The novelist’s neurosis

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David Mitchell is being treated as a major figure of British fiction. But it is too early to tell

Prospect, April 2004


Imagine, for a moment, that the writing of novels is a disease, a chronic ailment contracted by certain fragile and ambitious men and women from their twenties onwards, many with an obvious predisposition (emotional or physical deficit) in their childhood. Treatment of the affliction consists in managing the narrative effusions that appear at intervals, a clinical approach that uses a complex cocktail of methods, all with a single intention: that over time the novelist’s illness should mature to a point where he or she can feel confident that his or her view of the world, as expressed in fiction, is accepted by enough readers to supply him or her with the necessary reinforcement. The mix of elements in the cocktail at any stage – the editing, publishing, branding, marketing, including on a Granta list of Best Young British Novelists, shortlisting for prizes, sympathetic profiling, good and bad reviewing – is vital. Too much of some, too little of others, may be fatal to the long-term prognosis. Remember David Leavitt, Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney? A.L. Kennedy, Candia McWilliam? Gordon Burn?

David Mitchell – without flogging the metaphor to death – has reached a sensitive point in his treatment. Mitchell is a 35-year-old English novelist living in Ireland whose third novel has just been published, a long, intense, arcing colossus of a book whose narrative links, supplied by the voices of six main characters, are spun out into a Unified Theory of Everything: history, human evolution and nature, science, the will to power. The voices span epochs, continents, and genres. They begin with that of Adam Ewing, an American lawyer of the 1850s stuck on a dubious schooner in the Pacific, whose narrative breaks off mid-sentence, replaced by a cache of letters written from Belgium in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a nascent but caddish musical genius who has talked his way into a job with an uncharming, dying composer named Vyvyan Ayrs. Frobisher discovers Ewing’s Pacific journal in the composer’s library before his letters are interrupted in turn, and similar artifices link the other stories: a 1970s thriller featuring a young American journalist, Luisa Rey, investigating the death of Rufus Sixsmith, a nuclear researcher (and once Frobisher’s lover); a seedy vanity publisher named Timothy Cavendish, on whose desk “the first Luisa Rey  mystery” lands; and a genetically altered slave-worker, Sonmi, who briefly breaks out of her servitude.

The keystone to these half-lives, or half-fictions, is the Faulkneresque storyteller Zachry, speaking far in the future, after civilisation’s final fall. He is the apex of the novel’s highly-engineered arc, or perhaps the farthest point of its boomerang flight, since the postmodern teasing of the book’s first half, in which each story is usurped by the next, is replaced in the second half by the satisfaction of picking each up again in turn, the book finally returning to the 1850s – allowing a conclusion steeped in old-fashioned moral closure. For the novel’s underlying theme is, in those quaint terms, old-fashioned, nothing less than the meaning of civilisation: do we progress, do we bequeath a good world to our children, by selfishness or kindness, by doing battle with our neighbours for their resources or by doing battle with the ill that we and others do?

On publication, Mitchell has been received with adulatory profiles and warmly admiring reviews. The Independent called Cloud Atlas “his most accomplished achievement to date”, the Observer “a novel in the biggest, most exhilarating sense”, while The Sunday Times paid tribute to Mitchell’s “extreme imaginative fluency” and the Guardian attributed to it “a complete narrative pleasure that is rare”. The Daily Telegraph called his “virtuoso performance… deeply impressive”, although Theo Tait, its reviewer, also decided that “for all its glories, Cloud Atlas left me with a slight feeling of travel-sickness and, much worse, a definite sense of déjà vu”.

The critics were united, nevertheless, on Mitchell’s dedication, and on his narrative brilliance and versatility, in particular the remarkable range of voices he captures and his ability to ventriloquise them, without strain or dazzle. (He has said himself that he doesn’t like the term “ventriloquist” and that if he needs to write a book, “What is the best voice to express it through? My own, in the third person, or should I invent a narrator who is part of the plot – and I tend to go for the latter.”)

Profoundly impressive though his excursions are into these other voices, tones, and registers – what the Sunday Times reviewer called “his astonishing capacity not to be himself” – I feel underlying unease with Mitchell’s methodology. As a reader, I’m certainly compelled as I read a page of prose by one of his narrators – as I read 40 or 50 pages and am then shunted on to another narrator and realise this is not Catcher in the Rye, not a confession by one human being but an exposition by his, and his co-narrators’, creator, I find myself less compelled. I had a similar problem with the English novel that began the modern fashion for this kind of pastiche, Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. There it seemed there were simply two Oscars, the Oscar who existed and the Oscar Ackroyd invented – and I knew which one I believed. Here I am not being asked to believe in character so much as in theory, structure, ideology; a particular technique of narrative in the service not of storytelling, but exposition. And exposition is the author’s private business, not the reader’s. It is artfulness, but it is not art.

Another inherent weakness is that the synthesised voice demands the use of narrative conventions in place at the time, be they the ampersands and rhetorical flourishes of Adam Ewing’s journal or the futuristic conversational ellipses (“Now I s’prised ev’ry’un, yay, me too”) of Zachry. Needing a tone and time to operate in, a cluster of invented voices like Mitchell’s seems to be playing games with genres; as if in retaliation, my ear began to listen for the genre rather than to the voice. Section by section, I identified Adam Ewing (19th-century missionary liberal); Robert Frobisher (Gidean immoralist); Luisa Rey (Ed McBain – though as it is written as a crime novel, which is already a genre, the most successful section); Timothy Cavendish (Ealing comedy): Sonmi (Blade Runner). The result can feel disconcertingly like several not-quite-original novels recycled into one original one.

This may be unfair. Ventriloquist, pasticheur or mercurial narrator, Mitchell has rightly commanded attention for the sheer breadth and energy of his composition, in this novel as in his earlier books Ghostwritten and number9dream. Like other novelists, he is rightly sceptical of those who, as I do, administer the reviewing portion of his treatment: “Come now, what’s a reviewer?” he has the publisher Timothy Cavendish say. “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely.” So let me say that there are few English novelists today writing as seriously, with as much ambition to connect with, and convince their readers about, important questions: GM food and ecological disaster, the morality of corporations, the enslavement of the weak by the strong, the fate of our ageing population, our long-term destiny. What is missing at the moment from his literary scheme – as opposed to his highly thought-out view of the world – is an ability to turn exposition into art, to enact an ethic rather than talk about one. Dazzled though I was by Cloud Atlas, I wasn’t moved; and brilliant though his structure is, a novel’s effect is unrelated to the admirability of its structure. (His very brilliance, oddly, draws attention to the cleverness of the structure, and though we may admire the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge, the function of the feat of engineering that constructed it is, looked at whimsically, to encourage us to dream of what lies on the far side or, more practically, to take us there.)

I am moved, though, by David Mitchell’s talent. It may be too soon to assess how good a novelist he will eventually turn out to be, but it is interesting to read that his next book, so he says, will be autobiographical, a “straight story” he calls it, about a shy 13-year-old boy with a stammer who publishes poetry under the name of Eliot Bolivar. A fourth novel that sounds like a first novel: this would represent, in conventional terms, his career going in reverse. At this precise moment in his trajectory, it could be the most mature direction he could choose.


© Julian Evans 2004

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