I just completed reading David Mitchell’s novels Ghostwritten, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, number9dream and Cloud Atlas–his first, fifth, second and third novels respectively. I started in on Black Swan Green, but couldn’t get over feeling as lukewarm about it as Gary Shteyngart’s stabbing, and possibly utterly coerced blurb on the back cover: “If you read one British novel this year, please make it this one.” It didn’t take long after finishing Cloud Atlas and starting number9dream that patterns started to emerge–the repetition of the term “cloud atlas” in at least 3 of the novels; repeating characters (Cavendish literary agency in Ghostwritten & Cloud Atlas); overlapping narratives that are started in one novel and returned to/fleshed out two novels later; Japan. Time itself is bent–elongated and compressed. It occurs differently in some of the Western characters than those of the East. Characters are pop-laden technocrats and Yakuza and beings that can (literally) transmigrate into other bodies and old women and young women and kids and the Irish. All of this stew together, even as it’s all pieced together in discreet packages, should not work. But it does work. So well that I have stayed up inappropriately late most week nights and bothered more than a few people who really don’t care about this kind of stuff about all of it.
Aside from the “how the f*ckness” of the plot structures that David Mitchell employs in a couple of the books, it’s damn fine–great, wonderful–writing. How the stories (and the stories w/in the stories) are all connected is, to me, as much of the point as the historical accuracy of last days of the Dutch East India Company. He more or less obsesses over this out loud by way of many of his characters. As in the Irish physicist in Ghostwritten:
Phenomena are interconnected regardless of distance, in a holistic ocean more voodoo than Newton. The future is reset by the tilt of a pair of polarized sunglasses.
Characters serendipitously fall in and out of contact with one another–a boy’s novel-long search for his father (number9dream) climaxes as he realizes he’d already spoken to him on the phone when he picked up a “wrong number” call. You get perspectives from both the bottom of the well looking up at someone; and that person peering down at you at the bottom. The characters refer to each other, oftentimes as complete strangers–”I saw a man die when I was in Hong Kong,” says the Irish physicist, yet the man dying was the bulk of an earlier story, in which the Irish physicist was nothing more than a passer-by. It gets weird, in a good way. So the themes of how we are all connected, despite so many of the characters feeling utterly lost/alone in a very, very big world (he can write as adeptly of the Mongolian landscape as he can the streets of Tokyo or 18th century Nagasaki) makes it somehow comforting. Best yet, you can read all of his novels completely out of order, as I did, only to learn that in the randomness that is life, patterns emerge regardless.
I will officially stop talking about David Mitchell now.