Perfectly Plausible Worlds

By Brian FinneyAugust 31, 2011

Perfectly Plausible Worlds
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, 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 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 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 Roland 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 the 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 have "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, 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. Numerous characters play minor tangential roles in other episodes, 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."

As if in an effort to locate meaning within a universe seemingly governed by randomness, each episode offers 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.

Ghostwritten's coda takes the reader back to the moments before the novel's opening, with the arrival of the cult terrorist at his hotel in Okinawa. In the four pages it then takes him to escape from the sarin he has left in the Tokyo metro 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 Yukio 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 "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, attributing his exceptional familiarity with the styles of other writers to his personal history with books. In 1976, at age seven, Mitchell developed a stammer that forced him to live inside himself, turning to books. 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? 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'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 is "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 book, 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 does, but to pick up each interrupted narrative and complete it in reverse order, so that 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; 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 employs 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 Ellroy; 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 onHello); and the central chapter 6 offers a variant of a dystopia modeled on Russell Hoban'sRiddley Walker. Mitchell sees genre as a set of colors in the writer's paint box. Not bound by rules, he uses these colors in unconventional ways, often going against the grain. 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 characters, narrator and author is the need of global capitalism to turn us into un-particularized consumers of the Internet, iPods, 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 in the reverse narrative sequence of the latter half, human kind still has a chance of choosing a different future.


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. Taylor is forced to substitute similes for words that threaten to seize up (for instance "futile" for "pointless"), and to change the register of his sentence to avoid being accused of being posh by his schoolmates. Such forced substitutions have proved productive for Mitchell's 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 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 to the third person. Even then the author confined the narrator's omniscience to one character's thoughts per chapter. In a brief essay at the end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell writes 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." As he told one interviewer, his aim was thus 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; the first section is largely confined to the Dutch in Dejima, a second more fantastic section centers on a Japanese mountain temple, and the third and final action-packed sequence returns its readers to Dejima. Mitchell has always sought out challenges in his fiction. In the case of the 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." In Mitchell's novel, the official Japanese translators of Dutch are largely incompetent, while the Dutch are forbidden to learn Japanese, so miscommunication is a major theme. "Obscurity," Jacob says, "is Japan's outermost defense. The country doesn't want to be understood."

Miscommunication occurs not just between nationalities but also 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").

Naming and speech in Mitchell's work emanate from somewhere deep in his unconscious. "Naming," reflects Jacob, "gives what is named substance." "To list and name people, he thinks, is to subjugate them." Language is part of the power struggle that erupts in all his novels and acts as a formidable force. This fixation, together with the ghostly themes that haunt his fiction, make Mitchell a uniquely representative figure of our times, one who seeks authenticity amidst the already spoken. One could argue that all his work conveys a sense of being ghostwritten. But what his critics dismiss as ventriloquism constitutes a vital part of his fictional world. In each of his novels, Mitchell shows a skillful command of language and voice. His stammer may have fostered his preference for other people's voices, but Mitchell uses that tendency to excavate the original ore of individual, yet elemental, expression. When he speaks in his own voice Mitchell can captivate: "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 storyteller. 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.


LARB Contributor

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 nonfiction. Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, was published in 2011. His latest book published 2019 is Money Matters: A Novel.


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