To those who like David Mitchell, he's the greatest novelist of his generation, heir to the polymath Thomas Pynchon — an ingenious, crafty writer who can do almost anything. Detractors say he's just a literary ventriloquist who writes a pastiche of DeLillo, Murakami, Melville and airport thrillers because he has no voice of his own.
You get the sense the author himself has heard this all before but, diplomat that he is, won't take sides.
"I would view the label 'ventriloquist' as a profound compliment," says the 41-year-old Englishman by phone from his home in Ireland. "There are fewer great ventriloquists than there are great actors — it's great by me."
Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, settles down a bit from his usual century-hopping and continent-jumping. But the book still makes you wonder if its author is somehow channeling a demonic spirit. To steal the title of his debut novel, his entire body of work feels ghostwritten by some creature not quite human. The literary richness of even an average passage of Mitchell's can make every other novelist seem to be coasting, wasting your time.
And while the new novel has been called his "most conventional," that makes Thousand Autumns like the most conventional song on the White Album. With its combination of historical-fiction setting, Gothic-fantasy middle section and Patrick O'Brian seafaring yarn — not to mention a sense of humor somewhere between John Barth and Monty Python, and general inspiration from James Ellroy's L.A. novels — it's still quite wild. The fact that the book shot to the top of British best-seller lists, and that Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (to which the Wakowski Brothers own the film rights) has sold nearly a million copies worldwide, testifies to either a hunger for complexity or the power of Mitchell's storytelling.
"I think what all his books share in common," Mitchell's U.S. editor David Ebershoff says, "is an incredible effort to squeeze the most out of the alphabet — to use the words energetically and freshly as he can."
Mitchell combines a commitment to big structural and conceptual ideas with an effortless knack for sentence-by-sentence storytelling. The guy writes brainy, Nabokovian books that move like crazy and never become abstract.
He describes himself as living like a hermit with his Japanese-born wife and two children in an isolated stretch of the Cork coastline. But he's quite engaging and funny, if at times haiku-like, in conversation. "Few things in this world," he says, "are as interesting as differences and similarities."
Mitchell's cosmopolitan bent and love of history give his novels a particular sense of expansiveness. "Of all the writers I work with," says Ebershoff, "he's the most global. I don't think of him as a British writer; there's nothing local about David, or even national about David. I think that makes him very in-synch with our world: He's very comfortable taking readers almost anyplace."
Globalism aside, Mitchell grew up in an insular small town in the West Midlands in which the Smiths could have set a very boring concept album. He didn't speak until he was 5, and then emerged with a stammer, which led him back into himself, living, eventually, inside the fictional worlds of Tolkien, Le Guin and John Wyndham.
"Most writers aren't stammerers, and most stammerers aren't writers," Mitchell says in an insightful Paris Review interview. But the need to search for words he could pronounce led him to linguistic ingenuity: "Sometimes choosing word B over word A requires you to construct a different sentence to house it — and quickly, too, before your listener smells the stammering rat."
After studying literature at the University of Kent, he tried his luck in London in the early '90s, where the economy was so bad he could not land a fast-food job. "I got known as the guy who couldn't make the grade at McDonald's," Mitchell says. "If you had that to deal with, maybe you'd go off to Japan, too."
Which the author did in '94, teaching English and following a Japanese girl he'd fallen for. At the tail end of his 20s, and after a failed novel set in a pub, he published Ghostwritten, his debut.
Though Ghostwritten includes a young record-store geek, it's hard to think of a recent debut that seems less like a first novel. He sets a section, for instance, in a mountainside tea shack during the Chinese Revolution — a perfect microcosm on the coming of Communism to a feudal society. The novel's successor, number9dream, tracked an orphan in his search for roots in a hypertechnological Tokyo with traces of Philip K. Dick.
The title of that second novel came from a John Lennon song, and music has been important to Mitchell from his Rush-loving childhood to his Talking Heads–obsessed present. "I wouldn't like to contemplate a life without it," he says. "I wouldn't want to lose any of my senses prematurely, but I'd give up taste and touch before I gave up hearing."