Reading Note:
The Declaration of Adventure

Here is the fatal paragraph:

Whatever the cost, Uzaemon vows, I shall free her. But I need help.

Don’t worry: I am not going to unpack this passage. I’m not going to spoil The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for you by explaining who “she” is, or why Uzaemon resolves to free her, or even who Uzaemon is. For my purposes, none of that is necessary — and that is what is fatal about the paragraph.

What I will do is point out that Uzaemon’s vow is meant to be taken seriously by the reader. There is no irony here, no distancing tug at the reader’s sleeve. So the vow differs in no way from hundreds of other such utterances that the reader may have read, and, especially, read when young. What we have here is the absolutely standard declaration of adventure that, with implicit contractual clarity, promises not so much a measure of excitement and derring-do as a simplification of motive. And it is not the character who utters the vow, either, but the author. The author promises to propel his character as a hero, in the single-minded pursuit of a worthy aim that will end in either triumph or death.

I would call it a boy’s own story, but I’m not sure that girls aren’t equally drawn to oaths of this kind. I speak, of course, of oaths in books, not of real-life commitments. It would be impossible to generalize about the latter; no two personal missions are alike. But in adventure stories, generalization is precisely what’s invited. With his vow, Uzaemon slips beneath the surface clutter of his contingent life as a Japanese man of a certain stature in Nagasaki, circa 1799. He sets aside the problems, great and small, that make up his everyday life. When he has stripped the accidents of existence away, he is seen to be wearing the hero’s armor, which protects him, above all, from ambivalence.

Here is why young readers of any age like declarations of adventure: ambivalence is banished. (Ambivalence — the emotional conjunction of palpably incompatible feelings — takes getting used to, and many people never succeed.) Anyone who makes Uzaemon’s oath is a good person, and a good person pure and simple, no matter how well or ill endowed with capability, intelligence, and fortitude. When a character comes to the oath with a spotted moral history, the vow itself is a redemption. The cost that Uzaemon vows to pay is the suppression of distraction: henceforth, nothing but the mission will matter. This means that nothing else will matter to the reader, either. The mission will part the world into the good and the bad, placing an uninhabitable gulf between the two. The indifferent will disappear: everything in the story, from other characters to the weather, will wear either the badge of help or that of hindrance.

But I need help. A second adventure! Freeing the girl requires the hero to field a team of loyal supporters with special skills, and this, too, is an adventure, no less clouded by the threat of disappointment and betrayal than the main event. (I see it — the rounding up of the helping posse — as a kind of temporal forecourt to the inner sanctum of dangerous rescue.) A complementary host of ritual obstacles confronts writer and reader alike with the satisfactions of knowing exactly where things stand with respect to the story, no matter how uncertain the hero’s arrangements might chance to be.

To the question, why does David Mitchell, a sophisticated novelist, issue a declaration of adventure at just about the point where an adult novel would be heading in the opposite direction, toward the uncertain resolution that George Eliot taught us to treasure, I don’t have an answer. My guess is that the writer is more concerned with genre than with character, more interested in a game whose rules are known to all than in the ineffable oddity of each human heart. When I saw what he had done, my curiosity about his novel — a book whose surface generates a turbulence of puzzlement — underwent a heroic simplification of its own, and I hunkered down with the sole aim of all genre fiction: to find out how it all comes out in the end.

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