David Mitchell: Perfectly Plausible Worlds
- Ghostwritten Random House, 1999, 426 pp.
- Number9Dream Random House, 2001, 400 pp.
- Cloud Atlas Random House, 2004, 509 pp.
- Black Swan Green Random House, 2006, 294 pp.
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet Random House, 2010, 479 pp.
Who is David Mitchell?
His name meant little or nothing to many Americans until 2007, when Time magazine placed Mitchell 16th on its list of 100 men and women “whose talent, power and moral example is transforming the world.” He was the only literary figure in the list and was credited with having “created the 21st-century novel.” In fact, this kind of hype began even earlier in the States with reviewers' reception of his third novel, Cloud Atlas, in 2004. The New York Times Book Review greeted this book ecstatically: “Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He . . . can evidently do anything.” Other U.S. newspapers followed suit: “An exciting, almost overwhelming masterpiece” (Washington Times); “revolutionary” (Newsday); “thrilling” (Boston Sunday Globe). Mitchell’s popularity over here was given an pseudo-official stamp of approval in the winter of 2010-11 when President Obama chose Mitchell’s fifth and latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) as one of his vacation reads.
In Britain, where he was born, Mitchell became a literary phenomenon with the appearance of his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999). A.S. Byatt, a tough reviewer who castigated Martin Amis in 1995 for negotiating so large an advance that the rest of the pool of British novelists (including herself) were likely to be short-changed, greeted Mitchell’s book as “one of the best first novels I’ve read.” All five of his novels were selected or short listed for prizes, including the Man Booker (on two occasions), and in 2003 he was selected as one of the Best Young British Novelists by Granta.
What is it about Mitchell’s work that accounts for such success? Again and again reviewers show their astonishment that he can simultaneously engage in sophisticated linguistic play and complex structural innovation while showing equal skill at traditional story-telling. A.S. Byatt was spellbound, writing that she still hadn’t read the last chapter of Ghostwritten when getting off a trans-Atlantic flight and finished it at the carousel, only to conclude, “it’s even better the second time.” His books owe as much to John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov and James Elroy as they do to Murakami or Chekhov. He negates the distinction between highbrow and popular. He is both a post-national and post-postmodern writer on the one hand and quite simply a page-turner on the other.
American reviewers and critics have declared him a new breed of novelist, a writer of the world, no less. "Of all the writers I work with," says his American editor, David Ebershoff, "he's the most global." Mitchell himself has confessed to wanting "to write the world, underlined three times, three exclamation marks." Four of his five novels are set either in Japan or in numerous locations other than Britain and feature characters of many different nationalities. But the idea of the global novelist is not as simple as that. Writing in a world dominated by global capitalism, he conjures up characters that are simultaneously unique and utterly replicable. The first person narrator of the fifth episode of Ghostwritten is actually a “noncorpum,” a personality or spirit that flits from one body to another, from a backpacking Westerner to an old Mongolian peasant woman, providing a concrete embodiment of the idea that each of us is a specific individual and yet totally interchangeable.
This aspect of Mitchell's work might prove to be his most innovative, that which stamps his work as indissolubly a product of our twenty-first century global coexistence. The novel, at least since the time of Henry James, has made the workings of its characters' minds of central interest. Mitchell appears to be simultaneously working within that tradition while denying its centrality. Unlike the previous generation of British novelists who, falling under the influence of Barthes and company, tended to emphasize the constructed nature of subjectivity, Mitchell gives the impression of a writer who wants to force the novel to respond to a globalized world by taking it beyond its dependence on "personality." But, recognizing that vividly realized characters are one of the key ingredients of the bestseller, he achieves this by creating a gallery of skillfully individualized characters who proceed to demonstrate their essential similarity to one another. Personality emerges in his work as a part each of us acts out. Beneath personality lurks a level of commonality (the product of our globalized lives?), which as a novelist Mitchell can make apparent by such purely narrative means as juxtaposition, comparison, repetition, and the like.
This idea of the global novel makes more sense if one looks at how Ghostwritten works. The book consists of nine relatively independent episodes, with a coda that returns to the voice and locale of its beginning. The first episode takes us into the mind of a fictional member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult who has fled after releasing sarin on the Tokyo metro. As a member of a cult, he is portrayed as one who has subordinated his individuality to the dictates of the cult. All its members "had chosen to abdicate their inner selves." The next episode is narrated by a young part-Japanese record store assistant who falls for a Chinese-Japanese young woman about to return to Hong Kong. Next we hear the voice of an ex-patriot Englishman who is a financial lawyer in Hong Kong whose money laundering leads to a diabetic attack from which he dies. The novel goes on to visit the minds of a Chinese woman who runs a tea shack on Mount Emei, a noncorpum in Mongolia, a female Russian curator in Petersburg, a ghostwriter in London, a high powered physicist in Clear Island, Southern Ireland, and a radio host in New York City who, similar to the novelist, is reduced to a disembodied voice confined to the nighttime's airwaves.
Mitchell doesn't just rotate through the minds of this international cast, however. From the second episode on he insinuates various kinds of connections between each of these episodes. Numerous characters turn up in other episodes in minor tangential roles, as do objects (a book about "transcending the limits of the corporeal body", coffee machines, green pens), even music recordings. In interviews Mitchell has said that after the rejection of a first novel, consisting of as many chapters as there are days in the year and at least 20 subplots, one agent at Curtis Brown urged him to turn to stories instead. After writing the first five sections as stories, he realized that they could be "strung into an odd-looking sort of novel."
Mitchell shows a compulsive need to locate meaning within a universe seemingly governed by randomness. So he makes each episode offer a different reason why things happen as they do. In the first episode the reason is the cult's abdication of personal responsibility to a guru. In the Tokyo section the reason for things happening as they do is love. In the third episode it is greed. In the fourth, history. And so on. Mitchell cannot resist building complex narrative structures. Cumulatively, however, these haphazard collisions demonstrate, possibly over-neatly, the global interconnectedness of everyone. The shifting first person narrator becomes more than the sum of individual narrators and achieves a supra-national, global presence.
As in all his other novels, Ghostwritten hovers on the border between the material and the spiritual, just as its various voices are undercut by the ghostly voice of their narrator. It is the narrator who translates the characters’ various languages into an English equivalent that adopts particular stylistic conventions to represent the foreignness of the speaker. The Chinese peasant woman who runs the tea shack, for instance, gives visitors names that correspond to their dominant traits, names like "Fat Girl," "Witchy Friend," "Brain," and so on. Mitchell's different transcriptions of Japanese, Russian, and other languages reduce their strangeness while at the same time depriving English of its assumption of centrality. All human speech is ghostwritten, he implies, especially that of the novelist.
One other way in which Mitchell creates an effect of global comprehensiveness is by using circularity. Ghostwritten’s coda takes the reader back to a time just prior to the novel’s opening, with the arrival of the cult terrorist at his hotel in Okinawa, back to his desperate attempt to escape from the sarin he has left in the Tokyo metro carriage. In the four pages it takes him to escape from the packed carriage, the terrorist encounters images from virtually every previous episode and in the east-west trajectory that the episodes have followed. So episode 4 ("The Holy Mountain") is recalled by the image of the Buddha sitting on his mountain on the cover of a metro passenger's book. The London episode returns in the form of a vinyl shopping bag with "The London Underground" printed on it. "Underground" is the title of the final coda and it subtly encapsulates the rest of the novel as it returns us to an underground moment prior to its origin. While this offers the satisfaction of a form of narrative closure, it runs the risk of appearing imposed rather than organic.
Mitchell has written that the ending of Ghostwritten is influenced directly by the ending of Mishima's The Sea of Fertility. This kind of literal borrowing raises a persistent criticism leveled at him - that of ventriloquism. Reviewing Ghostwritten, Laura Miller raised this issue on Salon.com: "Too often even the enjoyable segments of "Ghostwritten" bring to mind other writers (who tend to be more accomplished with the sort of material at hand)." Mitchell denies this charge and attributes his exceptional familiarity with the styles of other writers to his personal history in which the world of books came to assume a reality more vivid than that of material existence. If a novelist's borrowing from life is considered an asset, what is so different about Mitchell's borrowing from his interior life formed from books? He has said in interviews that the stammer he developed at the age of seven (in 1976) encouraged him to live inside himself, turning to books. After a childhood in the English west Midlands and four years at the University of Kent, Mitchell became an ex-patriot, earning his living as a language teacher first in Sicily, then for eight years (1994-2002) in Japan. "Home," he has said, "is more an emotional concept than a geographical one" After marrying a Japanese girlfriend, he has since settled in a remote house in Southern Ireland, which allows him to live inexpensively and write full-time.
Number9Dream (2001), Mitchell's second novel, is set in Tokyo. But this Tokyo constitutes a Blade Runner-ish parallel universe, one influenced by William Gibson and Murakami that nevertheless coexists with a recognizable world beyond it. The book takes its title from John Lennon's 1974 song of similar title, which is about having a dream of indecipherable meaning. Near the end of the novel Eiji, its young Japanese protagonist, has a dream (one of many in the book) in which he asks "John-san" what the dream means. Lennon replies, "The meaning of the ninth dream begins after all meanings appear to be dead and gone."
The plot appears to center on Eiji's search for his unknown father. But this reveals itself to be a search for something else. As his girlfriend Ai remarks, "You look for your meaning. You find it, and at that moment, your meaning changes, and you have to start all over again." That explains the book’s episodic structure. In each of its nine chapters Eiji constructs a different understanding of his life. It is not until the eighth that he realizes that his quest is not really for his father's identity, but a process he has to undergo to accept his twin sister, Anju’s death, which happened when he was in his teens. Mitchell allows Eiji's dreams to bleed into his waking life (which is itself filled with nightmare figures from Japan's crime syndicates), thereby clouding the reader’s apprehension of what’s “real.” In the eighth chapter, Eiji has a dream about his sister, whom he is told he is keeping from being fully dead. When he asks the old woman interpreting his dream what it means, she says, "Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Dreams are beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the will-never-be walk awhile with the still-are." Eiji's quest ends when he accepts the permeability of the worlds of matter and spirit. Appropriately the ninth chapter is without title and consists of blank pages, suggesting that full meaning continues to elude him as much as the reader.
I consider Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas, his masterpiece to date. Its structure is his most complex and successful. Inspired by Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Mitchell chose not just to interrupt each of his narratives by another that referred back to the previous one, as Calvino had done, but to pick up each interrupted narrative and complete it in reverse order, so the second half of the book creates a mirrored inversion of the first. Sections of the novel repeat in miniature the larger effect. For instance the first narrative of Ewing, a nineteenth century American notary is interrupted by that of a Moriori native named Autua, whose name is a palindrome that echoes the shape of the book. The Moriori, isolated on the Chatham Islands, had forgotten the discoveries of technology, and the novel traces an arc from their primitive state to a post-technological remote future and back again. Likewise, in chapter 2, Frobisher the musician-narrator composes "Cloud Atlas Sextet," the six-part structure of which mirrors that of the novel (five chapters interrupted half-way and completed in reverse order and a sixth central chapter narrated in its entirety). Each first person narrative becomes a document that is read in the next one. So the first half of Ewing's journal is found by Frobisher, the musician who narrates the second chapter; Frobisher's letters are read by Rey, the third chapter's Californian narrator, whose story is submitted to Cavendish a London editor who recounts the fourth chapter. Cavendish's narrative becomes an old film watched by Sonmi-451, the cloned Korean narrator of the fifth futuristic chapter, and Sonmi-451 becomes a god worshipped by Zachry, the primitive Hawaiian tribesman of chapter 6's post-apocalyptic distant future, whose tale of a suspicious narrator from a distant land echoes Ewing's account in chapter 1 (another circular narrative structure).
Like Calvino, Mitchell also chose to employ a different narrative genre for each of his six narratives. Chapter 1 consists of a travel journal reminiscent of Melville; chapter 2's epistolary narrative evokes Evelyn Waugh and Christopher Isherwood of Lions and Shadows; chapter 3 uses the convention of the hard-boiled detective novel in the tradition of James Elroy; chapter 4 is written in the spirit of an Ealing comedy; chapter 5 combines the genre of the sci-fi dystopia (Brave New World and Blade Runner) with a gossip magazine interview of a celebrity (modeled on Hello); and the central chapter 6 offers a variant of a dystopia modeled on Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Mitchell sees genre as a set of colors in the writer's paint box to be used as he wishes, and the way he uses different genres is usually unconventional, against the grain of the genre, so to speak. Each of the six narrators is given a distinctly different voice, just as Frobisher's "Cloud Atlas Sextet" consists of six movements each led by a different solo instrument, "each in its own language of key, scale and color."
Inevitably a few critics attacked his use of different voices. Reviewing Cloud Atlas, the novelist Philip Hensher wrote, "I still couldn't say that I could identify a page of prose of Mitchell's." This charge takes us back to the role of the novelist in a world of global capitalism. In each of Mitchell's six chapters a character from a previous chapter reappears in a later era. As he explained, all characters are also literary (not literal) reincarnations of the same soul, another way in which the novel's unity is constructed. All six narrators have the same comet-shaped birthmark, indicative of the sameness of Mitchell's narrative voice that comes to represent the homogenizing pressures of the contemporary world. What underlies the individual presence of both characters, narrator and author is the need of global capitalism today to turn us all into un-particularized consumers of the Internet, i-pods, and the like. If the "Atlas" of the title refers to the uniform nature of humans, "Cloud" insists that human identity is vaporous and evanescent. The dominant theme of the novel is the persistent presence over time of human predation. Mitchell says that Nietzsche (referred to by Frobisher in the novel) gave him this overall vision of "how individuals prey on individuals, corporations on employees, tribes on tribes, majorities on minorities, and how present generations 'eat' the sustenance of future generations." His mirrored structure suggests that, seen chronologically, civilization is destined to degenerate, while that, seen in reverse narrative sequence in the second half, human kind still has a chance of choosing a different path forward.
One would have expected Mitchell to have made Black Swan Green (2006), an autobiographically based kind of Bildungsroman, his first novel instead of his fourth. He joked to one interviewer that this novel is 52.1% autobiographical, while exempting as fictional the family, the parents' divorce and most of the plot. The novel, set in Worcestershire in 1982, focuses exclusively on the thirteenth year of Jason Taylor (the same age and location as Mitchell's). While strictly chronological, it is tightly constructed, with each of its chapters covering a month and each intended to stand on its own as if it were a story. The book gives Taylor a number of personae, such as Hangman (his stutter), Maggot (his self-contempt), and Evil Twin (his urge to do the unsocial thing), allowing the protagonist to conduct internal dialogues with himself. Like Mitchell’s previous novels, it also hovers on the margins between the material and the immaterial, waking life and dreams. Frequently we are not sure which territory we are occupying until we reach the end of a passage, by which time the book has made one of its central points (that waking life and fantasy life have equal validity). Taylor is drawn to the otherworldly countryside of the Malverns, where he encounters an old woman living with the ghost of a long dead brother in an enchanted house, and a drowned boy skating on the frozen lake. Searching for a lost Roman tunnel in the Malvern Hills he sets out on a chapter-long odyssey where real objects and events become indistinguishable from fantasies.
Like Mitchell, Taylor suffers from a stammer. Because it has such a powerful hold over his life he assigns it a persona and a name - Hangman. Forced to substitute similes for words that threaten to seize up (for instance "futile" for "pointless"), Mitchell learnt to further change the register of his sentence to avoid being accused of being posh by his schoolmates. This proved productive for his command of dialogue in his fiction: "that's what I do now when I write dialogue. I think about register." He is particularly adept at reproducing the kids' slang and abbreviated way of talking at that time. A boy is going to "cream" (that is, beat up) another; the loser shouts at the winner, "Yer fuckin' wanker!" He is surprised that his mother's spaghetti Bolognese isn't "pukesome." Mitchell also makes much use of brand names, more than in any of his other novels, partly to establish the pervasive influence of market capitalism in the 1980s. Shown a revolting photograph, Taylor says, "I almost vommed up my Mars bar and Outer Spacers." American readers are at times left guessing the contents of these brand names: "Creme Eggs" (cream-filled chocolates shaped like eggs); "Ribena" (fruit juice); "Duraglit" (metal polish); Germolene" (pink antiseptic ointment); and so on. Taylor is also an aspiring poet, finding in written words a command that the Hangman preempts when he is speaking: "Only in my poems, I realized, do I get to say exactly what I want."
When Mitchell's fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was published in the U.S. in July 2010 it entered the New York Times bestseller list at number one and was still listed as number 33 at the time of writing. Mitchell's status in America changed from that of an author with a cult following to that of a popular novelist. This is all the more surprising considering that the book itself is a historical novel set in late eighteenth-century Japan. In 1994, Mitchell was touring the country and got off the streetcar in Nagasaki at the wrong stop. He stumbled on the Dejima Museum, which commemorated the small artificial island the Japanese created to which Dutch traders were confined during the isolationist Edo period. It took Mitchell ten years to get back to the subject, and he wrote four drafts. Only with the last did he resort for the first time to the third person. Even then the author confined the narrator's omniscience to one character's thoughts per chapter.
Mitchell writes in a brief essay at the end of the novel that one of the reasons he was interested in the historical novel was because of its paradoxically mixed composition: "the 'historical' half demands fidelity to the past, while the 'fiction' half requires infidelity . . . the lies of art must be told." So, as he told one interviewer, his aim was to "reconstruct the past of a perfectly plausible, nearby parallel world." This unique historical situation allows him to give equal weight to Japanese and Dutch/European perspectives. Many of the Japanese officials view the Dutch foreigners with a contempt that is given a racial inflection by their inability to distinguish one Dutchman from the next. The chronological narrative reflects this bicultural stance. It is divided into a first section largely confined to the Dutch in Dejima, a second more fantastic section centering on a Japanese mountain temple, and a third that returns to Dejima for a final action-packed sequence.
Mitchell has always sought out challenges in his fiction. In the case of this historical novel the genre itself formed the challenge: “It’s the challenges you set yourself," he has said, "the difficulties, the frames, the straightjackets, that force writing to be ingenious. With historical fiction, that constraint is the language.” The official Japanese translators of Dutch are largely incompetent, while the Dutch are forbidden to learn Japanese. So a major theme running through the novel is that of miscommunication. "Obscurity," Jacob says, "is Japan's outermost defense. The country doesn't want to be understood." Miscommunication occurs not just between nationalities but between classes. When Jacob first joins his fellow clerks one of them informs him beforehand that the others are likely to have all pissed in his coffee. Urged by Baert, one of the more ignorant clerks, to have a sip before he goes, Jacob responds, "I don't think I'd care for its adulterants." The uncomprehending Baert replies, "Not a soul's cussing yer 'f adultery." Jacob's careful syntax is juxtaposed with Baert's slang. Mitchell is forced to invent different linguistic conventions for each major character. One Japanese woman, for instance never uses "I" ("My eyes see . . ."). A Japanese interpreter invariably gets his subject-verb agreements wrong ("who plot to leave is executed").
In all of his novels Mitchell shows a skillful command of language and voice. His stammer may have fostered his preference for other people's voices, a characteristic that some critics continue to find a limitation. Indeed all his work conveys a sense of being ghostwritten. But what his critics dismiss as ventriloquism constitutes a vital part of his fictional world. Language is part of the power struggle that erupts in all his novels and acts as a formidable force. "Naming," reflects Jacob, "gives what is named substance." "To list and name people, he thinks, is to subjugate them." Naming, speech, in Mitchell's work emanates from somewhere deep in his unconscious. Together with the ghostly themes that haunt his fiction, this ghostly narrative voice makes Mitchell a uniquely representative figure of our times, one who seeks for authenticity amidst the already spoken and who is forced to use that to excavate the original ore of individual, yet elemental expression. When he speaks in his own voice Mitchell can captivate one: "Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging." But language is still only the (indispensable) tool for creating a world of the imagination's making. Ink, Jacob reflects, is more potent than blood, while Orito consoles herself in her imprisonment with the thought that "the mind craves stories." It is stories that make life tolerable for her fellow prisoners. Above all else Mitchell is a superb story-teller. Characters from earlier novels reappear in later ones, as if Mitchell's fictional world were constantly expanding. As he explains, "each of my books is one chapter in a sort of sprawling macronovel." One could say that his collective fiction resembles the interconnectivity of the Web and gives unique expression to today's digitally imprinted consciousness. To enter Mitchell's world of fiction is to enter one that bears many of the characteristics of our twenty-first century world, in which power and predation impel characters into actions that never cease to amaze and please us, his captive readers.
Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach. He has published seven books, including a critical biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for non-fiction. His most recent book, Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, was published on Amazon's Kindle in March 2011.
Copyright Brian Finney 2013, All Rights Reserved