The hows and whys of scale and precedence

“There is a word in literary theory for what Mitchell’s doing: metalepsis, the transgression of the boundaries of a fictional world by an object, idea, or character. But there’s not much precedent for how he’s doing it. Among recurrent figures in adult literature, the one who comes closest to behaving like a Mitchell character is Falstaff, ambling from Henry IV to The Merry Wives of Windsor. But if Shakespeare had done what Mitchell is doing, Falstaff would have been the grandfather of Oberon, who would have first appeared as a page boy in Richard III.

Kathryn Schulz, “Boundaries Are Conventions. And The Bone Clocks Author David Mitchell Transcends Them All.”

I wonder if it’s true that Falstaff is about the closest thing modern literature (that is, literature from the “early modern” period to the present) has to offer to a David Mitchell character. In the course of five hundred-odd years, it seems improbable that there haven’t been more metalepses in the sense that Schulz uses the term. (Refreshers on the term here and here.) In the 20th century alone, haven’t Thomas Pynchon, Jack Kerouac, Salman Rushdie, and (of course) James Joyce performed similar operations in their works? If anyone knows, please share. It’s quite possible that nobody has tried it on Mitchell’s scale, but I’m not sure if that’s more of a “what” than a “how” question. Perhaps an “if”…

The quibble stems from a frustration I have with a widespread tendency to stake claims of precedence. It seems that if you want to make a favorite artist of yours seem especially significant, you claim that whatever it is you like about him, he did it first, or is unique among his peers for doing it. Just because someone does something well doesn’t mean that it’s important that she’s the only one doing it, or very nearly the first to have done it. Staking a claim like that distracts from or distorts the substantive reasons for that thing being done at all. Not that it’s unimportant to ask “how,” but it’s also important to ask “why.” The problem here is that Schulz smuggles in an assertion about the “how” that may not be true, and which might affect our understanding of the “why.”

Otherwise, it’s an intriguing interview. I’ve only read Cloud Atlas, but I hope to read Mitchell’s entire oeuvre by some point.


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