Among fellow writers, there are few more admired — which is also to say envied — novelists than David Mitchell. He is, first of all, certainly a genius. (The New York Times Book Review called him such in 2004.) There is virtually nothing he hasn’t been able to capture on the page, and in rapturous prose. Cloud Atlas was a mind-bending, intricately assembled novel of six interlocking stories, the first five of which break off halfway through to cede to the next narrative (which jump centuries, voices and genres, from high-seas swashbuckler to political noir to futuristic sci-fi), later to be picked up and concluded, like Russian dolls being disassembled and then reassembled. Writers such as Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers have praised it; the former said, “I’ve never read anything quite like it,” while the latter called it “one of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics that no doubt is — and should be — read by any student of contemporary literature.”
And yet. Even a Mitchell admirer like Lev Grossman — who began his review of Mitchell’s latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with the line, “There is no writer whose books I look forward to with more pure, raw curiosity than David Mitchell” — called Cloud Atlas “an exquisite mirrored labyrinth that isn’t quite worth the effort of solving it.” The Sunday Telegraph declined to review the book because its critic deemed it “unreadable.” And in the same review of Cloud Atlas that Mitchell was hailed as a genius, Tom Bissell registered this complaint:
It is a devious writer indeed who writes in such a way that the critic who finds himself unresponsive to the writer’s vision feels like a philistine. So let it be said that Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page. But “Cloud Atlas” is the sort of book that makes ambition seem slightly suspect.
Bissell, like Mitchell’s other detractors, credit him with brilliance but accuse him of mimicry. “Cloud Atlas feels like a doggedly expert gloss on various writers and modes,” Bissell writes. No matter that the writers Mitchell glosses are, depending on who you talk to, Melville, Tolstoy, Pynchon, Amis, Joyce, Burroughs, Salinger, Murakami and Nabokov. Bissell’s complaint (echoed by, among others, James Wood in The New Yorker) seems to boil down to, “Mitchell can write anything, but has he really written himself?”
Mitchell did write himself in his next book, Black Swan Green. A coming-of-age story set in early 80s England, Black Swan Green tracked a year in the life of young Jason Taylor. Taylor has a stammering problem and personifies it as a character named “Hangman”; Mitchell himself had a stammer as a child. Black Swan Green is a harrowing take on adolescence — as brutal, cruel and honest as the real thing — and also one of the funniest, most generous books I (Ben) have ever read. (I saw The Squid & The Whale right around the same time, and the book and movie approximate the same universe with equal terror and humor.)
This is not to say that Black Swan Green — or anything Mitchell has written — is easy. Sometimes he is deliberately (some might say needlessly) difficult. The British slang alone nearly did me in the first time I attempted Black Swan Green. I also spent two chapters wondering who “Hangman” was; when I finally figured it out, I had to go back to the beginning and start over.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is no less a challenge even though it is perhaps Mitchell’s most conventional book. It is a historical romance set in late 18th century and early 19th century Japan, specifically an island outpost called Dejima where the Dutch East Indies Trading Company is stationed. A pious young clerk named Jacob de Zoet arrives to clean up the company books; he soon discovers corruption runs higher up the chain that he initially thought. While on Dejima he meets Orito Aibagawa, a midwife with a disfigured face who is also the daughter of a powerful samurai. Their love is surely doomed, but Jacob pursues it regardless until Orito disappears, abducted to a mountain shrine with a sinister secret.
Aside from historical romance, the book is also a spiritual parable and meditation on science and faith; an adventure story featuring a samurai raid and (another) swashbuckling, high seas climax; and a meditation on language, translation, and the power of words to bind together and tear asunder. Mitchell being Mitchell, he threads all this together effortlessly. He introduces a whole ensemble of colorful characters and, within a page, makes each instantly unique. His dialogue snaps with immediacy and wit; his set pieces (particularly a scene involving a public execution) are exquisitely dramatic constructions; and his language radiates with a lyrical quality such that some reviewers have likened his books to music.
“I can’t bear living in this huge beautiful world and not try to imitate it as best I can,” Mitchell said in a recent magazine profile. “That’s the desire and the drive. But it’s maybe closer to hunger or thirst. The only way I can quench it is to try to duplicate it on as huge a scale as I can possibly do.” Who can begrudge him such ambition? If his critics wish he were more particular, less mimetic, would his novels lose their abundance? One comes away from his books stuffed, as if after a feast. It seems unfair to the chef to complain he gave you too much to eat.
But there’s also something to be said for eating the right proportions. As satisfying a read as Thousand Autumns was, given the choice between the last two books, I prefer Black Swan Green. It is more provincial in scope, though no less inventive or boundless in imagination. More simply put, its joys are closer to home. Sometimes small is beautiful.