Once again, a cast-of-thousands narration has irreparably damaged a major writing effort. As happens in Roxana Ortega's trivializing narration of Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, the narration here of David Mitchell's THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET turns a 19-hour audiobook into an exhausting Babel. Unlike the Egan book, this novel, itself, is a disappointment. C.S. Godshalk's remarkable 1998 KALIMANTAAN (woefully not represented in the Audible library) is a far more compelling tale of Old World travel in the East and devastating cultural clashes in an exotic past. Mitchell's new effort is no CLOUD ATLAS, and nowhere near as good as the superb Dave Eggers' review in the Times might lead you to think. Publisher's Weekly called this Mitchell's "busman's holiday." Exactly. Traditionalism on wheels. Dutch traders in the far-offs. And like Clancy, Mitchell may have sailed into the realms of the monster-maestro whom no one dares approach with a red pencil. Excruciatingly long birth scenes, beheading scenes, other bodily-fluids scenes are flanked by deep descriptions of squalor in early 19th-century Japan. Vivid, sure. So is a stunning sunset. Imagine hearing readers deploy accents and funny voices describing every nook, cranny and hue in the clouds of that sunset. What's the alternative? Check Campbell Scott's reading of Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER. No circus of French accents in Paris, it's a riveting, meditative reading of the book in one voice. Scott serves Miller's art as Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox do not serve Mitchell's. We need them to read the book, not perform it. And this trend to cast-of-thousands narrations is a mistake, as when Disney turned Broadway into a show on ice. It's a small, small world between your ears, with room for two minds – yours and your author's. As a reader co-creates a book, so should a listener co-create that literature on headphones. Even if it does take a THOUSAND AUTUMNS to get to the end.
Jennifer Egan (don't miss her 2007 THE KEEP) has created a map of trail-offs in A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. It's a study of once-connected characters' paths in, around and out of the curious corners of the b-grade music industry. These are compelling personalities whose respective journeys take darkening swerves past youthful dreams into some very grown-up ditches -- or just coast to sad standstills at bleak intersections. The problem in the audio presentation is Roxana Ortega's narration, which seems to be calculated as a mall-chick's dreamy reminiscence, a latter-day Valley Girl on a determined talking streak. She strays into the "many voices" effort, and her stereotypic stabs at male characters' voices hit you like blunt objects falling off a shelf of baseball trophies. She carries in some mispronunciations, too, including Ralph Fiennes' first name. So what do we need in a narrator? Listen to the work of Campbell Scott and Laurie Anderson, two of our most accomplished theatre artists. They read their books and respect their listeners' intelligence. They don't try to play each character, no cast-of-thousands arrays of funny voices, no overlays of "'tude" on the work. Clearly, Ortega isn't untalented. And it may be that she was directed toward this one-woman-show mistake. When did narrating a novel turn into a job for Anna Deavere Smith? Above all, note that Egan's book deserves a listen for its own serious merits. Don't skip A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD because of Ortega's narration, just "listen through it" whenever you can, to hear Egan's own eloquence at work.
This is a case in which a major book's excellence is rendered all but unlistenable by a dreadfully cast reader. Tim Jerome handles this work in a very old-fashioned format, musty and nostalgic, perfect for Dickens, not for the intelligent stance of a contemporary intellience like Robinson. After a few minutes, the sweetness of this approach goes sickly, the prose starts to sound like Sunday School literature (which is too much in the context of a minister's tale) -- the listener is left trying to search out the smart cadences and ruminative depths that make Robinson's work important. It's too bad. But be sure to note that my ranking here isn't a negative comment about Robinson's literary achievement, but about the audiobook's casting.
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