Mitchell: The Prelate of Experimental Prose

Most novelists will ration themselves to one good premise per novel, not so David Mitchell, who lavishes upon his book no less than six generically different stories from across the globe. Starting in the nineteenth-century Pacific Islands we travel via interwar Belgium, 1970s California and contemporary England through to a futuristic Korea and post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each narrative is issued to us in a pyramidal 1-2-3-3-2-1 sequence, so that the suspense of the first story is held over until the final section, whilst the central story runs through to its conclusion. An unorthodox structure to be sure, but then this is an unorthodox book, managing as it does to bind playfully, if sometimes a little strenuously, several stylistically heterogeneous narratives into one chunky but magnificent whole.

   What, then, to marvel at most? His masterly appropriation of genre? Historical sea journal, epistolary confession, thriller, dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fantasy are all stirred into the mix. His lordly command of style? The archaic, comic, confessional, suspenseful and vernacular are all served up on one plate. His wide-ranging erudition? Nietzche, Emerson, Solzhenitsyn, Eastern philosophy, modern European history, musical impressionism and modern art are sprinkled lightly over the dish. Or perhaps just the barefaced audacity of his ambition:"[I wanted] to write the world, underlined three times, three exclamation marks". Having garnered three Man Booker shortlisted novels by his mid thirties, one suspects he has at least gone some way towards attaining that goal.

   Mitchell’s area of enquiry is predation in all its ugly forms, and Nietzsche’s will to power is invoked at the levels of the personal and tribal, psychological and physical, corporate and governmental, propagandist and linguistic, cultural and genetic. Tribes are massacred, populaces brainwashed, genius exploited, honesty duped, civilians enslaved and children raped in what is, despite the distressing quagmire of depravity presented, a sometimes inspirational, occasionally camp and frequently funny book. Less assured was the contrivance of having each protagonist share the same comet-shaped birthmark, a conceit that played into the novel’s ongoing concern with recurrence and reincarnation. Was it that, despite the more subtle threads linking each narrative, Mitchell felt the need to further justify the stories coming together in one novel? One senses here a last minute distrust of an untested structure, or else a slightly nervous editor sticking his nose in. But it is a small point, noticeable by virtue of its inky impression on an otherwise unsullied landscape.  

   And yet, despite the seamless urbanity of his prose, the fearless breadth of his range, the ferocious power of his imagination, in person he is by all accounts gentle, gentlemanly, genteel. His on-page pyrotechnics do not translate into physical performance: he does not assume the mantle of the grand young man of letters, or practise the deft delivery of the epithet or even coruscate with effortlessly flung off wit. Instead you get the earnest ramblings of a devout intellectual: he is the mild-mannered country parson, the proselytising prelate of experimental prose. And perhaps this analogy of evangelism is not so far off the mark, for it is the God fearing Ewing who strikes the richest, most resonant chord in the novel - a chord, I sense, Mitchell hopes will play about our ears long after the music of the novel has ended:

   If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.