Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Short-a-Day: David Mitchell's "Acknowledgments"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

Is there anything that David Mitchell's not good at? This excellent story features a delusional narrator, Clive Pike, who is sketching out the acknowledgments page of his soon-to-be-published Book on Psychomigration, now that he's put it into practice, having just transferred the mind of his mental collaborator and hospice-ridden ex-headmaster Bernard Kelvin Nixon into his own. Mitchell sells it, as in Ghostwritten, by dedicated himself truly to Pike's well-intentioned belief, all the while allowing us to figure out what's actually going on. For one, his book isn't being published--Timothy Cavendish, who asked for a $5,000 "production fee" is obviously a scam artist, and the lawyer Mr. Davis, who has served Pike divorce papers, describes him as "a moneygrabber with a history of conning the vulnerable." Moreover, his notes are being written while hiding from the police in a barn, and he believes the cows mocking him with limericks regarding the sudden silence of Nixon. Worst of all, he's escaped a mental hospital and subsequently murdered a dying man. It's a neat twist on the strictly unreliable narrator, and the eerie plausibility of the structure--and variety of its acknowledgments--neatly hooks the reader into reading on.

For what it's worth, the story is also wicked funny. For instance, in his acknowledgment to his ex-wife's new husband, he writes: "Please, no, not the best man at my wedding? Nixon says you should be thanked for removing a faithless wife and an obstacle to the Book, then stoned to death. I try not to agree." His brief confrontation with Jill Chen, his IT assistant (who is not what she appears to be), shows a hilarious reversal of roles and a range of character. And his own pitiable situation is summed up as such: "The pack of bank cards I had owned in my creditworthy life as a civil servant had all been swallowed by ATMs, and I was subsisting on Jacob's crackers, sultanas, and Heinz Beans, served at room temperature." His playful sense of language--as exhibited in the my Top Five of novels, Black Swan Green--is in good form here as well, with things like "one asthmatic June morning," "the doctor syringed soft oblivion into my bloodstream," and "I rummage for your wholeness in the flea market of memory, Pearl, but I unearth only bric-a-brac."

If you want to nitpick, the timeline of the story doesn't quite hold up, and the narrator is so far gone that he cannot have much depth left. But it's well-enough written and fiercely comic--and certainly original--enough to get past all of that, and though he's only published novels, he's quite good at these sad-character vignettes.

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