Mar 11, 2007

david mitchell

With my new literary goal this year focused around authors rather than numbers of books read, I decided to start out with someone who I knew nothing about. David Mitchell. I think I first noticed this author in a review in Gothamist and then a later push from my friend docrpm pushed me to put Mitchell on my list. Mitchell has written 4 books that I completed recently.

The easiest way to describe a writer is usually through comparison. In Mitchell's case this is more true than most. He seems to be unabashedly influenced by many writers I like or suspect I would like.

Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami are clear influences on all his works. Pynchon's convoluted worlds with reappearing characters in subsequent books and Murakami's penchant for stories within stories and a soft line drawn between reality and dream are themes that hold large in all 4 books. His writing style is schizophrenic depending on what he's writing about. One could probably tell that he wrote all 4 books but it would be a stretch. He's a versatile writer who clearly feels comfortable pushing himself.

He also reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguo. Almost a negative version (in the film sense). Ishiguro is Japanese but grew up in England. Mitchell is English but spent a great deal of time in Japan. Both pull from the cultures they were around yet provide a fresh perspective because of their early backgrounds.

This is Mitchell's first book and it was my least favorite. It's a series of stories which are effectively unconnected except for some slight overlap or connection with the previous and next story. It's a contrived connection though and done purely for literary effect rather than to add to the story. I felt this was almost an exercise for Mitchell. As if he was trying to strengthen his story telling capabilities with this exercise. It reads more as a series of short stories than a novel. The characters are somewhat interesting and the stories well written but there's no overarching connective theme to the work. Almost like he's working out his writing chops.

This is my favorite book and a big jump for Mitchell professionally. A coming of age story for a young boy with a tragic past, an uncertain future, and an extremely overactive imagination. Set mainly in Tokyo the story is a worldwind of dreams, daydreams, emotions, and even action. I'm still not sure where reality ended and the dreams began.

The title of this book is itself extremely interesting. "Number 9" of course has close ties with John Lennon. Revolution 9 on the White Album, written by Lennon, has the statement "Number 9" repeated over and over. It is probably the most experimental and dreamlike of all The Beatles songs. #9 Dream is also a song by John Lennon from Walls & Bridges. Another song by The Beatles, Norwegian Wood, is mentioned in the book and it is also a reference to Haruki Murakami's book, Norwegian Wood. It's clear Mitchell is heavily influenced by Murakami and he's kind of saying, 'yes I am influenced by Murakami' with this reference.

As a whole the book really reads like a dream. It's disorientating and you are never quite sure what is real or dream. But Mitchell keeps his eye on the ball or rather the boy. Leading us through how he comes to terms with his past.

The other aspect of Mitchell I noticed in this book is that he has something of a pulp fiction edge at times. If he wasn't so damn clever you could see his books descending into a Clancy or Grisham type affair. Thankfully that never happens.

Cloud Atlas
This book is what Ghostwritten should have been. It's a set of interlinked stories with a purpose. The structure of the book is quite interesting. There are 6 main stories. The first chapter details the first half of story #1. The second chapter details the first half of story #2 and alludes to an interconnection between the two stories (which I won't completely reveal in this post). Each chapter also takes the reader farther and farther into the future. When we hit the sixth story, Mitchell climaxes the story. We then unwind all the previous stories in reverse order, ending with the conclusion of story #1.
  • Story #1: Adam Ewing circa 1800s. An American notary traveling the Pacific Ocean with a stowaway who has aligned himself with Ewing. Written in a diary format
  • Story #2: Robert Frobisher circa 1930. A poor amanuensis in Belgium. Written as a series of letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. Reads the published diary of Adam Ewing.
  • Story #3: Luisa Rey circa 1975. A journalist investigating a nuclear power plant. Reads the letters of Rufus Sixsmith. Loosely based off of Silkwood?
  • Story #4: Timothy Cavendish circa 2000. A book publisher who is conned into checking into a convalescent home. Reads a manuscript called Half-Lives about Luisa Rey.
  • Story #5 - Somni-451 circa near future. A fabricant (clone) working as a fast food server before escaping. Views the movie The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. This must have been influenced by Bladerunner. Fabricants - replicants. No moral or ethical system for the treatment of fabricants. Acid rain. Deadlands. "AdV" (which I believe is a play on AV and adverts) and corpocracy (corporate-democracy) shadowed similar themes in Bladerunner.
  • Story #6 - Zach'ry circa post-apocalyptic future. A member of a tribe who survived 'the fall'. Views the last interview granted to Somni-451 through a recording device.
It's damn clever writing. From the dialects, to the many well thought out themes, to the clever linkages, to the interesting story lines, Mitchell hooked me in tight and I had trouble putting this book down at night.

My only complaint is the main theme of the book (there are many) gets beaten over the head of the reader a little too strongly: The appetite of humans (to build, to consume, to grow, etc.) will cause us to eat ourselves and our world. It could have been more subtle. It's a minor quibble.

There are lots of other literary devices as well. The use of the word 'hydra' appears in a number of places and I believe it is a reference to the main characters in the book. Subtle clues like birthmarks provide hints something strange is going on. The wordplay is also interesting (exasperating to read at some points). From the first to the last story, Mitchell plays with the language of the time. The latter periods obviously made of languages based off of English but modified by Mitchell.

It's an amazing accomplishment. It really is in many ways a new type of book. While Mitchell borrows heavily from some of my favorite authors he really has created something unique here.

Black Swan Green.
Wikipedia describes this book as an bildungsroman which apparently is confusing-speak for a coming of age story. This book is much simpler in terms of its structure and material. But it is perhaps more emotionally powerful than the other three. The book sports 12 chapters representing the 12 months in the year of a 13 year old Jason Taylor (aka David Mitchell).

I'm not particularly partial to books like this, and I'm not sure it would appeal to many. But I did love this book. Mainly because too was once a young schoolboy in England and I could relate to a lot of what Jason Taylor goes through. It's very well told, gently written, not overly serious, and yet extremely engaging.

Mitchell's next book apparently will be about Dejima, a man-made island built near Nagasaki by Dutch traders in the 17th century. I can definitely say I will be picking this one up.


Anonymous said...

I like your thought about goals in reading based on authors and not just books. I'll have to try and do that myself, I mean really immerse myself in one particular author...then move on. That could be kind of cool.

Anonymous said...

glad you enjoyed the books. i'll definitely try to catch up with you. there's a book burning a hole on my shelf that i probably have to read first, though.

kevin said...

Was searching for a book cover of Number9Dream for my blog, and found your write up of the David Mitchell Books. I've read all of them except Ghostwritten (which I'll probably get to later this year), and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Finished Number9Dream last night and it was great; however I think Black Swan Green was my favorite, possibly based on my own experiences teaching high school and dwelling so much in an adolescent world. Cloud Atlas is by far the most noteworthy, but Black Swan Green really had some parts that I would read and would make my brain simmer on it. Well, enjoyed your reviews, totally agree with a lot of your analysis. Digging up some John Lennon on the internet now to carry on the parts of Number9Dream that were so great.