nothing wrong with that? Let’s not be inverted snobs about it: Mitchell could do better.

The novel’s last third reverts to Dejima and Jacob. Developments in distant Europe throw him a new challenge in the shape of a British frigate. More derring-do follows, but the real-world exigencies have a bracing effect on the storytelling absent from the fantastical middle section.

Autumns is borne aloft throughout by the robustness of Mitchell’s imagination and his way with dialogue and concise, evocative expression. But for all the virtuosity, the novel only whets the appetite. Mitchell is ambitious, after a fashion, but Autumns isn’t about the questions of our age. Nor is it a writer’s fevered grasp for the kernel of existence. The challenges the author has set himself are technical, and he has exercised tremendous powers in the creation of something that is, in the final analysis, a masterful adventure story. It’s not historical fiction, but historical romance&#8212a literary diversion.

The book’s coda is a taste of what could have been. These last five pages ring with the kind of heartbreaking honesty found in the denouement to a richer novel. That fictional eidolon can be glimpsed momentarily at several points in Autumns when the plot’s dazzle lets up and the characters can shine.

Reviewers are apt to compare Mitchell’s books to puzzles, and there’s a bit too much of the artful brain teaser about this one. It’s highly compelling, ingeniously crafted, and, once completed, oddly forgettable.

05/26/10 5:00am

Recently in these pages, The L‘s Mark Martin declared Martin Amis’s new novel The Pregnant Widow—”the story of a young man’s sexual coming of age during history’s sexual awakening”—the best of his career. He spoke to the erudite, inventive, comic, often controversial Amis over the phone last month.


THE L:
A lot of people think of you as a man’s writer. What are your thoughts on being described as a guy writing for guys?
MARTIN AMIS: I don’t think it’s true, though it sometimes looks that way. When I started out, people in the signing queue tended to be blokes. But now it’s very 50-50, and I think I have plenty of women readers. What I don’t have are women reviewers.

THE L: Why’s that?
MARTIN AMIS: It’s to do with literary editors, thinking, you know, “Stand back, my dear, this won’t be a pretty sight!” I think it’s a sort of accident, and a general impression that, as usual, isn’t really accurate.

THE L: I understand that The Pregnant Widow grew out of a longer, autobiographical novel that you abandoned. Is that right?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, well, I didn’t abandon it. I had a bad couple of weeks, and then realized it was two novels and that trying to meld them into one was a disaster. I’m getting away from autobiography, which I found so hideously constricting. The autobiographical novel will be the one after next.

THE L: I remember your father writing that he couldn’t put real people in fiction, because they interfered with the structure he envisioned. They did their own thing.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, that’s right. They’re obtrusive. They don’t fit into the scheme of the novel. I discovered, or I already knew, that it’s not fidelity to what actually happened that breathes life into a novel. It’s contrivance and patterning, which life doesn’t have.

THE L: I read some of the British reviews and they all portrayed The Pregnant Widow as very much an autobiographical novel. Would you say that’s not the case?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, absolutely not the case. It’s palpably not autobiographical. Demonstrably not.

THE L: There is one aspect of the book that seems very autobiographical, and that’s the story of the protagonist’s sister, Violet. It’s a sad strain in a novel with a lot of tremendous humor in it.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah. There are three real figures in the book and they’re all dead. My sister, my old friend—who’s called Kenrick—and the poet Neil Darlington is based on Ian Hamilton.

THE L: I did wonder whether your sister was as confused about sex, about men, about life, as Violet.
MARTIN AMIS: She was, completely. Actually, the Violet in the book is a toned-down version of my sister [Sally, who died in 2000].

THE L: The new novel’s about the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. The protagonist Keith Nearing makes a mess of his youth, and it’s an obvious deduction from this, though not necessarily an accurate one, that you regret coming to maturity in the 1970s. Do you think a Martin Amis born in, say, 1980 would have been happier as a young man?
MARTIN AMIS: I don’t at all regret being a young man at that time. He regrets it, but he’s not me. I wanted to concentrate on the casualties of the revolution as well as the beneficiaries, so I actually turned Keith over into being a casualty. There were casualties, and my sister was one. But she would have struggled in any society, apart from, say, a strict Muslim society. So no, it was a time of tremendous opportunities, and I was absolutely thrilled at the time. I don’t have many regrets about anything that came after.