“Writers can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache.” – David Mitchell, Paris Review Interview Summer 2010
Although readers know David Mitchell best for his experiments in form, one must remain open to his indelible knack for telling a consciously-conflicted story. In his first novel Ghostwritten, Mitchell frog-leaps between different minds—auditioning different voices—to tell a story of causality in the aftermath of the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks. While the formal ingenuity of the novel is impressive, what might be more startling is Mitchell’s ability to embody humanity in each unique voice, whether the character be a financial lawyer or a doomsday cult member.
David Mitchell replicates this success in characterization in his later novels, including Cloud Atlas, which later became a film starring Tom Hanks and Halley Berry. The structure of Cloud Atlas resembles that of a Russian doll—once knee-deep in the first narrative, one leaps to the next and the next and the next, only to return to each narrative in the latter half of the book. While this sort of choice may easily come off as a gimic, Mitchell writes in such a way that one cares more about the greater story being told. One cares also about the smaller stories. Even in his 2011 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (linearly straight-forward), one is overwhelmed by the smaller stories spinning like gears within the grander machinery of the book.
There are two things I want to emphasize about David Mitchell: his marrying of cultural narratives and marrying of formality with humanity.
In the first strain, one must look at the regional focus of his novels. Most of the stories take place either in the United Kingdoms or in Japan. Many of the novels leap back and forth from Japan to England, and this is not surprising when one understands Mitchell’s relationship with Japan. After meeting a Japanese woman (now his wife) in London, he travelled back to the island with her, where he lived for the next eight years.
I always carry the questions raised by Edward Said when reading a novel about Asia written by a white, European author—in what ways might he be appropriating these stories, in what ways is he dishonoring the culture? But Mitchell weaves Japanese history and cultural nuance into each narrative, and as little as my opinion on the subject holds, I think he is attempting to tell stories on Japanese terms rather than his own.
Mitchell’s second startling quality is the formalistic experiments he undertakes with each novel. A quick overview:
Ghostwritten: A globe-trotting tale in ten parts, each central character interlinked by seemingly coincidental events.
Number9dream: A nineteen-year-old jazz enthusiast searches for his father in Tokyo. The novel is in eight parts, the promised ninth part never appearing, though the story ends in abrupt calamity.
Cloud Atlas: Six narratives nested within one another, each ending halfway through and beginning again in the later half of the book.
Black Swam Green: Each chapter tells a story of a month in the life of teenaged stammering Jason, who dreams of becoming a writer and avoids his bullies. A Bildungsroman that is partly auto-biographical. This is a personal favorite of mine, because though the story is simple, the book is incredible.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Stylistically simple, though the story leaps through the minds of many characters, especially toward the end of the novel. The focus remains de Zoet, a Dutch transplant in the mysterious city of Dejima (in the harbor of Nagasaki). Historical fiction.
The Bone Clocks: A time-warping, mind-jumping tale of two immortal races, battling beyond the realm of time in order to save the souls of humans on Earth. The story, in fact, follows the same themes and situations introduced in Jacob de Zoet, though one might not need to read the book beforehand. All in all, probably the craziest and possibly the best David Mitchell work to-date.
Mitchell’s ability to warp stories, to do as hardly any other author can do without a wrist-slap—mainly, forgo the protagonist and tell a truly sprawling story—is what makes him one of my favorite authors. Not only is he stylistically adventurous, he pulls off great stories again and again with aplomb. His virtuosity is astounding.
To discover more about David Mitchell, read here.
David Mitchell’s next novel will be released on October 17, 2015. Entitled, Slade House.