Yesterday evening I went in to London to see a conversation between Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell at the Southbank Centre. And very good it was, too. Continue reading
David Mitchell does not write stories, he writes patterns. Oh there are stories in his books, but if you read them for the story you are not going to understand what is going on. You need to read them for the shape they are making in order to get out of them all that is going on. Continue reading
Every so often you read a novel that is absolutely thrilling because of the way it breaks convention, causes you to see things afresh, makes you think harder. Such a novel was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and this review was first published in Vector 238, November-December 2004. Continue reading
Still trying to decide how I will vote in the BSFA Awards when I go to Eastercon tomorrow. I’ve made my mind up about the novels, but the short fiction category foxes me. I didn’t read a huge amount of new short fiction in 2011, but was it really such a poor year? My choice, I think, is going to come down to a matter of the least worst, which is not how I like to make award decisions. Continue reading
It’s a little early to be thinking about books of the year, but I have a very strong suspicion that Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre, 2006) is going to feature on my list. In his previous novels he has proved to be a master of pyrotechnics, but this new book demonstrates that he can also do the sustained narrative voice and the small scale. In other words, he has added more weapons to his arsenal as a novelist without losing those instinctive storytelling skills which keep you moving through his books at a headlong pace. Continue reading
Ayelet Waldman, Charles D'Ambrosio, China Mieville, Daniel Handler, David Mitchell, Heidi Julavits, Jason Roberts, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite, Roddy Doyle, Stephen King, Steve Erickson
Let us assume, just for a moment, that ‘genre’ delineates a mode of story rather than a mode of telling, in other words that it refers to science fiction and romance and crime and the like rather than to prose and poetry and drama. With me so far? Let us, then, also imagine that there are two approaches to genre. For the sake of argument I shall call them the ‘resident’ and the ‘visitor’ approaches. Those of us who are ‘resident’ in a genre, its habituees, its authors and critics and devoted readers, want the genre to grow and live and change. Thus, although we delight in familiar landmarks, we also like exploring new neighbourhoods, new ways of doing the genre, because that is what keeps it fresh. Those who are visitors to the genre, however, here to see the sights, want it to stay the same because they are here only to see the familiar landmarks, indeed they define the genre in terms of those landmarks, they orient themselves on those landmarks (TM Maureen). Anything that does not conform to the pattern set by those landmarks is not noticed by the visitor because, by definition, it is not what drew them to the genre in the first place. The residents are happy to see change, the visitors are in search of the static. Continue reading
I’ve just read David Mitchell’s second novel (Sceptre, 2001). And having now caught up with his entire oeuvre it looks, on current form, like I’ve got to wait a couple of years at least, dammit, before the next book comes along. I’m going to be impatient simply because there is such a wild talent here that I am anxious to see what he does next.
Of his three books to date, this is the closest to a conventional narrative, at least to the extent that it has one continuing narrator, Eiji Miyake, who remains central and on the same quest throughout the entire book. There are a couple other tales that entwine with his – a charming and very odd little fable about a goat who is an author and the hen and Neanderthal who are his companions; and the diary of a kamikaze Japanese mini-submarine pilot during the last days of the Second World War – but essentially this is Miyake’s story from beginning to end. But that does not mean it is a conventional narrative. Miyake is a naive country boy haunted by the death, years before, of his twin sister, who turns up in Tokyo just before his twentieth birthday to discover the identity of his father. His mother, an alcoholic who has played no part in his upbringing, gave birth as the result of a brief fling with someone who appears to have been quite powerful on the edges of Japanese society, and though Miyake simply wants to discover his identity many of those he encounters on this quest believe there are other motives, which sets off much of the extraordinary drama of the story.
We begin with Miyake sitting in a cafe lusting after a waitress and trying to steel himself to cross the road and confront the powerful lawyer who might be able to give him the information he needs. This scene is punctuated with a series of fantasies – in one his confrontation with the lawyer turns into a Matrix-like battle of computer wizardry and incredible futuristic weapons, in another Tokyo is flooded and he rescues the waitress, both of which presage what is apparently going to happen in the real narrative – but in the end he is simply turned away by the lawyer’s receptionist. The dreams in this opening sequence seem to suggest that what follows is real, but at the same time they cue us to read events as dreams, and this curiously delicate ambiguity between fantasy and reality is the line that Mitchell treads with remarkable confidence through the rest of the novel. Miyake’s quest brings him into contact with the Yakuza, and he finds himself in the middle of turf wars between rival gangsters, a war carried out with surreal violence that could be dreamlike or could be terrifyingly real. Shattering incidents happen, then have no apparent consequences, or rather their consequences are not mentioned so we have no idea if they were real or not. A stray cat that wanders into Miyake’s tiny apartment is apparently run over early in the book, but remains his companion for the rest of the novel. Characters drift into the story and out again, but never seem to leave. The waitress becomes his girlfriend; a bored rich boy who picks him up one evening and sweeps him away for a curious night in a private high-class brothel reappears as the victim of Yakuza violence; a voice on the telephone who calls him in the middle of the night to order a peculiar pizza turns out later to be his father. Mitchell does drama (and melodrama) with great assurance, so you always keep reading because you need to know what is going to happen next, how can he top the last extraordinary incident, but all the time you’re not sure how much you’re supposed to believe. Is any of this real; is any of it not real? Then Mitchell ends the novel with the most heart-touching, nerve-shattering cliffhanger I have read for many years, and you realise you want it all to have been real because otherwise this climax would not have the poignancy it does, and at the same time you want to take Mitchell by the throat and shake him until he tells you what happened next.
If I’m sitting back and being clinical about this, I’d say that number9dream is perhaps not quite as good as Ghostwritten and certainly not the stunning achievement of Cloud Atlas (a term that is casually dropped into number9dream), but this is a matter of nuance, of hair-splitting. If I’d read nothing else by Mitchell this novel would have sent me out in desperate search of his other books, because it is a novel you just know is going to haunt you.
First published at Livejournal, 9 October 2004.
Sometimes the circumstances in which we read a book matters almost more than the book itself. Lawrence Durrell’s The Revolt of Aphrodite will, for me, always be associated with a stone bridge over a dusty river bed in the middle of a Greek island, with a bag of huge purple grapes and the lazy hum of insects. Ghostwritten (Sceptre, 1999) is going to have similar associations. I read the first five pages on the flight to Montpellier, then it stayed in the bag for the rest of the week until I did my knee in on the Friday. This meant I wasn’t able to do the walk on Saturday, so I was transported, along with the luggage, to the isolated gite high on the slopes of Peyrepetuse where we were to spend Saturday night. Here I sat under a trellis loaded with heavy, fat grapes accompanied by the buzz of wasps. Occasionally the owner of the gite would appear to gather tomatoes for the evening meal, or to pick blackberries for tomorrow morning’s jam. Once he placed a glass of wine and a carafe of water in front of me, once more he brought tea while he and his wife settled down to an acrimonious game of chess. But mostly there was no interruption to the long, hot, slow day, just me and the book and the absolute quiet. I didn’t quite finish the book during the day, but by then I was so enraptured by it that I had to hurry through the few remaining pages on the bus to the airport and the flight home next day.
Read when it first appeared, as a first novel without any context, this must have been a dazzling, breathtaking firecracker of a book. Read now, after the even more dazzling Cloud Atlas, it comes over as a dry run for the bigger novel. Luisa Rey even puts in an appearance, not as the heroine of a series of thrillers but as the author of them; and there is a passing reference to the comet-shaped birthmark that tags the successive protagonists of Cloud Atlas. And the structure … oh yes, the structure. We start with the person who perpetrated the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground as he flees to ever more remote Japanese islands, at the same time becoming ever more isolated from the cult that sent him on the mission. Then the scene abruptly shifts to a young man managing a small record shop in Tokyo and falling in love with a visitor from Hong Kong. But buried within this second story is the ghost of a reference to the first tale. Then we shift to Hong Kong and the story of the last day of a divorced Englishman caught up in some shady deal. The young lovers from the last story appear in the background of this tale, so already we see the pattern: each story is individual, but each connects to the whole, sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly. That the Hong Kong tale is also a ghost story illustrates the flexibility of Mitchell’s narrative format and the sustained brilliance with which he can take on different voices and styles. Another story, just a little later in the sequence, tells of the journey of a soul as it seeks its host, yet this fits seemlessly into tales of gangsters and art fraud in post-communist Russia, of a gambling scam in contemporary London, and of icy cold war politics being turned upon a brilliant Irish scientist. One story, the penultimate one, is pure science fiction, the story of the end of the world as orchestrated by a super-intelligent computer; yet this story is written as a transcript of a New York late-night radio phone-in show. The gall of the man constantly amazes, but he carries it all off with panache.
As in Cloud Atlas, the stories work in their own right, but because they each carry a fragment of the other stories around them (though you have to keep your wits about you as you are reading precisely because of that) the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The stories in Cloud Atlas are longer, more varied in tone, and therefore contribute more richly to the whole. And because they move in and out of each other the structure works rather better than Ghostwritten where the succession of stories carries you along until the final piece which attempts, not altogether successfully, to reintegrate the whole. Still, that is not to say this is not a dazzling novel that you really should make a point of reading.
First published at Livejournal, 12 September 2004.
I seem to have read a lot of books over the last few months [this was written in August 2004]. Some I’ve had to read, many have not been as good as I might like, but several have stuck in my mind as being among the best I’ve read in an awful long time. There are six in particular that I would recommend to anyone. In the order in which I have encountered them: Continue reading