Obooki’s Survey of Contemporary Literatureed. Zadie Smith

#1 David Mitchell – Judith Castle

Oh God, it

all comes back to me! (Is no other country’s fiction as dreadful as ours?) Why am I putting myself through this again? Can I not learn from past


This is the worst opening story imaginable. This is everything I’ve come to expect from literary fiction: its central character is a

dull worthless mediocrity whose thoughts never vary from the banal; she leads us ramblingly through the pointless trivia of her everyday existence;

nothing happens; no emotion is conceded – it is just implied at the end by some phoney use of symbolism; – and the whole thing is told in the kind of

light-hearted manner which evades any demand to have itself taken seriously.

Oh yes, it’s a clever work Mitchell’s created for us – but, true

to form among contemporary writers, its cleverness is all hidden and in order to reach it and understand it we have to wade through such a wearisome

tract of trivial occurrences and jejune observations that I find an 18-page story turning into an epic struggle against delight and


Here’s an example of its subtle cleverness: – the heroine phones up someone on a mobile; the person on the other end


“Who is this and where the hell is who?”

To which the heroine thinks:

What sort of actresses

doesn’t know her whos from her whoms?

To which, of course, the reader thinks: – no, Mitchell, you’re wrong: – that she is using a

relative pronoun at the end of the sentence is certainly grammatically incorrect; but this woman on the phone is surely correct in his use of the

nominative case here because this is clearly an example of apposition … oh, no, i see: – it isn’t Mitchell’s misunderstanding of the rules of English

grammar at all; he is actually trying to evoke the imbecility of his narrator’s thought by this passage: – I mean how goddamn clever is that!

By which time, of course, Mitchell has successfully impressed upon the reader that the thoughts in his own head and far more interesting than

anything he’s likely to find in the pages of this book: – and if he isn’t a complete fool, at this juncture the reader goes off and does something

more useful with his life. – That is, if the whole business of the artifically constructed cleverness of this passage doesn’t annoy the hell out of

him so he can’t any longer concentrate on living.

Character, apparently, is created through such facile trickery, along with long boring

monologues of listed trivia such as (taken almost at random):

“I sat back down and sipped Marion’s excellent coffee. She replaces her

machine every year, whether it needs replacing or not. Mummy used a percolator only once in her life. She put three filters in instead of one, and the

kitchen floor was flooded.”

“So I manned the till and started sifting the morning’s post: three invoices; one tax form;

two CVs from great white hopes after Saturday; a letter informing the recipient that he has won a mansion in Fiji via the lottery – for every blatant

scam, there are a thousand halfwits who refuse to understand that nobody gives money away – and a postcard from Barry from Grainge-over-Sands, the

asylum-seeker’s detention centre of the soul.”

I’m not interested, Mitchell; – it isn’t interesting. (Though I did wonder whether “two

CVs” was meant as a clever play on words: which thought, carefully engendered in my brain no doubt, only again succeeded in distracting me from the


But seriously, if you’re going to write a story about someone who is dull and uninteresting – that goddamn everyperson who is so

often the hero of your wretched novels – please, please include something, anything, in your work that might make it a joy for the reader to read


This is going to be hell, this exercise.

(The thing is, having read about 1/3rd of Cloud Atlas, I believe Mitchell is a talented

writer and that he is deliberately wasting his talent by writing such empty banalities as are contained in every sentence of this story).


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