The Last Samurai

Big Novels For Short Attention Spans

It seems almost clichéd to note the distracted, disparate plurality of a certain contemporary consciousness that has developed alongside personal computers and the blogosphere, with its roots in television and cable. But it is just such an overexposed, impatient populace that is not only increasingly typical, but increasingly typical even of the readership of ambitious contemporary fiction. It is therefore interesting to observe the ways in which writers over the last decade have responded to this ongoing development, from Helen DeWitt’s <i>The Last Samurai</i>, an infoscape of nearly irreconcilable facts and figures interspersed with a story, to David Mitchell’s <i>Cloud Atlas</i>, which lurches forward autistically, reengaging the reader with a radically new voice every few dozen pages. The end products are hardly similar aesthetically; the first, as one reviewer said, realizes “a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form,” and, the reviewer would likely agree, a genuinely new voice, while the other decidedly and unabashedly utilizes an assortment of appropriated, hackneyed, and even pulpy genres and voices to braid in a set of thematic concerns meant to resonate across time and space. Yet while the...

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