:: Article

Cosmic Station Master

David Mitchell interviewed by David Gavan.


The first read I had of David Mitchell was when I happened upon number9dream, a computer game-infected tale of a lad whose mind flickers between reality and digital daydreams, shortly before visiting Japan. Although I could not completely believe that the story’s protagonist, Eiji Miyake, was Japanese, it was easy to admire a young author prepared to adopt such a foreign voice. Moreover, Mitchell’s portrayal of a country balancing between old tradition and modern commerce feels dead on the money. A debauched scene where Eiji and some virtual pals play computer games, and then repair to a Tokyo love hotel is especially memorable.

Thematically, over eight chapters (chapter nine is left blank, in a nod to postmodern playfulness) the novel seems to champion reality over teenage illusion. Likeable orphan and uber slacker, Eiji – who comes to Tokyo to find his father – has various adventures with gangsters, girls and gainful employment before becoming reconciled to adult realities. Despite the book’s tilts towards Haruki Murakami and the Beatles, number9dream evokes memories of David Bowie‘s Major Tom: a protagonist who wants to return to earth after years of floating his life away in his ‘tin can’ space ship. Eiji even lives in a capsule flat and, at one point, we are told that his mouth feels like “sand and glue”, a phrase borrowed from Bowie’s ‘Song for Bob Dylan’. “I would give anything to be dreaming right now. Anything”, thinks the newly-awakened Eiji. A postmodern coming-of-age tale, then. The last we see of the dream denuded Eiji Miyake, he is running towards an unknowable future. But what kind of world is Eiji launching himself towards?

While Mitchell’s stellar debut, the A.S. Byatt-endorsed Ghostwritten, with its nine interlinked narratives, deals with the idea of the causality of events, the follow up to number9dream was a more bleakly-hued enterprise. A multi- narrative extravaganza which breaks off six different stories – which traverse as many centuries – and then concludes them in palindromic order (as in, 12345654321), Cloud Atlas highlights mankind’s predatory nature. Here, a darkly Nietzschian view of the world is set against a rather Zen notion of co- operation and mutual concern. Although some have labelled such themes as less than penetrating, there is something about the author’s passion that renders them fertile.

Hurtling though Mitchell’s novels, there is a continuing theme of incarceration. In the polyphonically perverse, Ghostwritten, the Irish physicist, Mo, is abducted by the American government. In number9dream, Eiji is kidnapped by Yakuza thugs. Timothy Cavendish and Sonmi-451 from Cloud Atlas are trapped in an old people’s home and a social caste, respectively. Miss Aibagawa, the love interest in Mitchell’s accomplished new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is imprisoned in a Handmaid’s Tale-style harem by deluded monks. The novel’s Dutch characters are sequestered on the artificial island of Dejima, a Nagasaki trading colony manned by the Dutch East India Company; while the Japanese population are forbidden to leave Japan. There is, apparently, a horror of how society imprisons its citizens in David Mitchell’s work.

“Or a love of locking people up myself!” says Mitchell, who is phoning me from his County Cork home. “No, that’s a joke, sorry…”

Many people who get wise to the birth, school, work, death racket spend their lives trying to escape its clutches. Most remain trapped, but David Mitchell appears to have done a runner. I wonder where his hatred of what he has referred to in the past as “predation and predacity” comes from? And does he feel a responsibility to speak up for the voiceless?

David Mitchell: “Yeah, big, big, big question. [Musingly] Um, have I escaped? In a gradual, slow way, I suppose I have. But only insofar as I want to be a gardener and now I’ve got my own garden centre. Or, like the guy that cuts my grass: I’ve bought too big a garden, and I have a fear of combustion engines, so I ended up getting one of those little mowers and paying someone to cut my grass. In a way, he’s escaped too. So my first response is to make it plain that I don’t see myself as a commando escapee who has beaten the system; someone who is very pleased with themselves at cracking the code. Not at all. I’ve got more respect for people who work long, hard hours at jobs which they may not find particularly gratifying to support loved ones: I think they are the real commandos, not me. So that’s one thing.

“I suppose your question has three heads. One’s the theme of incarceration and predacity. I think – and I’m trying to instantly test this out on a lot of books simultaneously – but I think these themes are just in the DNA of drama,” he reasons in tellingly scientific terms. “Whatshisface? Aristotle worked this out, didn’t he? That the root of drama is conflict. You have two people who want different things, and either one or the other gets it; otherwise, there’s a strange kind of draw. That goes back to the idea that there are only six plots in the world. So, if you are writing a story like Little Red Riding Hood for instance, all the wolf does is want to survive. But there are other forces at play. There’s the little girl and the gran, and the woodcutter – and they conspire to kill him. So there’s always another point of view. Each story is about a battle of wills. Incarceration occurs when one has an extreme hand, or when one of the combatants is extremely successful and desires to enslave the other. It happens in world history, and it happens in 21st Century novels, I would humbly suggest.

“Another head of your question is political engagement. I follow a probably not uncommon path which goes something like this. As an idealistic teenager, when I knew exactly what was wrong with the world and what should be done to fix it, I would have been more politically engaged in a left-leaning direction, certainly. You age, you realise that you know bugger all about bugger all, and that’s your first step towards actually learning about the world. I suppose, ages 25 to 35, I was the least politically engaged of my life, just thinking about how to learn to write novels, and thinking about myself a lot. Then you meet someone you decide you want to make a go of it with – “It” with a capital “I” – and, if you’re straight and have kids, as we did, you suddenly need the world to last longer than the end of your own life span. You really need it to. So, suddenly, your political engagement clicks on again, in the global sense. Increasingly, Amnesty International type concerns begin to creep in through the professional door.

“I can write whatever I want to; I can be as rude or as scurrilous as I wish – probably not about the Irish government, because I’m a guest here. But if I do so about the UK, nobody is going to throw me into prison, or torture me or my family. So, in global terms, that puts me into a lucky and small minority. And, yes, I feel I have a professional obligation to do what I can, which isn’t much, to make conditions better for people in other parts of the world who feel compelled to write fiction, to be able to do so without being afraid, or having to self-censor. Which is pretty idealistic really. In a more modest and mature frame than when I was younger, certainly, but it is there,” he says almost consolingly. “If Amnesty International want my work in an anthology – which has happened a couple of times – then they are very welcome. Certainly, my next novel will probably be my most politically engaged book. Mostly, it’s straight realism.”

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 6th, 2010.