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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The wonder that is David Mitchell

No, not the comedian. Who's also, confusingly, started writing books. I mean David Mitchell the twice Man Booker shortlisted novelist. I'm one of those who found it utterly baffling that he missed out on the shortlist last year for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell is so far ahead of the game that he seems to be in a different game. How could any literary judge not respond to that book's amazing linguistic inventiveness, its dazzling switches of register and tone, its sheer sense of fun - Look what I can do with words, wheeeeeee! Is he getting the 'too clever by half' backlash, do you think? It reminds me of the Jonathan Franzen backlash in London last summer when he came over for his book tour. I was at his mortifying book launch when a creepy student snatched his glasses and raced off into the night. It was odd to see the sneering hilarity that this created the following day.

Mitchell's body of work is now substantial. Cloud Atlas is the acknowledged masterpiece, and he just missed out on Booker glory (The Line of Beauty won that year). However, my favourite is number9dream, on the basis that it's the first I actually read, the first portal for me into that extraordinary world. I fell headlong into a sentence that compared the swirl of coffee in milk to the shape of a galaxy, like Alice falling down a rabbit hole. I've been scampering about in this Wonderland ever since.

When I had to commission a Christmas short story for the FT Life & Arts pages,  David was my first choice. He came up with 'Earth Calling Taylor', a black morality tale involving a trading analyst having a crisis on New Year's Eve. The previous year we had invited submissions and it was bizarre how depressing they mostly were: stories about people drinking themselves to death (thanks, that'll work for Christmas) or deciding, on balance, it would be a good idea to commit suicide, or coming to the realisation that They Will Never Love Again... what is it with short story writers? So one of the first things I said to David was, 'it mustn't be a downer.' He didn't exactly stick to the brief, but the story is so fantastic I barely noticed on the first read.

I loved the fit of the story - especially the way he even got Vancouver into it (my beloved second home). It was like getting a bespoke suit with a secret symbol on the inside jacket pocket. I must have mentioned it to David, I thought. But it seems he's psychic as well. He had no idea that the reference would feel special to me (in fact I had to slightly amend it - there's no 'elegant old quarter' in Vancouver, or if there is I've never found it).

When the time came to record the podcast, I opted to read the story myself. I had already read it about 10 times so nobody knew the rhythm better than I did. Reading something aloud, really chewing the words, is the way to test a piece. It is brilliantly constructed, intricately stitched, and left me admiring him even more (although I cursed him with some of the tongue-twisters). There was one mysterious line, however, that I just didn't get. I had to read it neutrally. The podcast is available on ft.com. Have a listen and see if you can identify the sentence! And tell me what it means!  


  1. I am completely onside as a dyed-in-the-wool DM fan, but would argue that Cloud Atlas is actually one of the greatest late 20th century novels written and one that I have bought and given to many many friends. That it didn't win the Booker in year of publication was just Wrong (I had a tenner on it, apart from anything else) and indicative of the shortsightedness of literary prize judges.

  2. I like Mitchell too, though I've always felt there was something slightly missing in the heart region where his fiction is concerned. Cloud Atlas is unimprovable as an exercise in imagination, storytelling, ventriloquism and more, but I left it (like Jacob de Zoet) feeling that it was no more than the sum of its parts.

    One of the curiosities of Mitchell is that he explicitly states (as in this interview I ran with him, plug plug) that he wants his books to each be so different that "prose from two of my books could not be identifiable as having been written by the same person." On the fact of it this sounds admirable, but it does perhaps explain why his work lacks the unifying voice that so many of our best writers have. Mitchell is actively working to avoid developing a recognisable voice. I'm not sure that that's a good thing.

  3. Tig - I totally agree with you! Thankfully David himself is philosophical about his lack of Man Booker success. I've spoken to him a couple of times about not winning (and shockingly, in the case of Jacob de Zoet, not even being shortlisted) and his attitude is broadly: 'They will do what they will do, and they will think what they will think, and it doesn't affect me a bit.' Good for him.