Hmm. What to even say about this book.
It has been on my radar for a while – it won the Rooster at Tournament of Books a few years ago and it keeps coming up on lists of the most important/best books of the last ten years. Last twenty years. Last half century. And it is. It is a work of art, an intricate puzzle-box of a book that rewards a little extracurricular thought. But it is also lacking a little something – just a little something – to truly make it live up to the hype.
The structure is fascinating: six stories, none of which truly connect… and yet which all connect at a very important level. The first five stories reach their halfway point before being interrupted by the following piece – the sixth story finishes uninterrupted – and then the back half is completing the first five stories. Each story is a pastiche of something, starting chronologically with Herman Melville/Daniel Defoe novels and plowing on towards dystopia and post-apocalyptic. Some of these exercises in style work better than others – The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, for example, is a very difficult way to start the novel. Once you get through that, though, you are rewarded with Letters from Zeldeghem, which is a terrific series of letters written by a character who would have made Oscar Wilde proud. The following sections (a 70s airport novel mystery, an old-person comedy, a dystopian Brave New World piece, and a strange distant future piece) are all well done and quite enjoyable, though each had occasional flaws.
As a writer’s exercise, this is a great success. Mitchell is self-aware enough to poke fun at his own intentions at times – but he also takes himself seriously enough to allow the concept to accrue some gravitas. I won’t give away the conceit of the thread that binds the six stories, but it becomes pretty obvious by the middle of the third section – and in case you missed it, there’s a direct reference to it (mockingly) in the fourth. So the question then becomes what, if anything, this book is really about?
You could say a lot – probably write a thesis – on this book as a treatise on man’s Will to Power, that Nietzschian concept we’re all too familiar with after our mandatory philosophy classes (or, for some, not mandatory. I quite like Nietzsche). In fact, as things wrap up, it becomes almost a little too explicit. We’re meant to understand that this future – the future we see in the sixth story – is inevitable because human kind cannot be tamed, cannot be controlled. We see white men slaving blacks and Pacific Islanders in the first section… the rich slaving the poor in the second… corporations subjugating those with a desire for good… the young locking up the old… society/government/corporations turning us into mindless slaves… and then, at the ‘end’, a strange reversal – where the whites are savages and the darker-skinned peoples don’t want to enslave them but to understand them. Because they still retain a little bit of knowledge of how things were and how they could again be.
If this sounds all a little high-and-mighty, well, it is. Its hard to see it as anything else, at times. This is a Big Book with a Big Message and it lets you know it. It forces you to think about it, though. Even as you roll your eyes and say, “oh, jesus, I get it” – you realize that even though you get it, this makes sense. And there is nothing to be done but watch it happen.
I really struggled to decide what to rate this. Is it one of the best things I’ve ever read, meriting a 5? Or is its density, its self-importance a little too much, knocking it down?
Rating: 5 out of 5. Read this book. It will demand your full attention and it will force you to reflect on whether or not you think this world will, in fact, end up the way Mitchell sees it. It also makes you wonder about generations, about souls, and about the meaning of life. Not bad for just-over-500-pages. It could have been a 5+ but, alas, sometimes ambition bites the nails of success.