Rexler Lepp edited the overview of David Mitchell Friday, July 1, 2011.
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. His most recent book is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010).
With just three novels, David Mitchell has made an astonishing impression on the contemporary literary scene. Ghostwritten (1999), his remarkably assured debut, was championed by the likes of A.S. Byatt, Lawrence Norfolk and Rachel Cusk, while his next two novels, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004) were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. As if this wasn’t enough in terms of critical acclaim, in 2003 Granta chose Mitchell for its influential 'Best of Young British Novelists' list. There can be no disputing the fact that David Mitchell is a writer who has raised his own bar to incredible heights.
First novels, as the cliché goes, are often works of barely described autobiography, in which a callow young author attempts to write through, or perhaps write out, his or her own experience as a means of achieving a recognisable voice. This is not true of Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. A beautifully woven tapestry of stories, within which characters and ideas appear and reappear in clever and subtle ways, it is also a supremely confident demonstration of Mitchell’s myriad narrative gifts. Ghostwritten is an amalgam of competing voices, from a twisted terrorist’s interior monologue to a corrupt ex-patriate lawyer’s attempts at self-reconciliation to a disembodied soul in search of its own truth. The narrators are young and old, men and women, and each voice is powerfully itself, real, insistent, alive. Mitchell also juggles genres, from thriller to ghost story to science-fiction to love story to fairy-tale. Again displaying a wonderfully reckless attitude to the convention of the first novel finding of one’s literary feet, Mitchell’s book has a multitude of settings: the reader is transported from rural Ireland to Mongolia, from Japan to Hong Kong and St Petersburg. Such boldness in a first time novelist is admirable. That Mitchell is able to pull it off is nothing less than astonishing.
Reading Ghostwritten, one gets the sense of the congruity of lives; Ghostwritten is a Robert Altman film on amphetamines. Mitchell’s canvas is broad, his observations universal. He is, in a way, a perfect antidote to the manner in which British fiction seems to retreat, on occasion, into the staid microcosmic world of particular experience, the rarefied drawing room country house atmosphere so amusingly subverted by Stephen Fry in The Hippopotamus. Mitchell’s fiction is the very opposite of insular.
Ghostwritten is an arena in which chance and fate slug it out for ascendancy. It has the pace and beat of an intelligent thriller, the infinite variety of a book of diverse short stories and the unity of theme and purpose of a well-crafted novel. It is a multitude of love stories suffused with Eastern mysticism. It’s a subtle, bittersweet meditation on varieties of homecoming and a wild ride through the world of organised crime. It’s all of this and so much more. Its styles are dazzling, profound, cartoon-like, lyrical, and yet for all its narrative pyrotechnics, Mitchell never allows his own virtuosity to get in the way of the stories he is trying to tell. There is substance to this novel. The forms serves the content and not the other way around.
Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, is reminiscent of his first, although, if anything, it is even more ambitious and certainly more accomplished. Six separate, but once more expertly interlinked, narratives range across a stunning expense of time: from the colonial era of the 19th century through into a far far future of soap-eating fabricants. Recalling Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, with the way in which it takes one in and out of stories frustrating the need for narrative fulfilment, Cloud Atlas also subverts its own influence by tying up the loose ends. In the first half of the book, the six successive stories fall away, leaving nothing more than their echoes as we move into the central section of the novel which deals with a post-apocalyptic world of warring tribes. The second half of the novel completes the stories, and has one admiring just how supremely well-structured Cloud Atlas is. A.S. Byatt describes it as a 'rollercaster'. It’s an apposite adjective. At times, Cloud Atlas is breathtaking in its audacity. Once more there is the dance of genres, from science fiction to historical pastiche, the polyphonic chorus of beautifully realised voices, and the deft display of the author’s mutli-faceted ability with comedy, pathos and the traditional page-turning joys of the classic thriller.
Cloud Atlas is a monument to the eternal struggle between those who hunger for power in the twisted name of progress, and the heroic and often noble resistance of those who oppose them, out of a need to assert and protect their own humanity. Vibrant, playful and utterly captivating with a natural feel for the evocation of time and place, David Mitchell’s third novel confirms him as one of the most ambitious storytellers of his generation.
Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream, differs from Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas in that its narrative is much more unified. Instead of using a variety of genres and styles to tell several different interlocking tales, Mitchell wields his multifarious gifts for the telling of one tale: Eiji Miyake’s search for the father he has never known. He arrives in Tokyo as a boy from the island of Yakushima. He is a fish out of water, never sure if his presence in the capital uncovers him as the metropolitan sophisticate he has always been inside, or if it merely confirms him as an out-of-his-depth hick, bound by place of birth to be one step behind the 1,000 mile-an-hour pace of Tokyo. As Miyake swirls around the city as a self-styled private detective, we journey into his mind as it confuses the banal reality of incident with its multi-coloured dream variation; we watch as he retraces the irreducible pain of memories which are, in essence, what he is composed of. We read with him an odd series of fantastical fables he finds in an attic, and the journal of a Second World War pilot who launches himself into oblivion as a human torpedo. We follow him through his nocturnal meanderings through the digital-bleep of modern Tokyo, neon-soaked, ringing to the sound of a thousand video games and a helter-skelter city permanently connected to the mains. An unconventional stream-of-consciousness tale of adolescent coming of age, number9dream reveals Mitchell’s gift for the creation of perfectly realised characters bursting at their own word-constructed seams with vitality.
All critics are, of course, given to hyperbole. There is a need when encountering something special to wish to sound one’s critical yawp over the rooftops of the world. But it would not be an exaggeration to concur with Desmond Traynor’s belief that 'David Mitchell may well be possessed of genius.' (Irish Independent.) Yes, that word is overused and often misapplied. But Mitchell’s is a huge talent. Of the 20 writers on the latest Granta list, he is one of the few who has the ability to take the novel into new and wholly unexpected areas.