Image Courtesy Anna Miller of The David Rumsey Map Collection
WHO IS DAVID MITCHELL? His name meant little or nothing to many Americans until 2007, whenTime 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 a quasi-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 shortlisted for major prizes.
What is it about Mitchell's work that accounts for such success? Again and again reviewers express 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 Ellroy 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 Mitchell 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 y...