Pattern and Change: David Mitchell’s Protean Fiction

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. In honor of his 50th birthday, Patrick O’Donnell reflects on Mitchell’s imaginative storytelling.

Like David Mitchell, I’ve always been fascinated by writers who create multiple worlds and universes so three-dimensional that they can be mapped, and often are.  Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha (any Faulknerian worth their salt must learn early on how to say and spell the word), Hardy’s Wessex, Tokien’s Middle Earth, LeGuin’s Earthsea—all contain landscapes and geographies populated by characters who exist in the circumscribed times and spaces of imagined worlds.  For Mitchell, the impulse to create and traverse multiple worlds is fundamental to his writing, and for his readers, the pure fun of tracking the connections between stories and characters is fundamental to the pleasure of reading his work.  The word that comes to mind is “protean”:  the ever-shifting shape of the clouds, the ways in which a character like Marinus changes identities across the centuries, the pattern of a birthmark that recurs in identities born and reborn despite the odds against human survival—all suggest the ways in which pattern and change is Mitchell’s game. 

Mitchell is a complex, philosophically subtle writer interested—as I argue in A Temporary Future—in “big” issues such as temporality, the relation between time and space, and identity both within and outside of history.  But where the rubber meets the road, Michell is at bottom—like Dickens—a sheer storyteller.  There is this famous image by Robert William Buss of Dickens dreaming his characters, and implicitly dreaming up the many stories and worlds they inhabit:


The cartoon shows Dickens in repose.  In contrast, I imagine Mitchell not so much dreaming up stories as traversing them, travelling through them like Douglas Adams’s hitchhiker.  One has the sense in reading Mitchell (sequentially is best; start with the first, end with the latest) that he is not so much creating these stories, worlds, and characters (of course he is) as discovering them along with us.  And the stories themselves are endlessly engaging, no more so than in Cloud Atlas, where the reader gets six novels in one and dozens of characters and stories who stay in the mind years after reading: sad, vexed Robert Frobisher, filled with hubris and disappointment; the catch-phrases of Zachry in old age, reflecting on a tragedy-written past of human violence and survival; sometimes deranged Timothy Cavendish recounting his madcap adventures; Luisa Rey, by turns surprised and sober but always ready for the next twist in a conspiracy.

Ultimately, one can always count on David Mitchell for a great story, and we hope there are many more to come.  One of Mitchell’s “big themes” is continuity—the continuity of life, the continuity of story, the continuity of whatever we become in the future, if we can somehow find our way through the fatal consequences of our actions (another big theme:  the fatal vs. the possible).  A birthday wish for us, his readers:  keep going, and keep them coming.


A Temporary Future

Patrick O’Donnell is Professor of English at Michigan State University, USA. He has taught at the University of Arizona, West Virginia University (where he was the Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature), and Purdue University (where he was editor of MFS: Modern Fiction Studies). He has also taught at several international universities, including the Université de Bordeaux III in France, the Universität Tübingen and the Universität Stuttgart (as Senior Fulbright Professor) in Germany, and Radboud University Nijmegen (as Fulbright Distinguished Chair of American Literature) in the Netherlands. He is the author or editor of 12 books, including The American Novel Now: Contemporary American Fiction Since 1980 (2010), Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative (2000) and The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Fiction (co-edited with David W. Madden & Justus Nieland, 2011). His book A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell is available from Bloomsbury.

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