Craft,  Creative Metanonfiction

The Mitchellverse: A Primer on the Fiction of David Mitchell

IMG_0167A Bloggy Introduction

For many expatriate writers today, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein are still role models. And then there are the American MFA Programs, a host of which seem to be cranking out annual batches of Raymond Carver clones. Said one fresh-baked MFA clone from a prestigious fictioneering facility in Austin, Texas: “And they even taught me how to write the Raymond Carver story–it was required!” I can see his face now. A young Pakistani gentlemen who has a crush on Raymond Carver. Bushy black eyebrows, dark eyes, nerd glasses, the voice of a diplomat. Whenever we meet at the Bookworm café in Chengdu we talk shop, having forgotten everything about each other. I say David Mitchell, he says Raymond Carver. In the ideal world, we would flip tables over in fisticuffs and then become great literary companions.

Some of us would-be writers scour the globe searching for a movable feast of their own. They shamble about to places like Tokyo, Hong Kong, or even Bali. Perhaps by reconstructing a post-wasteland Paris of the Roaring Twenties in Asia they will somehow emerge as the new great American authors of the 21st-C. Megapolitan pollution, becoming super flu patient zero, or finding oneself entangled in red tape all go with the territory. Such ordeals provide structure for them. They build character.

While such quixotic quests for the New Paris are as doomed to fail as building a time machine, it is at least a decent exercise for the imagination. Perhaps you will eventually find a like-minded writer, a companion in arms, your Sancho Panza. But then your dreams of establishing a real writer’s colony die: everybody you talk to about writing the great American novel is writing Twilight fan fiction or self-publishing monster porn on for $3.99. Even the local born writers are scrambling to assemble versions of Fifty Shades of Grey with Chinese Characteristics. And then there is always the worry, that despite your best intentions, whatever you are writing today is merely a desiccated husk, its essence long since decanted. It is a new dark age and nighttime has only just begun.

Because of this, many apprentice novelists and literary pundits conclude that the novel died and the best thing anybody could do today is become a Wall Street Visigoth and plunder the free market. Or perhaps this is just a projection of another author, implanted inside me. He has dreamseeded my subconscious, and I am just a conduit. In fact, the ideas I am writing about here probably do not originate from me.

Awaken to our labyrinthine situation: the lost generation does not have a monopoly on being lost, reality is no longer real, having been colonized by the multiverse, and stories have souls. Aspiring authors would do well to unplug themselves from the Western canon, seek alternative routes, and become transnational nomads. After sufficient hardship and pilgrimage, one may even learn how to reincarnate new stories.


A Million Little Pixels

If you are ever about to begin reading a David Mitchell novel—who is David Mitchell? Three of his novels, number9dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), and The Bone Clocks (2014) were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Experimental use of time, complicated narrative structures, numerology, coincidences are all hallmarks of a David Mitchell story. He now lives in a village in Cork County, Ireland. While teaching English in Japan, he wrote stories for them. Black Swan Green (2006), a half-pint bildungsroman, is loosely based on his own coming of age in Thatcher Era England. It is his only novel with a standard chronological narrative, spanning thirteen months from January 1982 through January 1983. While Mitchell admits to having “a crush on Murakami”, he was also influenced by other non-Anglophone writers such as Italo Calvino. He has two children, one of whom has autism. After completing his graduate studies in “the postmodern novel”, he spent a year in Sicily. On January 12, 1969 the English rock band, Led Zeppelin, released its first album and David Mitchell was born. This writer insists that he is not a postmodernist. Number9dream particularly shows the influence of Haruki Murakami, and some consider it to be an homage as it shares many similarities to Norwegian Wood. He moved to Japan to be with a woman he had fallen in love with. Slade House, which will be published in the October 2015, features an immortal protagonist that has migrated through space, time and texts. When a child Mitchell created maps of other worlds and alternate universes, which he says were his “proto-novels“. Since then he has written six novels which have experimental devices for showing the passage time. Mitchell was raised in the English town of Malvern, Worcestershire by parents who were commercial artists. Reading a David Mitchell novel is like island hopping though space-time. He earned an MA in Comparative Literature at Kent University and has been a global nomad, spending most of his time abroad teaching English in Japan. Every character and every place is interconnected in the Mitchellverse. Each text is only a small pocket of space-time in a quantum entangled uber novel, each part of which features different styles and genre tropes. If you are ever about to read a David Mitchell novel.


Welcome to the Mitchellverse

Most readers have become familiar with David Mitchell’s work through his novel, Cloud Atlas, which was made into the 2012 film (direction and screenplay by the Wachowski’s). Cloud Atlas introduced the audience to reoccurring characters which have the same soul inhabiting different bodies across 19th to 22nd Centuries and beyond. Six interconnected stories, each of which differs stylistically, may seem a wild innovation on Mitchell’s part, but it is only a glimpse into an expanded grand narrative of many texts.

This Mitchellverse consists of many interconnected texts, six novels as of this writing. Each novel consists of stories within stories. For instance, Cloud Atlas has a Russian-doll structure, in which the central story, a far future post-apocalyptic tale, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” forms the nucleic core of the novel. Mitchell first got the idea for this structure when he read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which there are ten chapters, each featuring a different, but unfinished coitus interruptus story. Mitchell decided to do something similar with Cloud Atlas. “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is then encased in reverse chronological order from the 22nd C to the 19th C. In other words, the reader begins and finishes reading the novel with a 1850s seafaring narrative, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. There is a sense of reading into the future, and then having read the far future core, going back in time to the 1850s.

Though the six stories in Cloud Atlas could be read separately, its macrostructure forces the readers to stop at a cliffhanger halfway through each story (excepting the kernel story, “Sloosha’s Crossin”). The novel continues with another nested story from a couple several generations later. A switch in style and genre conventions appear to make each story vastly different. For instance, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is written in 19th-C Victorian diction of a sentimental memoirist, but “An Orison of Sonmi~451” is written as a transcript of an interrogation in a post-literate dystopia.  And yet, all these narratives are connected via characters reincarnated into similar situations involving predacity and slavery. Thus, Cloud Atlas’s Russian-doll structure is not just a postmodern gimmick, but an architectural feat in which readers are enabled to perceive the interconnectivity of past, present, and future, as well as a butterfly effect rippling throughout space-time. His other novels have also been written using experimental structures.


Many Worlds Theory of Transition

Transitions in fiction shift the reader’s attention from character to character and scene to scene. As per MFA Fictioneering Guidelines (see section 2.1 of the updated FDSM-V) there are two types of transitions, S-type and R-type. The former are seldom noticed by readers, but R-type transitions call attention to the writing itself, disrupting the fictional universe. These rough transitions, ranging from sentence fragments to fragmented novels are taboo. Noncompliance will result in liquidation. The reason for this regulation is because of David Mitchell. In fact, the rough transitions in Cloud Atlas confused an X amount[1] of readers that had to issue a product alert:

“This book does not contain a misprint on page 39. We have received complaints from customers that they have received misprinted editions because of the way the story changes direction in the middle of a word on page 39 (for Kindle readers, the end of the first section). This is not a misprint or error. It is the way the author has written the book. He returns to the seemingly abandoned storyline later in the book.”

Apparently, many readers had no idea what Mitchell was up to, or that he was deliberately structuring the novel of six stories as a Russian Doll, each story nested within the previous one. But earlier in the first chapter, Mitchell demonstrates his ability to handle smooth transitions, embedding a third person slave narrative (i.e. Autua’s tale) with a 1st person memoir (“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”).

Indeed, stories-within-stories are riddled throughout Mitchell’s work. Sometimes the narrator interrupts the story to ask for more food or wine, to clarify a point, or even deliberately withhold a resolution and interjecting her own conclusion:

See now, said Meronym, riding backwards on that lead ass, it ain’t ’bout Crows or fire, it’s ’bout how we humans got our spirit (Cloud Atlas, Kindle file).

Another interesting aspect of the Mitchellian Transition is how one character glides between planes of the multiverse. In number9dream, Eiji Miyake quests in search of his father in Tokyo. But his travels meander between dream, reality, tales, memories, and even video games. Its opening lines teach the reader how to navigate the liminal space between alternate realities:

‘It is a simple matter. I know your name, and you knew mine, once upon a time: Eiji Miyake. Yes, that Eiji Miyake. We are both busy people, Ms Kato, so why not cut the small talk? I am in Tokyo to find my father. You know his name and you know his address. And you are going to give me both. Right now.’ Or something like that. A galaxy of cream unribbons in my coffee cup, and the background chatter pulls into focus. My first morning in Tokyo, and I am already getting ahead of myself (number9dream, Kindle file).

Traditionally, authors separate past and present scenes with paragraph breaks or by chapters. Here though, it is as if two alternate worlds merge together, at least in mind of Eiji Miyake. The dialogue, like the cream that “unribbons” in his coffee, is a manufactured product composed in espionage thriller style designed to deliver key points of exposition that will be addressed more realistically later in the novel. At first, he appears to be addressing Ms. Kato, but then we realize that he was only talking to himself. “Or something like that,” is novel talk, signaling the previous dialogue is imaginary. It is also a smooth, unobtrusive transition between a James Bond-esque daydream to reality: Eiji is in a Tokyo café, steeling himself for a confrontation with Ms. Kato, which he sees as the first step toward finding the true identity of his father. These transitions between alternate realities can be likened to how one’s consciousness ebbs and flows between internal and external reality, the inner space of the mind and the outer space of the physical world. And the last line of self-reflexive novel talk indicates just how aware and chagrined he is to “bury reality” as referenced in the novel’s epigraph from DeLillo’s Americana: “It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.” The first paragraph of number9dream, structurally and typographically, shows reality buried under a dream.


Conclusion and Homage

“So in conclusion, David—huh? I should not use the word conclusion in my conclusion? Too high school English? Okay, let’s try again. The structural masterpiece of David—what now? Let me guess, you don’t like the M word. You want a brilliant, insightful conclusion and without any clichéd reference to the word ‘masterpiece’?  Aiya. Who do you think I am? I know your name and you know mine, as our friend Eiji Miyake might say. Yes, it is the real Matthew Muller saying this. But we are both busy writers you and I, so why not cut the bullshit. We both know that if I had anything brilliant to write about David Mitchell I would have written it by now. And if I did, it bears no repeating here. I am in Hong Kong to write my novel. Sure, it will be a novel of short stories, but a novel nonetheless. But a novel written is not a real novel unless it is read. Same goes for this essay. So I will give you a choice. You will read this essay and you will find it brilliant enough to warrant an A. Sound good? Oh, let me explain. That’s ‘A’ for ‘at least a passing grade.’ The choice is yours.” Or yeah, if only I can say something like that in realspace. I sit here in my dingy CityU dormitory on a Friday night, staring at an algae bloom of instant cream congealing upon the surface of my Nez Café coffee. It is one of my last evenings at the City University of Hong Kong MFA Programme, and I have been wormholed into a David Mitchell novel. Either that, or I am just trying too hard to worm out of a half-decent conclusion—while worming out of a student reading. But at least now I want to share my new discoveries with that Pakistani Raymond Carver clone from Texas: Forget about raiding the free market—I’m going after one of my first crushes: Mary Shelley. Maybe after I graduate, I will have the know-how to reanimate her lost masterpiece: The Last Man.

[1] The actual number of consumer complaints is an internal matter.


Works Cited

Begley, Adam. “David Mitchell, The Art of Fiction No. 204.” The Paris Review. No. 193. Web. 2010.

Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004. Kindle file.

Mitchell, David. Number9dream. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2001. Kindle file.

Sino-American Master of Fine Arts Fictioneering Association. (2076). Fictioneering Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (5th ed.). Hong Kong, The Second People’s Republic of China.

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