On Lifetimes: David Mitchell’s Textual Avatars

By | January 12, 2019

David Mitchell is the author of seven novels, including bestsellers Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, and was born on 12th January 1969. To celebrate his 50th birthday, Wendy Knepper and Courtney Hopf explore the connections between Mitchell and his characters.

In the interview with David Mitchell that appears in our upcoming book, David Mitchell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, the author expressed his joy in ventriloquizing wildly different characters as follows: “the more different the skin is to yours, the more interesting it is to be in it.” Mitchell is known for his remarkable facility for evoking character through voice, and he has given us dozens of narrators from across the human spectrum. Yet, amongst that kaleidoscope of characters, there is unquestionably a tendency: Mitchell loves to write storytellers. From novelists to journalists, letter writers to compulsive liars, his characters are always engaged in virtuoso acts of telling. And each voice is utterly unique.

But to what extent are these storytellers avatars for Mitchell himself? There are certainly some characters who fit this description. Jason Taylor, the 13-year-old protagonist of Black Swan Green (2006), shares a great deal with Mitchell, growing up in a small town in Worcestershire just as Mitchell did, furtively writing poetry and battling a stammer, also as the author did. Where Jason may be a version of the person Mitchell sees when he looks to the past, he has described the cantankerous Crispin Hershey of 2014’s The Book Clocks as the worst version of his adult self.  Hershey is the same age as Mitchell is now, and as a textual avatar, he is gifted with the ability to express the frustrations of authorship and celebrity that Mitchell himself is far too genial to voice.

Where Jason and Crispin are perhaps the most explicit Mitchell avatars, authors and storytellers abound throughout his fiction. His first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), features a ghostwriter named Marco and a wide variety of characters who use stories to make sense of their identities; in number9dream (2001) the main character employs popular literary genres to frame his imagined experiences, and at one point discovers a series of parables starring a mysterious “goatwriter;” in Cloud Atlas (2004) Luisa Rey is a reporter, Cavendish a publisher; and in The Bone Clocks (2014), beyond Crispin Hershey, we encounter the narrator Ed Brubeck, a war journalist, and protagonist Holly Sykes, who becomes a famous author with her memoir, The Radio People. There are many more examples beyond this brief list.

Perhaps the greatest example of a Mitchell avatar, though, is a character who is never portrayed as a writer yet who nevertheless orchestrates and influences narratives and events with aplomb. I am speaking of the enigmatic Marinus, the “Horologist Returnee” who has lived for over 1,300 years. Whenever he/she dies, Marinus is reborn into a new body of the opposite gender, with all his/her memories of previous lives intact. The character was first introduced as Lucas Marinus in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) but has since appeared as Iris Marinus in The Bone Clocks and Slade House (2015), and many of his/her previous lives have been fleshed out. Is such an immortal character, one who transgresses the laws of physics to exert influence across any number of literary texts, in fact our most potent example of an authorial presence?

In his/her everlasting life and vast trove of knowledge, Marinus may be rightly understood as a kind of wish-fulfilment, one with which any of us might identify.  When asked, in our interview, about the spiritual underpinnings of his “biblioverse,” and why, as a non-religious person, Mitchell has made his world so predicated on the existence of the human soul, he responded:

I so want the soul to be real. I want that wriggle room in the death contract to exist. I want my loved ones to carry on in some form. Don’t you?

Marinus’ eternally reborn soul may very well be the expression of Mitchell’s desire that there be more to life than we can know. But the character also encourages us to think beyond individual human moments to consider questions of humanity across generations, centuries, and epochs. He is thus a fitting authorial avatar, able to glimpse beyond the lifetimes of those he/she encounters, making connections and drawing conclusions that those limited to one life span cannot.

Such is the work of any author as they build their own literary universe.

It is also the work of any reader, as they read it.


David Mitchell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives

Wendy Knepper is Senior Lecturer at Brunel University London, UK. Her previous publications include Postcolonial Literature (2011) and Patrick Chamoiseau: A Critical Introduction (2012) as well as contributions to PMLASmall AxeThe Journal of Commonwealth LiteratureJournal of Postcolonial Writing, and ARIEL. Courtney Hopf is Lecturer in English and Writing at New York University in London, UK. She has previously published work on David Mitchell in David Mitchell: Critical Essays (2011) and has contributed to Rhizomes and Alluvium. They are co-editors of David Mitchell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, available from Bloomsbury in July 2019.

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