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.”
Cloud Atlas, whose structure and very name came from contemporary classical music, was even more adventurous: Starting in the 19th-century South Pacific, it moves forward, with Mitchell's famous ventriloquism, to the very end of humanity.
With world history encompassed, Mitchell retreated to a memoir disguised as a coming-of-age novel: In Black Swan Green, Mitchell frames a provincial life in a novel that is not itself provincial. Taking a step back from globe-trotting and structural trickiness, he settled down on a single time and place in the story of a shy 13-year-old and achieved a new emotional resonance.
That book, then, was a precursor to Thousand Autumns, which takes place continents and centuries away.
Though much of Thousand Autumns is set during a brief period on a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor, it is in its way as worldly as Ghostwritten: International trade, after all, was the original globalism.
Mitchell literally stumbled into the idea for the novel during his first Christmas season in Japan, getting off on the wrong tram stop and suddenly feeling he'd come unstuck in time. The two-acre Dejima was, while the Dutch operated a trading post there in the late 18th century, the West's only window into Japan, which had kicked out previous Europeans for importing of guns and religion.
“The Spanish and the Portuguese were, for the Japanese, pernicious influences,” Mitchell says. “They'd Christianized the Japanese laboring classes, who were very happy to hear about a guy in this distant city called Rome who would escort them to heaven.”
It was probably inevitable that Mitchell set a full novel in the country where he spent most of his 20s. “But there is something specific that fascinates me about Japan: the incredible feat of social engineering — that high density of population and how it was accomplished. It could not have happened in an American context, where self-determination and individualism establish themselves almost as a cult.”
The novel sketches a stoic and formal shogunate Japan. Then, as now, he says, “Society couldn't function if everyone was just giving vent to their feelings. So you have a liberal society steeped in a somewhat illiberal Confucianism that requires hierarchy, structure and stasis.”
The new novel starts slowly, with dense historical exposition that can be tough sledding. By the first section's close, it becomes almost an adventure story — indebted to Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan — and takes off like a rocket. The book will turn again in its third section, even if not as radically as the narrative disjunctures in Cloud Atlas.
One thing that sets Mitchell apart from most highbrow novelists is the breadth of his influence. He's not entirely unique — generational peers including Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have flown the flag for genre fiction.
But he's certainly gone against the grain of an Anglo-American publishing establishment which puts “literary” work on one side and pulp — science-fiction, fantasy, private eyes — on the other. Mitchell devours it all, but issues no manifesto and doesn't know what side of fashion he is on.
“I simply don't know which way the grain is growing,” Mitchell says. “Perhaps I feel like I have a duty to my imagination, in text and prose, and to the book I'm working on, to make it as seaworthy as I possibly can.” He's equally drawn to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Neil Gaiman's fantastical novels; the influence of Isaac Asimov is all over his work, and part of Cloud Atlas pays homage to '70s nuclear thrillers.
“The only question that matters is that the book be working. If you don't notice the page numbers, then something is working really well. It's not working because it's 'junk-food prose' — it's connecting with you. It has to include the nutrition of theme, the vitamins of thoughtfulness, to keep you going. It makes you want to go to bed a little earlier or wake up a bit earlier to read it.”
Mitchell also diverges from mainstream realism in his use of artifice — employing his prose to get at the nature of storytelling. On Conceptual Fiction, a site dedicated to the postliterary novel, Ted Gioia described Cloud Atlas as a radical document: “Imagine that the defining stories of our lives are not rooted in reality, as many critics assume, but in other stories.”
Mitchell is cautious here. “If you do that, you have to watch out a little bit,” he says: If a novelist draws attention to himself too much, “it's deadly. 'Very clever, yes, I know it's a novel — the set just wobbled.'”
That said, Mitchell sees his novels as a chance to get at a burning question: “What is fiction? How does it work?” With artifice or without, highbrow or low, corny rock song or elaborate postmodern novel, it's all part of the same impulse, he says. What's important is that the basic mechanism of storytelling work properly — starting with the writer.
“The reader suspends disbelief,” Mitchell says. “And if it all goes well, it's something we're hardwired to appreciate. The novel is just the latest twist in the long road of an old tale called story.”
THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET | By David Mitchell | Random House | 479 pages | $26
David Mitchell reads from and signs The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at Skylight Books, Friday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m.