Cosmic Station Master
In addition to his concern that fellow fabulists and non-scribblers alike share his freedom of expression, it is never less than obvious when speaking with Mitchell how much he reveres the writer’s craft. This can be clocked in the way he compliments those he chats with on a well-chosen word or phrase. Such a tendency might be seen as pretentious, were this former closet poet not so obviously besotted with words. This author rolls words around in his mind in much the same way as certain characters in number9dream and Black Swan Green suck champagne bombs. He also coats sensible points in generous lashings of charm. When I mention how the Velvet Underground expanded my vocabulary as a kid, he says: “Brilliant! They make good teachers. You need other teachers as well, but without them in your own personal staff room, there would be a Velvet Underground-shaped hole. So yeah, good.” It is moments like these that hark back to Mitchell’s former profession as a teacher of English.
As for politics, Mitchell is interestingly non-partisan. When I say that his mention of family folk trapped in stultifying jobs reminded me of Magazine singer Howard Devoto‘s song about wage slavery, ‘Model Worker’ (‘But because I love you and because you love me / A model worker I’ll willingly be…’) …he is quick to scientifically “test” this against latter day realities.
“Yes, people are in a vulnerable position when they get married and have kids, and the world is phenomenally unfair. On the other hand, just roll it back eighty or a hundred and fifty years and the rise of the model worker is relative. There are no absolutes here”, he asserts. “When we are thinking about these things, we can get stuck rather in eighties Socialist Worker vocabulary. Are there really many model workers around? I mean, your average West Cork builder is nobody’s fool. Sure, he is at the mercy of economic tides, but aren’t we all? And”, he laughs, “if Magazine were remotely interested in my opinion – and they may think this way themselves now – then I would caution them about thinking in somewhat simplistic terms about the magnates of industry versus the poor, honest, oppressed masses. Yes, there is truth in it, and there’s truth in the opposite view. So let’s see things as they are, rather than how we would like them to be, or in terms of the ideological stuff that’s been handed down to us.” Given Mitchell’s Huxley-esque dystopian portrayal of genetically modified coffee-serving drones in Cloud Atlas, or the American government’s desire to use Irish physicist, Mo Muntervary’s research discoveries for the making of war in Ghostwritten, one might expect Mitchell to be more exercised about social equality. Certainly, while applauding his call for even-handedness, it is hard to deny that wealth has been unfairly distributed since humankind first began bartering beads and shells.
This takes me back to Black Swan Green, Mitchell’s pre-coming-of-age masterpiece, where the largely autobiographical protagonist, Jason Taylor, endorses the Tory party line in respect to the Falklands War, without grasping how the conflict was used to whip gullible citizens into a patriotic lather. Jason’s naive acceptance is carefully counterbalanced by his friend, Dean Moran’s father telling the boys that people waste their time scapegoating gypsies, while they seem not to care about the steady erosion of the union rights their grandparents fought for. I comment upon this balance, which lends pleasing complexity to Mitchell’s masterly narrative. “That balance is one hopefully early footstep on the road to this thing called maturity, I suppose, isn’t it?” says the rueful novelist. The upshot of these maturely equitable views – regardless of one’s opinion of Margaret Thatcher – is a more nuanced depiction of early eighties’ British society than that offered in more politically combative fare. Clearly, many kids raised in Tory Britain, who went on to witness the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, share this suspicion of purely left or right wing politics. So, from a certain perspective, the author’s non-adversarial political stance typifies today’s political climate. Postmodern vigilance renders partisan politics redundant, which may explain Britain’s current appetite for consensus politics. Mitchell is honest enough to admit that he has no answers to the big questions. Rather, he seeks to put the various views “under a microscope”.
This intellectual equilibrium, when viewed alongside Mitchell’s fertile imagination and talent for stylistic mimicry leads some to conclude that his work is the literary equivalent of inspired ventriloquism. However, the author dislikes the associations of Vaudevillian trickery that this metaphor suggests. Mitchell’s craft is elevated above skillful voice-throwing by well-rounded characterisation, and by the poetic depth charges he regularly drops into his narratives. In Cloud Atlas, the paid assassin Bill Smoke contemplates a hit and “wonders at the powers within us that are not us.” Or in Black Swan Green, Jason Taylor returns to the place where he played British Bulldogs with his peers one year previously, and reflects achingly on the disintegration of that apparently safe world. It is tempting to conclude that Mitchell’s drive to create and populate fictional worlds is his way of resisting this mortifying entropy. The ‘Mongolia’ section of Ghostwritten features a noncorpum, a disembodied consciousness who survives by inhabiting human hosts. This parallels how Mitchell seems compelled to inhabit fictional characters. Whatever his motivation, any writer who can compress so much meaning into so little space is vastly gifted. Perhaps, it would be surprising if Mitchell wrote a novel as corrosively subversive as Michel Houellebecq‘s The Possibility of an Island (a book that contains a Huxley-esque dystopian strand not dissimilar to the Sonmi-451 section in Cloud Atlas); but that is perhaps due to the relative stability of Mitchell’s upbringing in comparison to Houellebecq’s. Apart from struggling with a childhood stammer, Mitchell seems to have enjoyed a fairly secure childhood, having been raised in a suburban backwater by a warm, supportive family. Despite his extreme sensitivity, his interest in ideas like causality (which also crop up in films such as Amores Perros); global travel (The Beach by Alex Garland); or a New Man-ish approach to gender relations (virtually everyone, except Michel Houellebecq or Martin Amis) is fairly common, and Mitchell is yet to publish a truly mind-reformatting book. However, he is clearly getting there. He writes with conviction, lyrical verve and structural elegance but, when critics say that he lacks his own voice, they may be picking up on the philosophical conservatism that comes with a relatively secure childhood.
So perhaps we are looking at an empirical poet with a love of exquisite structure. Rather than being a conscientious objector in the supposed battle between science and art which was famously laid out in C.P. Snow‘s Two Cultures lecture in 1959, David Mitchell renders such concerns irrelevant. Tellingly enough, the younger Mitchell wanted to be an inventor, and he still regards his early “inventions” as “nascent novels.” Like many technically adept schoolkids, he adored science fiction, but what was truly scary in the Cloud Atlas Sonmi-451 section is how little Mitchell tweaked present day society to get there. “The science fiction that I find interesting does not tweak the world that much; it’s more a costume change. I would just put that Sonmi-451 section in a tradition of dystopian science fiction writing which is really about the present. It’s a contemporary play staged by an innovative director who wants fancy, weird sets and costumes.”
I wonder if the poetic “depth charges” that Mitchell drops into his work happen as a by-product of the narrative, or does he start out with themes that he really wants to convey? He started out as a poet, so a purveyor of compressed epiphanies. The novels and short stories certainly read like extended poems, and positively demand multiple readings. “Thank you very much. For me, it’s plot and character first, but then I have faith that, if I go along with them, they will lead me to what the story is actually about. And that’s where the theme comes in. Firstly, the poetry must be plausible, by which I mean it has to be in the register of the speaker. Now, Jason Taylor (from Black Swan Green) has got quite a rudimentary register: he is operating in a world where high register vocabulary is not rewarded or appreciated. And he stammers. But, of course, one of the joys of first person narrative is that you can escape into someone’s head and , once you’re there, you can have any register you like. Just as in the third person, you can have as high a register as you wish your narrator to have. But in a book like Black Swan Green, you can’t have Jason using elevated language.
“So plot and character first, but I know they will take me somewhere interesting, which is why I was interested in that plot in the first place – even tough I didn’t know why when I started out. It’s a bit like Picasso‘s quote: ‘First I find something, then I go looking for what it is.’ You go looking for what it is, you find it and think: ‘Oh, it’s about this!’ Often, as you age and you’re on your fifth book, you think: ‘Oh, it’s about predacity again. Yep, not surprised to see you here. Oh well, what variation have you got for me this time?’ So, in the case of The Thousand Autumns, you have incarceration again and various power struggles. The language just evolves as you go from your first draft through to the seventh, and as you get to know the characters more. (Mitchell is known to write detailed biographies of each of his characters.)
“Here’s a wacky metaphor! The late eighties amusement arcade, multiplayer, horse racing under a glass dome game; the one where you have four horses and you all put your ten pence in and they go around the track. One of those horses is character, another is plot, another is theme, and another is language and style. They nudge forward and no one gets too far ahead without the others catching up. When they have crossed the line, you have your finished product.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 6th, 2010.