Viewport width =
March 3, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

“Be Nice”: The Fiction of David Mitchell

Novelist David Mitchell’s narratives are cast as intricate shapes, in which disconnected characters somehow impact upon one another across the globe and through centuries. His first novel Ghostwritten takes place in nine separate areas, beginning with Japan and progressing through Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and Britain to New York. The main character in each segment briefly encounters the star of the previous segment, so that each story is not completely divulged until sometime after its conclusion.

Similarly, Mitchell’s magnum opus Cloud Atlas weaves a diverse web. It begins with a doctor stranded on the Chatham Islands in the early 19th Century, but halfway through this tale we find ourselves with an arrogant composer in 1930s Europe, as the composer discovers half of the stranded doctor’s journal. We then get a progression of half-stories through a 1970s Californian newsroom, an old folks home in present-day England, and a near-future totalitarian state in East Asia dominated by corporate brands and cloned people, until we reach a post-apocalyptic future where our narrator spits out garbled English. At the conclusion of this tale, we then regress back through the last half of each tale until we finish, once again, in the South Pacific. While he could use these narratives to make some dismal point about parallel dimensions, Mitchell simply wields them to demonstrate that we are all connected, and shouldn’t we then look after each other?

David Mitchell has previously stated that the way he constructs his novels has been deeply influenced by the years he spent in Japan, and the feeling you get from having several homes across the globe. I asked Mitchell if the global and temporal webs of his narrative structures reflect a contemporary method of looking at history as ‘webbed’, with real historical agents at the ends of a web of relationships, constantly (and reciprocally) counteracting one another.

David: Eric Hobsbawm’s books are very good on the meshed nature of history. It’s certainly true that there are oceanic currents of trade, and what is immigration if it isn’t what we’re talking about now? There are oceanic currents of trade, of peoples, migrations, of money, of influence, of fear, and this is what the world is and it’s fascinating because of it. More and more because it’s a busier and busier ocean.

Salient: Do you ever picture your narrative structures as physical geometric shapes?

David: I do sort of picture them as shapes, or perhaps more as architectures that I’m inside. So it’s like a building.

Salient: Does the structure of this building in Ghostwritten reflect the layout of the geographic area that its storyline crosses?

David: The book moves from East to West. Ghostwritten was a series of dominoes, because there’s an event in each story that takes up the entirety of the next story. Cloud Atlas… the narrative is on the back of a drill bit that is drilling through the navels of a nest of Russian dolls, out of the bases of the spines and into the next one.

Salient: In the chapter ‘Mongolia’ in Ghostwritten the narrator reveals to us that the previous tale’s narrator was somehow living a lie. You play a trick with your readers’ minds.

David: When a writer or a filmmaker takes me by surprise and shows me that, retrospectively, that surprise isn’t a surprise but makes complete sense, that in a way he was playing by the rules and isn’t doing a “I woke up and it was all a dream thing,” I rather like that.

Salient: Cloud Atlas features a similar trick, when one tale suggests that the previous tale is fiction, which would mean all the previous tales live in a fiction within a fiction… when I first realised this I was frustrated, because I didn’t want the stories to be ‘false.’

David: It’s a fine line that that book has to tread. Fiction has to at least pretend that it isn’t fiction… I did bring it back from the brink a little bit, by suggesting that the writer of the Luisa Rey story was basing it on a non-fiction aunt, and that non-fictional aunt Luisa Rey is actually a phone-in caller to Bat Segundo’s late-night talk show in the New York section [of Ghostwritten]… I’m kind of writing an ubernovel that all my novels are chapters of, and there’ll be more of this in my next couple of novels as well, where people from earlier books appear and have roles… It’s not a totally neat, totally tied-up ubernovel, there are bits and pieces that are slightly fuzzy around the edges. It gives me an excuse not be a total anal anorak, it sounds like an easy cop-out for me but it is like life really.

Salient: You set up possibilities about metaphysics, such as consciousness and whether it’s tied to the body, through the science-fiction elements scattered through your tales, and for the ways your overall narratives undermine one another’s reality. But you don’t answer these questions, you don’t sit down and describe how the physics is supposed to work.

David: I’m not clever enough. In the case of metaphysics, the great imponderables are imponderable because they are immune to answers. It tends only to be cult leaders who have the answers. There are a few exceptions where great scientists, the Darwins and the Newtons and the Einsteins, actually do have really good answers, but apart from them it’s only the cult leaders.

It’s the question that’s the fascinating part, and to explore the question rather than to conclude that I have the answer is much more interesting… I love writing and the great truths are platitudinous. There’s nothing that isn’t really worth knowing that wouldn’t appear on a fridge magnet or on a little poster or on one of those “thought per day” desk calendars, which kind of makes them unsayable.

Salient: Although you don’t offer scientific answers, you do end Cloud Atlas with an exhortation that we look out for one another. The narrator sighs that “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” He admits that a kind and fair world “ is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.” But he then argues: “If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw” and share the riches of earth and ocean, “such a world will come to pass.” This seems to be the whole point of the way you connect such diverse characters together in your books – you’re suggesting that we are all connected – “what is any ocean with a multitude of drops” – a conclusion more ethical than metaphysical.

David: What I believe as a person coincides with what I believe as a writer. What I believe as a writer is that books become addictive and unputdownable when you create flawed, yes, but basically decent human beings who are kind of trying to do their best in relatively taxing situations, and we worry about them. I think this very basic technique – “Is she going to be alright? Will she be okay?” – that’s actually at the heart of why I love Tolstoy, why King Lear is interesting, why kids read Harry Potter… books that don’t do that, however dazzling they are and experimental… if I don’t give a damn about the person I’m not really that interested in reading them. Where that coincides with what I believe as a person, in two words simply “be nice.”

You could easily have been someone else had your life gone a different way, and perhaps the basic divisions between people are those who can imagine that they could be someone else and those who can’t imagine that they could be someone else. There perhaps isn’t a more simple way to say what I mean than “be nice.” I also like the word because “nice” is a bit of a maligned word, it’s got a bit of a bad rep, [used] to damn with faint praise.

Actually it’s a word of almost divine importance. “I like nice” – we ought to establish a campaign to make nice a respectable useable word again.

Salient: It’s not a truth likely to get hordes of protestors out onto the streets.

David: No, I can’t picture rallies on the streets of Wellington and Riyadh and Buenos Aries all at the same time with people holding great banners and millions chanting “Be Nice! Be Nice! Be Nice”… I can’t quite see it taking off.

Salient: Well, there was a famous anti-war rally in California in the 1960s where people were chanting ‘Solidarity Forever’ then the hippies on the march replaced the chant with ‘Yellow Submarine,’ saying it was about the solidarity of living together communally.

David: [That’s] more about people’s inexhaustible ability to interpret than it might be about Paul McCartney’s lyrics.

Salient: Do you feel worried that the world is going to end, since human civilization is destroyed several times in your novels?

David: I do seem to destroy the world quite often, don’t I… I don’t destroy anything in Black Swan Green apart from a marriage, but that wasn’t my fault. Yeah, I am worried about the world, I grew up in the eighties and had thermonuclear nightmares, whereas now I have eco-disaster nightmares where there is no food in the supermarket and I have to feed my children. It’s like the eighties, I used to wake up in fright, whereas in the nineties nightmares sort of went into weird stuff about things that wanted to get me, which were quite mild in comparison.

But how do you measure it? Hobsbawm measures it by a kind of scatter-bomb approach where he examines all countries at once and takes the sum temperature of the globe. I don’t have that historic dexterity, but the temperature is rising, population is going up, the sea level of course is rising – it adds up to some nasty shit within our lifetimes. Of course, I’m a dad now… I need the world to be in decent working order for them… I just don’t see how it can go on without some quite widespread, disturbing and rather violent changes, many for the worst. The energy crisis with oil – there’s really nothing to replace it.

And yes I worry, you’d be a fool not to… Even if all possible courses look pretty grim and your intellect may say “really, is there that much difference between someone who uses patio heaters and someone who puts solar panels on their roof?” Actually yes there is a small difference, and it might be a small difference and it might not be a difference that’s going to save the planet but the least worst is always the one to take.

Salient: First do no harm?

David: That might need to be modified to “do the least harm,” when there is not good that has to be done. Unbridled pessimism definitely isn’t going to do any good.

David Mitchell will be speaking at the Embassy Theatre at 9:30 am on 12 March, as part of the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week. Tickets cost $15 and are available from Ticketek.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments are closed.

Recent posts

  1. VUW Halls Hiking Fees By 50–80% Next Year
  2. The Stats on Gender Disparities at VUW
  3. Issue 25 – Legacy
  4. Canta Wins Bid for Editorial Independence
  5. RA Speaks Out About Victoria University Hall Death
  6. VUW Hall Death: What We Know So Far
  8. New Normal
  9. Come In, The Door’s Open.
  10. Love in the Time of Face Tattoos

Editor's Pick

Uncomfortable places: skin.

:   Where are you from?  My list was always ready: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, puppy dogs’ tails, a little Spanish, maybe German, and—almost as an afterthought—half Samoan. An unwanted fraction.   But you don’t seem like a Samoan. I thought you were [inser

Do you know how to read? Sign up to our Newsletter!

* indicates required