- Paul Stewart
Born in Southport in 1969, David Mitchell grew up in Malvern, Worcestershire, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an MA in Comparative Literature, at the University of Kent.
He lived for a year in Sicily before moving to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England.In his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), nine narrators in nine locations across the globe tell interlocking stories. This novel won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.His second novel, number9dream (2001), was shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for fiction. It is set in modern day Tokyo and tells the story of Eiji Miyake's search for his father.
In 2003 David Mitchell was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists'. In his third novel, Cloud Atlas (2004), a young Pacific islander witnesses the nightfall of science and civilisation, while questions of history are explored in a series of seemingly disconnected narratives. Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and was followed by Black Swan Green (2006).
David Mitchell lives in Ireland. Recent books include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize (South Asia and Europe Region, Best Book), The Bone Clocks (2013) and Slade House (2015).
Black Swan Green (2006), David Mitchell’s fourth novel, a bildungsroman set in provincial England in 1982, fictionalises the author’s experience of being a stammerer, and, in so doing, makes clear the psychological foundation of the style of storytelling which has brought this remarkable novelist such popular and critical acclaim in the first decades of the 21st century.
Jason Taylor, the thirteen-year-old narrator of Black Swan Green, must, if he is to conceal his speech defect, forever seek alternative means of saying the same thing; he must rephrase, search for synonym and close association. He must also think ahead so as to avoid being surprised by words beginning with certain letters, ‘n’ or ‘s’ say, which may cause him to pause and thus reveal to the cruel exigency of the playground, the existence of his stammer. It is little surprise, then, that the adult novelist should display such polyphonic narrative virtuosity, or that he should be interested in retelling stories from different perspectives, or that he should display such sensitivity toward the formal necessity of coherence and structure.
Mitchell was brought up and educated in the south of England; after graduation, he spent eight years in Japan. His fiction is a meeting of east and west, in which reincarnated souls are placed within a world ordered by technology, where materialism reduces the concept of the soul to pulses of electrochemical activity in the brain. Chance, authority, power, fate, the interconnectedness of living things, the irresistible pull of random detail, the momentary consolation derived from an understanding that the human drama cannot free itself from the rhythm and cycle of nature: these are themes which reappear throughout Mitchell’s fiction. His characters are caught between being and becoming, something which Jason Taylor comes to see in Black Swan Green:
Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days, ’cept for when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror, or just before sleep. But he comes out in woods. Ankley branches, knuckly roots, paths that only might be, earthworks by badgers or Romans, a pond that’ll ice over come January, a wooden cigar box nailed behind the ear of a secret sycamore where we once planned a tree house, birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can’t find if you’re not alone. Time in woods’s older than time in clocks, and truer.
Much like the arboreal world, which human beings enjoying sentimentalising, even as they destroy it, Mitchell’s fiction roots itself whilst branching out unexpectedly. In Ghostwritten (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2005), the novels in which the author gives the freest expression to his gift for narrative recapitulation, nothing changes, but everything does. The primary trick of these two novels is that they draw attention to the fact that they are works of fiction, whilst offering all the traditional comforts of stories. Mitchell therefore appeals to two constituencies: to those tired of the conventions and those who require nothing but the conventional. This is not something which many writers are able to do. How David Mitchell manages it, is the chief object of curiosity for the reader and critic. It is perhaps best explained by the author’s exceptional storytelling ability, which, in his generation of British writers, is equalled only by Sarah Waters.
Mitchell’s novels reflect the fact that stories are made out of perspectives on events rather than the events themselves. It is point of view which distinguishes the joy of a well-told story from the mere tedium of information. And it is endlessly multiplying points of view, which characterises a primary aspect of Mitchell’s approach to his art. Ghostwritten is an amalgam of competing voices: a terrorist’s interior monologue; a corrupt ex-patriate lawyer’s attempts at self-reconciliation; a disembodied soul in search of truth. The narrators are young and old, men and women. Mitchell also juggles genres: we are given thriller, ghost story, science fiction, love story, fairy tale. Much like a Bond film, we are also taken on an international tour: rural Ireland; Mongolia; Tokyo; Hong Kong; St Petersburg. Ghostwritten has the pace of a plot-driven novel and the variation of a collection of tales. The novel is a multitude of love stories suffused with Eastern mysticism. A meditation on varieties of homecoming. A ride through the world of organised crime. An arena in which chance and fate struggle with one another for ascendancy.
Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, is reminiscent of his first. Once more we have a merry dance of genres, a chorus of voices, and a fusion of comedy and pathos. Six separate, but once more interlinked narratives range across time: from the colonial era of the nineteenth century through to a future of soap-eating ‘fabricants’. It recalls Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, in that it takes the reader in and out of stories, frustrating the need for narrative fulfilment that its very existence as a novel establishes; yet it also subverts its own influence by tying up the loose ends that Calvino leaves dangling. In the first half of the book the six successive stories fall away, leaving nothing more than their memory as we move into the central section of the novel, which deals with a post-apocalyptic world of warring tribes; in the second half of the novel, the stories are completed, in an audacious formal experiment, which, like Stewart Lee’s repeated use of ‘callbacks’ in his stand-up routines, demands that the reader put at least as much into the experience of reading the book that the writer has put into writing it. Cloud Atlas is a monument to the struggle between those who hunger for power in the name of progress, and the resistance of those who offer opposition to such progress out of a need to protect whatever it is that is meant by the word ‘humanity’. Its style dazzles, yes, and yet the author doesn’t allow his own virtuosity to undermine his stories. Unlike Martin Amis, some of whose novels attest to the fact that the author appears to think that one pair of shiny shoes and a tipped bowler hat to the footlights is enough, with a David Mitchell novel, there is also a well-rehearsed tap dancing routine and any number of willing partners on hand to sustain the illusion of substance.
Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream (2001) differs from Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas in that its narrative is more unified. Instead of using a variety of genres to tell interlocking tales, Mitchell tells one tale: Eiji Miyake’s search for the father he has never known. And yet number9dream , the title of which comes from a song by John Lennon, is also constructed out of the fragments of other stories: Eiji’s dreams, the fables he finds in an attic, the journal of a Second World War pilot, the memories whose pain he cannot evade. These stories are the background to Eiji’s wanderings through modern Tokyo, a city of neon ringing to the sound of video games and the clamour of momentum.Eiji is seeking his origin and yet there is more to that than tracking down the source of his generative essence. Which story might offer an ultimate explanation? Which myth would most console? How might release be found?
Consolation, explanation and release are rarely on offer in Black Swan Green (2006), Mitchell’s most straightforward fiction to date. Jason Taylor is a teenaged boy. He is conscious of his own ineffable difference, given to writing dreadful poetry, and likes parroting pronouncements about the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher that he has read in the splenetic pages of the Daily Mail. He perceives himself to be misunderstood, and wishes to escape from his stultifying family life and predictable existence in the Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green, an environment recognisable to anyone who was brought up in similar circumstances. While all of that makes Jason Taylor sound rather like Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend’s brilliant comic parody of adolescence should not be confused with David Mitchell’s more dramatic and impressionistic evocation of the teenage imagination. The use of fragments of Jason’s poetry in the narrative, a typically bold move on the author’s part, encourages the reader to sympathise with rather than gently mock the protagonist.
If there is romance in Black Swan Green, it is between Jason Taylor and language. The obstacles to that love are a speech impediment and the demands of being an adolescent male. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), however, offers a romance of a different kind. Jacob de Zoet, a godly Dutch clerk bound by a sense of righteous duty, becomes infatuated with Orito Aibagawa, a quiet, intellectual Japanese midwife. Mitchell sets this love in the collision of cultures which was the trade between the Dutch East Indies Company and the Japanese Empire at the end of the eighteenth century. These two worlds are linked by the walled realm of Djemi, an artificial island which connects to the mainland port of Nagasaki, upon which the Dutch traders, banished from the mainland, have some kind of access to a society that is closed to the outside world. To what extent is love built on opposition? Is love possible only when it is an unobtainable object? Is passion no more than the willingness to risk defeat? Such questions are not explicitly raised, yet they are there throughout this novel. A long slow opening section, during which Mitchell’s gift for voices sometimes slips into parody – it is as if Paul Whitehouse were set loose on the page – introduces us to the merchants and officials of the trading company, the administrators of the Japanese regime, the business of hustle, manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre. There is little by way of plot, until the point at which Orito Aibagawa is taken away by a religious cult; it is then that the languorous historical novel gives way to a more engaging adventure story of captivity and pursuit.
David Mitchell has made more of a dent than an impression on the contemporary literary scene. In 2003 Granta magazine chose him as one of its ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. Of the twenty writers on that list, Mitchell is one of the few who has the ability to take the novel into unexpected areas. This writer has not only found ways in which to confine the virility of his imagination but also to free his associative intelligence. Or, to put it another way, if David Mitchell goes on to say the same thing in his books, we can expect him to say it more than twice.
Garan Holcombe, 2013