The What and the How

April 19th, 2009

This is a good reading month, what with Annie Dillard’s THE MAYTREES followed by David Mitchell’s absolutely breathtaking CLOUD ATLAS.  Just wanted to share one tiny bit.

First, let me explain that the section of CLOUD ATLAS from which the short excerpt below is taken begins with someone tossing off a high balcony an unendurably snide literary critic called Sir Felix Finch.  (The tosser is a writer.)   One thing leads to a thousand others, as usually happens in this amazing novel, and the central character of this section of the book, a vanity-press publisher named Timothy Cavendish, finds himself with a mysterious manuscript that, against all his expectations, fascinates him.  This is from the book:

I concluded that the young-hack-versus-corporate-corruption thriller had potential.  (The Ghost of Sir Felix Finch whines, “But it’s been done a hundred times before!” — as of there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber!  As if Art is the What, not the How!)

This stopped me cold.  Of course, I knew it.   We all know it.  But I’ve never seen it put so baldly, so directly, before.  And putting it in this peevish character’s mouth just makes it even better.

To me, anyway.

4 Responses to “The What and the How”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I’ve heard such mixed reviews of CLOUD ATLAS that the book has never quite made it to the top of my TBR stack. You’ve never steered me wrong and any book that has grabbed you this hard — well, I’m reading this one soon.

  2. Dana King Says:

    There are only seven? Thirteen? Eleven? Basic stories. Everyone pretty much agrees on that. The How must be everything, or we’d have become tired of that paltry handful a long time ago.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa — CLOUD ATLAS is probably not a completely successful book. That said, what David Mitchell is trying to do is so breathtaking in scope, and the parts that work, work so beautifully, that it’s definitely one of the best, most fascinating, and occasionally rapturously beautiful novels I’ve read in years. I’ve now bought everything and am looking forward to the next book, which it told, apparently, from nine or ten perspectives.

    Dana — Absolutely right. Art is all about the How. Chandler’s detective stories are art because of how he wrote them. There are probably genres in which art isn’t possible, but I can’t think of any offhand. Who would have said in the 1950s that there would be significant rock and roll art? Comic books? Sure, why not? Can’t think of any creative enterprise right now that someone couldn’t turn into art.

  4. usman Says:

    I’ve always believed in the How. That is why discussions on what cannot or should not be done turn me off.

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