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Mitchell, David

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1969-    ) UK author, in Japan 1994-2000, whose work exhibits a thrusting and muscular (but finely tempered) Equipoise among the genres of Fantastika. His first novel, Ghostwritten: A Novel in Nine Parts (1999), which it would be reductionist to describe as a collection of linked stories, is all the same presented as a set of stories, each of which inhabits a different genre, from chthonic reminiscences of a preternaturally ancient Chinese woman to the Technothriller, from ghost story to Near Future parable set in New York. What marks the volume as perhaps more adventurous than (for instance) the superficially similar Tokyo Cancelled (coll of linked stories 2005) by Rana Dasgupta is the degree to which the implications and turnings of plot and characters of each tale interact centripetally with all its fellows (both within this volume, and proleptically in several of Mitchell's later publications). In the end, the radiant palimpsest of tales in Ghostwritten powerfully suggests that all stories are emanations of some singular (not yet revealed) Story: that a main (and perhaps primary) function of human beings living in a partial story is the high task of deciphering the links that join them to the main. In seeming contrast, number9dream (dated 2001 but 2002; rev 2002) – a simpler artefact of story explicitly indebted to the work of Haruki Murakami, down to the use of a John Lennon song for the book's title – features a single protagonist whose quest for his father, primarily in Tokyo, takes him through various Alternate Worlds, each representing a fantasy outcome which he embraces, until he realizes that he is not solely a player in the jungle-gym of genre but himself as well; and the real story emerges.

Playing on these games of palimpsest, Cloud Atlas (2004) moves into sf proper through its insistence that each of the successive realities it portrays must, in the end, be taken literally, despite a certain Fabulation-like gnawing at the texture of the real through repetitions and echoes in each story line, through the reiteration of character-types and outcomes, through the fact that each successive story depends upon some form of written record of its predecessor. The six stories that comprise the book nest within one another, the earliest set in 1850 in the South Pacific and in a style evocative of Herman Melville, the longest in a Dystopian 2300, the last some centuries further on, in the same venue described in the first tale, though its protagonist now inhabits a Ruined Earth. The central emotion that governs the book is, perhaps, grief: that humans could not learn to stop. It was filmed as Cloud Atlas (2012).

Two of Mitchell's later novels, Black Swan Green (2006) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – which is set in a richly estranged Zoo-like artificial Island in Nagasaki harbour – might seem to be entirely and safely non-fantastic, except for the fact that explicit echoes and reiterations of loaded material from his previous texts can be detected throughout. As Mitchell has subsequently made clear, these two novels, along with all his previous work, are separate facets of a larger whole, an "Über-book" whose grammar and seriousness range far beyond the mimetic, comprising an organon of reference clearly distressing to those establishment critics who have noticed that something non-mimetic is being ventured here. This interconnectedness is underlined in Thousand Autumns by the presence of a recurring character, usually called either Marinus or a close variant on that name, who seems to be an immortal (see Immortality), a figure almost certainly designed to help knit together Mitchell's overall project. Marinus's presence, seen or unseen, is omnipresent in Mitchell's more recent work, even including a brief clearly supernatural appearance in The Sunken Garden (2013), an opera by Michel van der Aa (1970-    ), for which Mitchell wrote the libretto, and whose storyline – the Sunken Garden is a kind of combined bardo and portal for souls preparing for the next stage after death – adumbrates elements of more recent work.

Marinus features much more centrally in the climactic sections of The Bone Clocks (2014), which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel; several sequential parts of this multi-segmented tale carry its main protagonist from 1984 up to a balkanized 2043 afflicted by global warming (see Climate Change). The complex narrative is woven into Mitchell's overall series through a linking understory, in which two opposing sets of Immortals (the Anchorites, who include Marinus in their ranks, and the Horologists) have opposed one another for many centuries, both Pariah Elites vying to exercise Secret-Master control over the world; the ultimate burden of their overall presence here and elsewhere remains here little more than hinted at, though the ironized, slangy, topos-conversant tenor of their verbal sparring is strongly reminiscent of a similar deceptive loquacity that marks James Merrill's hyperbolic The Changing Light at Sandover (omni 1982). On the other hand, Marinus – whose sex varies along with other characteristics and who is here known as Dr Iris Marinus-Fenby – plays an important role in attempts to foster sustainable lives for mortals, who are the bone clocks of the title; and performs as Dr Iris Marinus-Levy a similar role in Slade House (2015), a shorter tale whose structure and implications nestle, with as much security Mitchell is willing to provide, within the larger compass of the previous novel.

Dr Marinus also appears in Utopia Avenue (2020), a tale whose central nonfantastic traversal of 1960s rock culture in the UK – as epitomized by the eponymous band – is subtly woven through Marinus's presence as a Secret Master figure into Mitchell's ongoing "Über-book". What is surely clear at this moment is that Mitchell does not see the twenty-first century as a platform in which either free human spirits or their immortal companions will be able to continue lives unhampered by what may be terminal crises in the health of the planet. [JC]

David Stephen Mitchell

born Ainsdale, Merseyside: 12 January 1969


An undetermined number of titles below exist in significantly different states, caused by publisher's edits, or author's revisions, or both. The citations for number9dream and Cloud Atlas below reflect this situation; citations for further titles will be modified if significant variations are confirmed.

  • Ghostwritten: A Novel in Nine Parts (London: Sceptre, 1999) [pb/Giles Hancock]
    • Ghostwritten (New York: Random House, 2000) [vt of the above: hb/Andy Carpenter]
  • number9dream (London: Sceptre, 2002) [book is dated 2001, but was delayed in order to be eligible for the 2002 Booker Prize: pb/uncredited]
    • number9dream (New York: Random House, 2002) [rev of the above: hb/Andy Carpenter]
  • Cloud Atlas (London: Sceptre, 2004) [hb/Kai Clements and Sunny]
    • Cloud Atlas (New York: Random House, 2004) [text varies without provenance from the above, which is presumed to be authoritative: pb/Gabrielle Bordwin]
  • Black Swan Green (London: Sceptre, 2006) [hb/Kai Clements and Sunny]
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (London: Sceptre, 2010) [hb/Joe Wilson]
  • The Bone Clocks (London: Sceptre, 2014) [some copies sold through Waterstones contain appendix "On Reappearing Characters": hb/Neal Murren]
  • Slade House (London: Sceptre, 2015) [hb/Jeff Nishinaka]
  • Utopia Avenue (London: Sceptre, 2020) [hb/]


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