Is David Mitchell the William Faulkner of the Twenty-First Century?

Clickbait title, I know, but please bear with me. I think I’m onto something; call it—

An Essay on Fiction and Reality, Eternity and Time

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In the mid-1970s, Hugh Kenner wrote an essay on William Faulkner entitled “The Last Novelist” (you can find it both in Kenner’s book on American modernism, A Homemade World, where it forms the last chapter, or anthologized in the Harold-Bloom-edited Chelsea House collection of critical essays on Faulkner, which is ubiquitous in libraries).

Kenner was a master exegete of modernism, and his Faulkner essay is among other things a skeptical or hostile response to postmodernism, using the Southern modernist as counterexample. He notes that Faulkner, like other American writers of the 1920s (Fitzgerald especially), were under the influence of French and British fin-de-siècle Symbolism and Aestheticism, their works ringing with echoes of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Wilde, and The Yellow Book and conjuring before readers’ eyes the pictures of Moreau and Beardsley:

Faulkner’s miscalled Mississippi Gothic is more nearly a Mississippi aestheticism. The savageries his blood-saturated rustics ritualize are of frozen Art Nouveau sumptuousness.

(In a little note on Absalom, Absalom! from a couple years back, I observed the Wilde/Beardsley connection and suggested some of its thematic consequences.)

But Symbolism, with its drive to compress meaning into endlessly interpretable images, and Aestheticism, with its demand for the autonomous and self-sufficient objet d’art, were not aligned with Faulkner’s true genius, Kenner argues, no matter how many staggeringly gorgeous sentences we can find in The Sound and the Fury (he quotes Quentin’s monologue: “I ran down the hill in that vacuum of crickets like breath travelling across a mirror…”).

Instead, Faulkner’s gift, as revealed in his later work, but also even in the repetitive structure of The Sound and the Fury itself, which tells the same story four times, and then tells it a fifth time in the indispensable appendix (oxymoron intended) that Faulkner provided for it in 1945, was not for compression but expansion. His most genuine voice was not that of the Symbolist poet, with his cryptic quatrains, but that of the garrulous village storyteller elaborating on the lives of the community. For this reason, Kenner calls Faulkner “the last novelist”—the last novelist to assume, that is, what the novelist had assumed since the beginning of the nineteenth century: that the business of the writer was to bring news of the world.

Was Faulkner, perhaps, the Last Novelist? His was our last mutation, anyhow, of the procedures that dominated the novel for many decades. They stemmed from the ninetrenth century’s confident positivism, from the belief that what was so was the writer’s province, that he was the supreme generalist, to be trusted by the literate for the reports they needed. Though only writers seem to have held that belief in their own social utility, still it was the belief from which they wrote. (“To forge,” wrote Stephen Dedalus, “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”) The serious artist, Ezra Pound used to argue (recapitulating arguments he had heard from [Ford Madox] Ford), has the obligation faithfully to mirror our folkways (Moeurs de Province, Flaubert subtitled Madame Bovary) since otherwise we shall not know what they are. Our health depends on his reports, as much as on a hospital technician’s. And Ulysses, Pound thought, was the lancing of a boil. Such polemics derive from Flaubert’s reported remark that if “they” had read L’Éducation Sentimentale the war of 1870 would not have happened. We can no longer think so. Then what are words for anyway?

Kenner concludes that, after Faulkner, the novelists followed the poets in creating fictions that were wholly autonomous and self-bounded inventions, chambers in which language spoke only with itself. He scorns Barth and Pynchon and is baffled by the critical acclaim for Nabokov: he insists that

Pale Fire is a mirthless hoax and so is its successor, Ada, or Ardor: ingenious ships-in-bottles riding plastic seas to the awe of teaching assistants.

Nowadays, when Nabokov is something of a popular classic usually discovered in adolescence, his work regarded as immensely moving not despite but because of its vast effort at indirection, we may find this judgment eccentric and erroneous. But Kenner’s larger point—that Nabokov makes no attempt to report on the social world—stands. Postmodernism in fiction was for the most part Romanticism’s conquest of the novel—aren’t most supposedly “postmodern” techniques captured by Schlegel’s concept of “Romantic irony”? As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains,

The task of a literary work with respect to irony is, while presenting an inherently limited perspective, nonetheless to open up the possibility of the infinity of other perspectives: “Irony is, as it were, the demonstration [epideixis] of infinity, of universality, of the feeling for the universe” (KA 18.128); irony is the “clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos” (Ideas 69). A literary work can do this, much as Schlegel’s Lucinde had, by presenting within its scope a range of possible alternate plots or by mimicking the parabasis in which the comic playwright interposed himself within the drama itself or the role of the Italian buffo or clown (Lyceumfragment 42) who disrupts the spectator’s narrative illusion.

And was anyone more aware of this than Nabokov himself, translator of the reflexive Romantic poem Eugene Onegin?

For the Romantic, the mind makes the world; for the realist, the mind only discovers it.

Here our contemporary, David Mitchell, becomes relevant. Mitchell began as a seeming postmodernist, a good Nabokovian. His early masterwork, Cloud Atlas, was a Pale Fire-like concatenation of self-undermining and ever-reflexive textuality. It told exciting stories, certainly not “realistic” in Flaubert’s sense, even as it persistently reminded the reader that the text was an art object, not a faithful mimetic transcript of reality. So Mitchell, like Faulkner, started out as an aesthete, influenced by the anti-mimetic avant-garde of the previous generation (not only Nabokov but also Calvino and Murakami) as Faulkner was by that of the generation that preceded his own (again, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Wilde).

But, like Faulkner before him, Mitchell is aging into a loquacious storyteller relatively unconcerned with formal and textual questions. As Faulkner turned from the Symbolist art object to the expansive and socially realist chronicle of Yoknapatawpha County, so Mitchell, in such novels as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, has largely abandoned formalism in favor of a more straightforward recitation of life on his version of our interconnected globe. Faulkner took up the voices of oral storytellers in the South to recite the tales of the tribe; Mitchell, on a larger canvas, does no less. Parke Muth, who wrote my favorite laudatory review of The Bone Clocks, a novel I strongly disliked, defends Mitchell’s recent fiction precisely as a mimed oral testimony about the real world:

I hear voices. They speak to me from all over the globe. They write to me or post things on my pages. They tell me things I did not know, the stories of their lives. They share disasters—losing a plastic sheet, the only protection they had, in a refugee camp in Nepal, while others share triumphs—beating the English Royals on a polo field outside London. They talk about growing up with a single mother working multiple jobs to keep the children fed and educated and they speak to me of being selected by a government to come to the US to get an education and take a place of leadership in a business. They talk of being the only female learning from a Master in the oldest monastery in China and of being the only the only undergraduate picked for a job with Julian Robertson and his hedge fund in New York. These stories are true. I talk to many people from around the world each day and so it may be that I respond the way I do to Mitchell because his voices speak truly to me, even if only in fiction.

There is one obvious difference between Faulkner’s development and Mitchell’s: while Faulkner became more and more a realist, Mitchell becomes more and more a fantasist. Whereas Faulkner left behind Verlaine and Wilde for Balzac and Dickens, Mitchell leaves behind Calvino and Nabokov for Le Guin and Delany. But I would argue that this is a smaller difference than it appears. As realism after Faulkner retreated more and more to a concern with the mores of a narrowly elite class stratum (or else naturalist exposés of the lower class), the science fiction writer in the twentieth century arguably assumed the nineteenth century realist’s vocation of explaining the whole of society to itself, through extrapolation as well as by unashamedly deploying the exposition banished from the realist novel after Flaubert. Philip Roth, in an oft-quoted 1960 statement, asserted that American reality had outrun the (realist) novelist, while J. G. Ballard’s preface to Crash claimed that the (science fiction) novelist must resist the fictionalization of reality under the reign of postmodernism:

In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

Mitchell’s abandonment of the twentieth-century avant-garde corresponds to Faulkner’s abandonment of the nineteenth-century avant-garde, just as Faulkner’s adoption of nineteenth-century popular realism corresponds to Mitchell’s adoption of twentieth-century popular science fiction: both modes allow the writer access to straightforward storytelling and earnest social purpose.

And this brings me to my final point: both authors undergo a liberalization of attitude as they turn away from the avant-garde autonomy of art to the realist/science fictional description of society. In Faulkner, the brooding sense of immutable fate that hangs over The Sound and the Fury gives way to the more robust social critique of Light in August (and later works I must admit I have not yet read). In Mitchell, the transformation is similar. While Cloud Atlas concludes with Adam Ewing’s liberal sermon on the necessity of individual moral action to reform society (“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”), the closed circle of the novel’s chiasmus structure tends rather to confirm the quietist conclusion of its penultimate chapter, in which the suicidal composer Frobisher reflects on Nietzschean eternal recurrence:

Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools, and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again, Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under the Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

In The Bone Clocks, the characters most like Frobisher in role or sensibility are either cast more overtly as villains (Hugo Lamb) or must learn the errors of their ways to become humane (Crispin Hershey). The later novel’s heroes are the reporter Dave Brubeck (a reporter is the ultimate realist) and his partner Holly Sykes, who lives a resolutely ordinary life in the midst of grand events and who is given the novel’s heroically artless final sentence, humbly affirming progress rather than regress: “For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” Not amor fati, then, but the journey ever onward. The novel’s structure itself redacts Cloud Atlas: while both novels are in six interconnected parts, the latter’s are progressive rather than recursive and narrated by their character’s “authentic” voices rather than by their mediated texts.

Granted, I don’t know what these curious resemblances tells us about literature (perhaps that the narrative and mimetic impulses are ineradicable despite the formalists’ best efforts and most cogent theories?) or about culture more broadly (perhaps that modernity or postmodernity or late modernity or techno-modernity or whatever you want to call it cannot really alter or extirpate certain primal human drives [or culturally-constructed prejudices]?).

Maybe this correspondence between the twentieth- and twenty-first century authors tells us nothing more than that history repeats itself, with a difference—a message the authors of The Sound and the Fury and Cloud Atlas would no doubt appreciate. In that case, narrative is just a ruse of form, progress a moment in a cycle, time the flesh of eternity. And literature—no matter how mimetic it seems—has never strayed from the Symbol, cannot be parted from Art.