I must apologise for posting this letter in my blog. I know I should have send it to you directly, yet I was unable to find your email or your physical address in county Cork—I suppose you live there because that’s what Wikipedia states. It may not be a very reliable source, but it is the only one I have…
The purpose of the letter is twofold… well truly it is threefold. In first place it gives me an excuse to stop thinking for some minutes about allusion in The Waste Land, the theory of metaphor of Ricoeur, and other somniferous topics that I’m forced to deal with in order to finish my MA dissertation… But let me go to the ones that concern your books.
The first is to thank you for Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. I read both of them and enjoyed them immensely—I also bought them, so you have also some reasons to be thankful. Usually I don’t read much of contemporary fiction and to find such an intelligent book as Could Atlas was refreshing. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is superb, funny, excellently written. Your command of language, style, and characterisation through speech is incredible… I could continue with the praises but I think you get the idea. But… yes! there is a but, which as you probably guessed by now is the second point of my multipurpose and manyfold letter. I got the feeling that something is missing. You are a great writer, both books are excellent, but are they epic, as Eliot Bolivar would have said? I think you are almost there, but not there yet. The question is why? What is missing?
So I started thinking about it in the free time that my ramblings about metaphors and myth allow me… and then I got to one of the “praises” that appear in the back cover of Black Swan Green. Let me quote.
Mitchell is just about the best writer operating in Britain today… a novel that, like each one of its predecessors, sticks in the back of your head for weeks after you have finished it.
I’m sure you have recognised it. It is from Mr. Mat Smith from Arena, a magazine which, to be honest, I did not know existed till today. I guess that’s just one of the problem of being a philistine. Anyway, besides learning that you “operate”—did you notice what a funny word-choice? Mr. Smith shed some light on my problem by casting a terrifying shadow… Black Swan Green is doomed “to stay in the back of my head for weeks”, afterwards it will simply disappear. I know Mat (I’ll just drop the Mr.) meant that as a compliment, otherwise it would have not been printed there. After all these praises are meant to encourage people to buy books. Weeks sounds like an eternity in our futility-plagued times, doesn’t it? Well… I actually agree with Mat’s point. Jason will stay with me for weeks, maybe months, maybe even years… but will he stay with me forever? I’m not sure, and that’s why I don’t think the book is “epic”, even though it could have been.
Why is Jason Taylor doomed to die while someone like Jason Compson will be enjoy eternal life in “the back of my head”? I love your Jason, don’t get me wrong, I really do. But I don’t love him as much as I hate Faulkner’s. Why? Well I don’t know exactly why, but I think it is because he is not serious enough, not tragic enough, his story is not crucial, extremely important… it is not about life and death. I’m not saying that you need to write tragedies, but somehow the book fails to convey that there is only one Jason Taylor, a unique person. It does not manage to get across that what happens to him is really important, because he is human.
I guess that what I’m trying to say is much better expressed by the piece of advise Faulkner gives to young writers in his Banquet Speech. The young writer, says Mr. Faulkner,
must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
I’m sure the Jason that lives in your head—either in its back or in a more dignified place— felt fear, true and excruciating fear when he discover his parents were about to divorce. I’m sure he felt extreme wonder and joy when he kissed Holly…, yet I don’t think I really got it. Dear Mr. Mitchell, you’ve got what it takes. People like Paul Auster can write wonderfully, but they’ve got nothing to write about. You do, I’m sure your head is boiling with ideas, and you have the style. You can do much more than operate… Please write something truly epic, something that will stay with us forever.