Resisting the Pull

Do I have a problem with this?

from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring: drill, prick, saw, sting.

Hanzaburo snores in the cubby-hole outside Jacob's door.

Jacob lies awake clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.

Ai, mouth opens; ba lips meet; ga, tongue's root; wa, lips.

Involuntarily, he re-enacts today's scene over and over.

He cringes at the boorish figure he cut, and vainly edits the script.

He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.

The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.

A watchman smacks his wooden clapper to mark the Japanese hour.

The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window. . .

. . . Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust.

Day break must be near. 1796"s ledgers are waiting in Warehouse Doorn.

Is is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.

Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.

Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture. . .

Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.

. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime. . .

The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.

Jacob can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor playing in his long attic.

Night silence and a freak of conductivity permits Jacob this privilege: Marinus rejects all requests to play, even for scholar friends or visiting nobility.

The music provokes a sharp longing the music soothes.

How can such a prig, wonders Jacob, play with such divinity?

Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring: drill prick, saw, sting. . .

There are elements that work in a poetry-like fashion--and from my reading these elements recur periodically through the structure of the book. But there are anachronisms creeping in--"vainly edits the script," that are more distressing than they probably should be.

The whole creates a kind of static movement--a haiku-like stuttering in the prose--and as it punctuates the novel, gives it that kind of stylized Noh-theatre-like feeling.

I suppose I must see what purpose these passages serve before I can decide if they are ornaments or distractions--effective or defective.  That they draw attention to themselves suggests that they are a problem.  But perhaps not. . .only a fair reading of the whole will tell.

I should note the the title bar should be taken with a grain of salt.  I find myself resisting many new works that ultimately I come to love.  See reviews of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, among others for examples of books I felt that I might dislike or more toward disliking. I don't know where this perverse impulse comes from, but I can say that it is these sorts of books, whether I end up liking them or not, that I often most enjoy reading.

The book is due out 29 June and the copy I am reading is a review copy.


  1. Ah, I thought you were reading the book! I have an ARC, which I just started yesterday. There's a scene early in the book where a cultural commissar is rifling through Jacob's possessions to make sure there are no Christian artifacts. The contents are unpacked in the same manner as the passage you drew attention to in your previous post, the one dealing with steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, etc. Now, whenever I notice Mitchell doing this in Thousands, I mumble to myself, "O, the great unpacking," a technique he employs a little too often for my liking. I suspect that Mitchell, in trying to evoke a particular historical epoch, is prone to a data dump of details.


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