David Mitchell is amongst the handful of living novelists at the very top of their game right now. Many will know Cloud Atlas, a dizzyingly brilliant meditation on the darkness of the human soul; Mitchell’s latest novel, his fifth, is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and returns to his peerless writing about Japan that we last saw in Number 9 Dream (my favourite).
Now the New York Times has a handsome feature profile on Mitchell:
“About 30 pages into the manuscript of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ” David Ebershoff, Mitchell’s American editor, told me in his office in Manhattan this spring, “I came to a page that ends in the middle of a sentence. At the time I had an unreliableassistant, and I thought: She can’t even make a decent photocopy — she messed up the pagination! I was out of town for the weekend, and I really wanted to read it, and I figured I’d work out what was missing. And so I kept going and,” Ebershoff said, laughing, “I saw what he was doing.”
What Mitchell was doing was writing a novel not quite like any that had come before it, and one that defeats tidy summary. “Cloud Atlas” consists of five false starts, a sequence of unfinished novellas, each set in a different place and time, each with a distinct form: the South Pacific in the 1850s, through the travel journal of a notary out of Melville; Belgium in 1931, in a composer’s letters to a lover as if by Christopher Isherwood; California in the 1970s, via a detective story told in the styleless style of an airport thriller; England of the present day, in the voice of a crass publisher who wouldn’t be a stranger to a Martin Amisnovel; and, in a nameless state in a dystopic future, a transcript of testimony given by a most unusual slave. As the five narratives unfold chronologically — each a story of betrayal and theft, of manipulation and deceit, of human opportunism in its most base and basic forms — each breaks off at some brittle, cliffhanging, character-revealing moment, whereupon the next novella begins, until it, too, breaks off, and then the next. . . .
This is an excellent first introduction to Mitchell’s work. Read it, but better still, read him.