This Week's Reads

Susanna Clarke, T.C. Boyle, and David Mitchell.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

By Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, $27.95) The Harry Potter franchise has turned Bloomsbury Books into one of the richest publishing operations around—but not as rich as it would have been if it hadn't been forced to turn Potter & Co. over to Scholastic Publishers in the U.S. for lack of a North American presence of its own. Determined not to make that mistake again, Bloomsbury is flying solo with its latest venture, which also has "franchise" written all over it. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an immensely long novel set in England during the Napoleonic Wars. The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and most of the British War Cabinet play minor roles in the action, and the Peninsular Campaign and Waterloo are employed for historical background. Indeed, Susanna Clarke's book is in most respects a conventional historical novel, with one exception: The England she portrays is one saturated with magic, a country once ruled by a magician, in which children learn in grammar school the names of great magicians of the past. Magic has, however, much fallen off latterly; when the tale begins in the autumn of 1806, only one magician remains at all active—and he's a strictly bookish, theoretical sort. The rest of the novel recounts how this man, one Mr. Norrell, brings practical magic back to life in England, in large measure quite against his own will, by means of his dependent yet combative relationship with his wayward apprentice, Jonathan Strange. If this sounds to you a good deal like Harry Potter Goes to Masterpiece Theatre, you exactly get my drift. But Clarke is an immensely more sophisticated writer than J.K. Rowling. Quite apart from plotting as sophisticated as anything in Trollope or Thackeray, she has mastered—created—a diction that irresistibly suggests the measure, vocabulary, and polish of the finest writers of the early 19th century. If her language sometimes seems a bit over-corseted, it never lapses into obvious pastiche, far less anachronism. Is this the kind of stuff of which runaway best sellers are made? Norrell takes an immense while developing narrative momentum. But once established, the momentum never slackens, and the final hundred or so pages are literally action-packed. Apart from the equivocal Mr. Norrell, really a full-dress portrait of which any novelist might be proud, the characters, even young Strange, are pretty much creatures of the action. But if Clarke (and Bloomsbury) have their way, we are sure to learn a great deal more about the latter: Without exactly creating a cliff-hanger conclusion, Clarke has left enough loose ends decorously dangling to provoke an appetite for at least one more 800-page installment of gentleman-wizard adventures. ROGER DOWNEY Susanna Clarke will appear at Bellevue Regional Library (1111 11th Ave. N.E., 425-450-1765), 7 p.m. Wed., Sept. 29; and at Elliott Bay Book Co., 6 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 30. The Inner Circle

By T.C. Boyle (Viking, 25.95) Wipe that smirk off your face. Though his 10th novel is about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, T.C. Boyle hasn't written a particularly dirty book. Nor are the thousands of sexual histories recorded by Kinsey's staff (for his two famous studies on male and female sexuality) very explicit. Nor are the various couplings among Kinsey's acolytes, and their wives, rendered in a fashion to titillate. Sex, oddly, really isn't even the core subject of The Inner Circle at all. It's a book you can read on the bus without shame—and with a fair amount of fascination, as the fictionalized Kinsey and his entirely fictional underlings form a tight little commune of rationalists determined to sequester themselves from the irrational ranks of "the sex shy." It's a novel about a self-anointed elite—or cult, maybe, as in Boyle's previous Drop City—that turns from utopia to dystopia in the length of time it takes to drop your trousers. In other words, it's paradise lost. Boyle relates Kinsey's rise and fall through the worshipful and largely uncritical eyes of John Milk, a naive, virginal undergrad at Indiana University in the late '30s who's hired as the first employee of what later will become the Kinsey Institute. Milk is about as interesting as his name implies—none too smart, a bit of a lush, a weakling whom Kinsey can dominate, more than a bit "soft," as his wife calls him. Milk doesn't even have the imagination to be an unreliable narrator; he's more of an amanuensis, a recorder, a helpmeet, a flunky—and, inevitably, a bottom to Kinsey's top, as the master initiates all of his protégés into his dominion. (A further, kinkier blurring of research and practice follows.) Unfortunately, and disappointingly for a Boyle novel, Milk's limitations as a character and narrator limit Circle's effect. What turns out to be, in the end, a power struggle between Kinsey and Milk's wife, Iris, is chronicled by the pawn in the middle—and he knows it. He calls his decision to submit to Kinsey a "moment that seems to present itself as offering up a choice but is actually a confluence of circumstances that pins you in a course of action." Marriage isn't much different for him, nor kids. Kinsey and Iris both have stronger wills, stronger drives, and Circle would've been a stronger book if such characters had shared in Milk's homogenized account. A half-century after Kinsey rocked American mores with his meticulous, objective data on premarital sex, infidelity, bisexual activity, fetishism, and homosexuality (or "H-experience"), his findings seem quaint. As Pamela Lee Anderson—now a novelist herself!—and other celebs peddle their own sex tapes, as Jenna Jameson and porn cross into the mainstream, Boyle intentionally echoes those proper, preliberated times with Milk's half-reluctant, half-curious immersion in Kinsey's unshackled world. Invariably, however, Milk's freedom from "superstition and fear and blame and finger-pointing" leads to a different form of control. For readers (and for Boyle, one suspects), you wouldn't want to go back to those times before Kinsey, but neither would you want to help him change those times from the inside of his research lab. BRIAN MILLER Seattle Arts & Lectures presents T.C. Boyle at Benaroya Hall (200 University St., 206-621-2230, $10–$205), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 5; his reading is preceded by a free lecture on his work at 5:30 p.m. Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell (Random House, $14.95) "As an experienced editor," proclaims down-at-the-heels London literary agent Timothy Cavendish, "I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory." Woe betide Mr. Cavendish, then, were he to discover that he's a character in David Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas, a veritable gadgetorium of six interrelated narrative contraptions. Just short-listed for the Booker Prize, it vaults midsentence—midword, actually—from the South Seas diary of a 19th-century notary to the epistolary plaints of a penniless composer in 1931 Belgium. The epic unfurls as no less than a journal within a series of letters within a mystery novel within a movie (or, perhaps, a lovingly detailed description of said movie) within a convict's last interview within an old man's reminiscence. Each new narrative irruption opens a fissure in the preceding groundwork until Mitchell hits his novel's deep-earth kernel—a futurist folktale of sorts, spun round the campfire in a Twainian vernacular—and then tunnels back out again. As did the pan-global daisy chain of Mitchell's 1999 debut, Ghostwritten, the new book barrels along on the author's virtuoso powers of ventriloquism. His many voices echo forebears as diverse as Sterne, Typee-era Melville, Huxley, Waugh, Bradbury, and Amis fils—all marshaled toward the big theme of Only Connect. Mitchell also lingers on repressive imbalances of power: Victorian-era colonizers exploit and exterminate natives of South Pacific islands; a young tabloid reporter named Luisa Rey (her name nodding to Atlas' multistrand ancestor The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder) gets in the crosshairs of a rapacious nuclear energy company in 1970s California; a genetically engineered serf in a future "corpocracy" slowly gains awareness of her sorry, shocking plight. The latter's long night's journey into day affords Mitchell the opportunity to riff on a Brave New World updated for globalization and its discontents: an apartheid state divided between "fabricant" slaves and "pureblood" consumers required "to spend a fixed quota of dollars each month, depending on their strata." So says Sonmi-451, the destined Jeanne d'Arc of the fabricant masses, who shares a comet-shaped birthmark in common with several Atlas characters. Among them are Cavendish and Rey, who contributed cameos to Ghostwritten, and Zizzi Hikaru, a virtual vixen used as a masturbatory aid in Mitchell's 2001 sophomore effort, Number9Dream. Eventually Sonmi-451 takes on the Cavendish role of skeptical editor when she asks, "Did you not detect the hairline cracks in the plot?" She's not the only character to complain, but Atlas fumbles these pomo glissandos, which smack of an oddly smug defensiveness. When Sonmi's saga attempts a final metafictional somersault, it breaks the back of her entire tale. Indeed, once Atlas reaches its halfway point, it begins falling into sixfold lockstep with the generic demands of third-act resolution—each strand eventually ties itself into a neat bow of explain-it-all confrontation and/or death-defying great escape. But so long as the heads are still popping off Mitchell's Russian doll like champagne corks, his novel glows with a fizzy, dizzy energy, pregnant with possibility and whispering in your ear: Listen closely to a story, any story, and you'll hear another story kicking inside it, eager to meet the world. JESSICA WINTER David Mitchell will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 6.

 
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