18 December 2007

A journey through David Mitchell

I read Cloud Atlas first, two or three years ago. It took me until recently to complete the journey, and I wonder why. This is to entice you along the same path.

If you've not read it, Cloud Atlas consists of six novellas nested like Matryochka dolls.

The first novella is set in the past and stops in the middle, interrupted by the second which is closer to the present. The second is interrupted by the third, and so on. The sequence rolls past the present and into the future, finishing in a post apocalyptic far future where language has changed to the point of difficulty and continuance of human life is uncertain. There are links between the novellas (in the first future segment, for instance, the present day one is seen to be film being watched by the new narrator). And from the far future dystopia the sequence rolls back and out again: we get the resolution of each novella in reverse order, each one picking up at the point of interruption, until finally we finish up back in the past of the first segment. The title Cloud Atlas is taken from that of a musical composition written by a character in one of the "past" sections.

It's very cleverly done. Whether you like it varies from person to person; personally I do, but not everyone feels the same way. One important thing to remember, though, is the connectedness between sections: that fact acquires growing significance as you move on through Mitchell's other books.

My second, just a few weeks ago, was Black Swan Green. This (his fourth and, so far, latest), is a much more conventionally structured novel: a largely linear first person narrative covering one year in the life of a thirteen year old boy. The boy is being bullied at school, has a speech difficulty which is usually under control but must be continually borne in mind, watches the Falklands war come and go, secretly writes poetry for the parish magazine under a pseudonym, and sees the structure of his family creaking at the seams.

Despite that description, even here in Black Swan Green there are signs of the importance which interconnectedness holds in Mitchell's fiction. one example is the elderly woman who takes his poetry writing development under her wing: she is a character from one of the "past" sections of Cloud Atlas, where she was a young girl loved by the composer - and now she plays the title music to the boy.

My next stop was Mitchell's second novel, number9dream (on the basis of the link to the title from John Lennon's song #9dream which features in the closing stretch of Black Swan Green, plus an unjustified assumption that a second novel was likely to be better than a first). This one, too, has an essentially linear structure and a single central male first person character/narrator. We are now in Japan, the protagonist is disowned rural lovechild Eiji Miyake seeking his big city father, and the connections are personal or social. His fantasy and video game mediated journey takes him through a Dantesque hell of yakuza (organised crime) violence, but leads him to realisation of what is good in those whom he has disregarded.

Finally I read Ghostwritten, his first novel and, to my surprise, in many ways the most interesting of all. Here is where the strands of interconnectedness begin.

Where Cloud Atlas ranged through time, leaping generations, and was constructed from novellas, this one is a string of short stories and, while they do cover a time span, it is relatively short. The connectedness here is geographical, girdling the northern hemisphere with its string of pearls in a "six degrees of separation" style web of unseen linkages.

At the start of the book, the links are simple and sequential; a telephone call made in the first story, for instance, is received by an unrelated character in the second. As the novel progresses, the links become more subtle, more complex, more active. By the end they are pointing further and further back, and the final link delights with its perfect completion of a circle back to the beginning as it ties off the loop.

Once again, though, the connectedness is not just internal to the novel: it reaches forward to the other novels which succeed (or, in my order of reading, precede) it. Again taking only one example: a corrupt lawyer in Ghostwritten is (or at least shares his name and age contemporaneity with) one of the bullies who in his teens (three novels earlier, or later, depending on how you look at it) oppressed the narrator of Black Swan Green.

Nor is his connectedness only to his own fictional world. Ghostwritten, for example, makes specific links outward to (amongst other sources) Asimov's three rules of robotics and Auster's The Music of Chance.

The whole set, taken together, are a dizzying, exhilarating, enlightening, breathtaking, stimulating, enthralling and eye opening experience. You can enter it at any point, and move in any direction, the links will find you and bind you in, whichever way you go. Having said that, most people will probably enter at Cloud Atlas as I did; my recommendation for an ideal starting pint would be either Ghostwritten or Black Swan Green - but, most of all, to enter it and explore it in full.

  1. Mitchell, D., Ghostwritten : a novel in nine parts. 1999, London: Sceptre.
  2. Mitchell, D., number9dream. 2001, London: Sceptre.
  3. Mitchell, D., Cloud Atlas. 2004, London: Sceptre.
  4. Mitchell, D., Black Swan Green. 2006, London: Sceptre.
  5. Auster, P., The Music of Chance. 2006, London: Faber. 198 p.
  6. Asimov, I., The Complete Robot. 1982, London: Granada. xiv,557p.

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