David Mitchell, flawed, is still a far finer writer than many writing at the top of their form
David Mitchell is a curious writer – he has the ability to effortlessly inhabit many different kinds of voices, of differing character, and believably writes first person narrative from a male or female perspective, from young and old, from different cultures, places and indeed from different times. (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas)
He can also plagiarise himself, mock himself, and write concertedly in a single voice (Black Swan Green)
He is an author who is always best read with focus and attention, as even when he is being most flashy, most showing off his writerly ‘bling’ the reader will suddenly be dropped into playfulness with words, juggling voices and genres, pastiche, and – when you think you have this man’s measure as a sleight of hand merchant, a music-hall master only of illusion and cleverness which needs admiration (and might evoke a little envy) , he drops you down into darkness, suffering, existential terror and pain, despair, cruelty, soulfulness and all the unbearable truths that make the glitter and legerdemain necessary as a foil to the depth.
The man is almost TOO clever, and I sometimes wonder if his refusal to be pigeon-holed creates a certain distrust of him, from certain quarters. He is an unpredictable writer – except that he is always an excellent one.
Here, he is back to the voices of several narrators, with the linking devices of major and minor figures from previous sections of this book (or previous books) turning up as major or minor characters in later stories.
As in Ghostwritten ‘interconnection’ is a major thread. And so is writing itself – Mitchell’s ‘cleverness’ asks you to look at the illusions art creates – he pulls you into the story, and pushes you out, effectively saying ‘this is illusion’ The deliberate Alienation Effect’
The central image which floated, always, through for me, was the image of a poem by Shelley, Ozymandias’. Death stalks, ‘look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ Ozymandias builds a monument meant to give him a legacy through the ages, and that is the inscription. Time, and entropy, has caused the monument to crumble, and the inscription is what remains. Ozymandias is the mighty who despairs, in the end. And this is a theme, the desire to avoid aging, the helpless, hopeless desire to avoid that end, to live for now, as glitteringly as we can
So, this major theme – cheating ageing and death, the desire for immortality, – for us as individuals, or collectively as a species, is explored severally.
Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark……as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither and fall in irradiated tufts…DNA frays like wool, and down we tumble; a fall on the stairs, a heart-attack, a stroke; not dancing but twitching. This is Club Walpurgis. They knew it in the Middle Ages. Life is a terminal illness
The central, linking character who starts off the journey in 1984 is Holly Sykes, a 15 year old from Gravesend (Hah! Mitchell slyly peppers his novel with reminders, obvious and subliminal, of his themes) She is stroppy, tremblingly in first love, and full of attitude. Holly also has a younger brother aged 6, strange and wise beyond his years. At this point, Holly’s voice is pretty well normal for a 15 year old lovelorn girl with some lip and feist to her nature. BUT, there are strange incursions from a mysterious set of people who could almost have strolled in from the hinterland between the two incarnations of Mr Banks – that is Iain, and Iain M.
Love is fusion in the sun’s core. Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object. The difference between its presence and its absence is the difference between life and death
And these incursions do re-occur, throughout the book. Yet, it is in no way ‘magic realism’. The real is very real….and yet, reality is not quite solid, not quite fixed. Neither does this sit as science fiction, nor fantasy. Mitchell resolutely eschews the neat pigeon hole of genre. Yet he picks and weaves in genre stock in trade as he chooses. And, for my money, he does this consciously, precisely, and largely, well.
The second section, 1991, in which Holly also makes an appearance (as indeed does another character from that first section) follows the journey of a sharp, amoral, upwardly very mobile young man, Hugo Lamb, and stands as a critique of early 90’s Thatcherite inheritance – ‘there is no such thing as society’ Hugo fits right in. Yet there is more, and underneath the razzamatazz and the fierce partying he has a clarity about this ‘Ozymandias’ legacy, of all comes to dust – there is a wonderful section on this where Mitchell dazzles, as he so often does, as a sleight of hand, magician of words, and the reader (well this one) enjoyed hugely the demonstration of linguistic delight and playfulness
The third section, into 2004 sees us back in ‘the Holly fold’ and she and her family, 20 years older, are gathered for a family wedding. The narrator of this section is someone we have met before, now an acclaimed war reporter, embedded in Iraq, and back briefly to attend that wedding. The reporter is deep in the here and now of events at the wedding party, but is having also another internal dialogue (as we do, since often most of us are both in our here and now AND either reliving memory or imagining future memories) That other dialogue concerns war torn Iraq, and there are many arising conversations and thoughts which demonstrate Mitchell’s ability to get underneath and inside black and white viewpoints into nuance. He is, as ever, much more than merely a clever writer. He is a writer with emotional subtlety. Empathy, compassion and tenderness, as well as intelligent analysis and a display of dazzling skill in working with words, all guide his writing
The fourth section brings us to now, and to a little ahead of now. And our central narrator here (oh dangerous, Mitchell, this game, but how WELL you walk the tightrope) is a dark and bitter version of the writer you might have been – one passed over several times for a thinly disguised version of the Booker (as Mitchell has of course been, several times, and again most recently) and moreover a version of the Booker now bankrolled by a thinly disguised Sir Alan Sugar. There are vengeful little cracks made by our narrator (part of the peripheral circle from section 2) about the incestuous world of publishing, writing, literary fashion. In many ways Mitchell is setting himself up as his own fall-guy in this section. But it’s lovely, audacious stuff
Again we meet Holly, and, again there is a sustained influx of what some might call ‘fantasy supernatural elements’ Except – Mitchell reminds us that there are other cultures who take some of this quite seriously. There is a section set in Australia where Holly taps in to Aboriginal myths, Aboriginal ways of interpreting the world. This feels quite important – Mitchell himself has been castigated from some quarters for his usage of ‘fantasy’ when he is a serious literary writer. And yet….IF he had been a writer from some cultures, I have no doubt the ‘mythic culture he is writing from, would not have been dismissed. It is as if a serious twenty-first century literary writer, not a genre writer, who is British, should NOT BE DOING THIS.
I riff on notions of the soul as a karmic report card; as a spiritual memory-stick in search of a corporeal hard-drive; and as a placebo we generate to cure our dread of mortality.
The fifth section, set in 2025, is the one where the ‘fantasy elements’ really bite hard, with some psychic battles between the forces of good (Horologists) and bad (Anchorites) are played out, with Holly Sykes again, now in her 50s, with a grown up daughter, being played for, or being played with. Here is the section where I believe Mitchell’s risk-taking does not really quite work. Elemental battles between the forces of dark and light have of course been part of many great pieces of classical literature, but also have a tendency to reek of Komik Kuts, and I don’t think Mitchell makes a completely clean escape from the latter.
At this point, I was veering towards a 4 star. Until:
The final section, Sheep’s Head, is set in 2045. Holly is in her seventies, living in rural Ireland. We are in the period of the Endarkenment, heading towards the end of days – not through any supernatural agencies, only through our own neglect, greed and wastefulness, our ‘live now and let future generations pay later’ mindset. Climate change has, as the warning voices insistently tell us, created many changes, much of the earth is uninhabitable. Elderly nuclear reactors have sprung leaks, political instability and the emergence of new power bases, the collapse of the global economy, the rise of militia, the end of taken-for-granted-endless-supplies of fossil fuels, gas and oil, and thence electricity has ended everything we take for granted. The technological advances of recent decades are gone. Mitchell presents as brilliant, bleak, and heart-breaking a future, with small lights bravely attempting to keep the kindness of humanity, still flickering, as I have ever read.
People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burnt our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing – while denying – that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.
For sure, this is not by any means a faultless book. But flawed Mitchell is a far more rewarding read, to my mind, than many writers at the absolute top of their form.
Finishing this book, puts me back in the same place as every previous one of his books – other reads, will for a while feel curiously empty and lacking.
I’ve probably made this given the graphics, seem far too gloomy whereas Mitchell as ever marries vitality, lushness and a celebration of livingness in his writing, a vigour, a dizzying delight, with that darker undercurrent of what happens when life itself, in all its teeming forms, is held cheap