There’s not a whole lot to this novel–it’s short, and feels even shorter–but what’s here is admirably written and often delightful. In 1837, the rural poet John Clare–once celebrated, now forgotten by the literary powers that be–ends up in an asylum run by a spendthrift renaissance man “doctor” as inept as an inventor as he is primitive as a psychiatrist. Another of the doctor’s patients is the brother of Alfred Tennyson, who’s come to the neighborhood to be near his troubled sib. Nothing particularly surprising happens: The doctor’s daughter falls for Tennyson, Clare hangs out with Roma in the forest, the doctor schemes and goes broke, other patients at the asylum are troubled by their various demons, etc. Still, Foulds–also a poet–writes with clarity and grace, and there’s more than enough here to please and amuse you on two or three plane rides, depending on their length.
I enjoyed this, but it’s uneven. Like Robert Altman and (sometimes) Jim Jarmusch, Mitchell likes to get one narrative rolling, then leave it behind and start an apparently unrelated one, only to show you, further on, that the first and second are actually parts of a whole. Then he introduces a third, fourth, and so on, each time providing a little jolt of pleasure when you recognize how each fits into the whole scheme. That’s fun, but here a lot of the connections seem arbitrary to me — maybe I’m missing something? That’s entirely possible — and some of the sections are a little formulaic, which is my nice way of saying boring. The author of the wonderful Cloud Atlas is hereby forgiven this early ho-hummer. (I haven’t read the new one everyone was chattering about a couple months ago.)
This movie’s become such a touchstone, I think many people, myself included, assume they’ve seen it even if they haven’t. If I have seen this before, it was prior to my taking up residence in the South, and also, in some respects, prior to my ascension/descension to adulthood. It is, as you know even if you haven’t seen it, a hugely histrionic and overheated movie, but it’s also fully genuine and fascinatingly weird. I hit this on a whim and am a bit flustered now; I’m afraid of what my dreams will bring tonight.