‘A Temporary Future’ Unpacks David Mitchell’s Nesting Doll Novels

Patrick O'Donnell's survey of David Mitchell's six novels dives into the labyrinthine, "screaming Russian doll" structures they all share.

While often classified as a postmodernist, David Mitchell’s novels fit better into other categories. Patrick O’Donnell, in the first full-length study of all six of this English writer’s innovative works to date, begins by considering cosmopolitan and anthropological contexts as better suited to this protean storyteller. His books tackle the complexity of how people approach mortality. These tales blur genres, leap across time and space, and dramatize disruption, individually and communally, as threat nears.

Mo Muntervary, an Irish nuclear engineer, observes in Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten (1999): “Memories are their own descendants, masquerading as the ancestors of the present.” Her comment reveals her creator’s interest in quantum physics and relativity theory. Mitchell applies what O’Donnell labels as the tense of the “future anterior” as past events are linked to a possible future, “on which the past event depends for its significance”.

This can be a difficult subject to explain. O’Donnell’s study, aimed at an academic audience, focuses on temporal conditions to highlight Mitchell’s contribution to current fiction. This critique, as with its sources, challenges easy explication. Multiple perspectives and genres across the globe mix, while “both human connections and the brutal intransigency of events sporadically collide and conspire in time streaming toward what will have been.” While the novels demand close attention, and while they often nonetheless prove more fluid and compelling than a scholarly representation of their contents may express, O’Donnell and Mitchell agree that the events they dramatize matter, far more than as entertainment. They articulate human predicaments, and they confront our planet’s danger.

In the unpredictable island nation of monster quakes, sudden death, and mob reprisals, Number9Dream (2001) pays tribute to the Japan, where Mitchell taught English for eight years in Hiroshima and met his wife. He also pays homage to Haruki Murakami. The novel’s unstable narrative layers disruptions across Tokyo, as encountered by a young man who may be at different moments or chapters in a James Bond-type of caper, an avatar’s fantasy world, a manuscript, or a video game, to name only a few possibilities. As its title indicates, it floats about and jumps around.

Cloud Atlas (2004), Mitchell’s best-known novel to date, wraps five dispersed stories, at first partially completed, around the core of a post-apocalyptic adventure set on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Then, Mitchell continues each interrupted account, concluding them in reverse order. O’Donnell relates the “character chains” which not only enrich the novel’s formal innovation, but the 2012 film adaptation’s own casting choices which tinker further, if fittingly, with Mitchell’s fluid representations of characters who repeat in different guises over the centuries. Mitchell’s subtexts of reincarnation and shape-shifting reoccur in nearly all of his novels. Pasts and futures shuffle. Narratives progress and regress. His human and post-human figures confront the depravities of capitalism, the constraints of conformity, and the notions of one’s own society as the most civilized of all possible worlds.

While Black Swan Green (2006) certainly proves the most streamlined of his narrative models, it shares his scrutiny into the situations which oppress everyday people, nearer our own time. It is based loosely on some elements from Mitchell’s own upbringing, for he and the protagonist were both aged 13 in 1982, in suburban Worcestershire. Both stammer, both face divorce as their parents separate, both seek to fit into what appears an alien atmosphere, and both share a fascination with the onslaught of popular culture as experienced by ordinary men and women. Yet, this novel nonetheless resists any reduction to a straightforward coming-of-age saga or thinly disguised roman à clef.

O’Donnell finds elements recalling Austen, Dickens, and Joyce in Black Swan Green, a view contrary to the treatment many give what is Mitchell’s most accessible and apparently most ordinary novel, taking its events as a satisfying, straightforward recounting of a boy’s jitters. Beneath a chronological depiction of 13 months in a boy’s maturation, the fairy-tale, initiation story, and the novel or manners appear. So do historical chronicle, fantasy touches, and hundreds of brand names, song titles, pop song lyrical snippets, books, and television programs from the early 1980s. O’Donnell places the adolescent narrator into this milieu, as his commodified and oppressive reality. Set as the Falklands War and late-Cold War NATO-Warsaw Pact tensions clouded even a lonely English schoolboy’s perspective, this novel continues the pattern Mitchell has woven, one in which everyday people get tangled up in history.

As well as mystery, for as one young man had viewed “a row of screaming Russian dolls” in Tokyo, so another visitor to Japan finds himself, too, in another labyrinth, where possibilities overlap and crush. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Van Zoet (2010) enlivens another familiar genre: the historical epic. O’Donnell moves beyond the critical reactions which place this long tale, set in 1799 in Nagasaki harbor as a Dutch trader tries to open up the mainland to trade, within a “stereoscopic” overlay of Asian and Western meetings, or as a post-feminist take on the Orientalist trope of an eager white man falling in love with a, coy, exotic woman. Instead, the personal and the political trip up progress. Translation garbles commercial and intimate exchanges. The lust for profit and the rush for conquest play off against confounding Japanese attempts to manipulate European delegations. Road trips, melodrama, the gothic, science fiction, and romance all merge and drift apart in this vast story.

The same ingredients in The Bone Clocks swirl across six decades in the life of another English narrator from the ’80s on, as Holly Sykes finds surprises within mundane circumstances. O’Donnell again shows how Mitchell makes time elastic. In his latest novel, he dramatizes the difficulty of translating concepts, emotions, and points-of-view from one person’s perspective into another. Mitchell adds a supernatural dimension. Here, he takes up religious debates, depictions of the sociology of power, late 20th century pop culture as trends come and go. He predicts how reading audiences and literary recognition shift attentions in our own near-future, a minor but relevant aspect which merited more detail in O’Donnell’s critical analysis.

Other critics, not cited by O’Donnell in his positive appraisal of Mitchell’s fiction, regard some of the writer’s efforts as not paying off in their conclusions. His novels all keep a reader turning their pages, they remain honest in their narrative sleight-of-hand, and they offer convincingly drawn protagonists. Yet, some readers and critics shut Mitchell’s novels with a sensation of let-down, as if after all the dazzling legerdemain, the magical tricks fail to linger after the performance has ended. O’Donnell diligently finds in each novel the connections which link characters and events across them all in subtle and playful ways. (This is one of the best reasons to read the novels in order.) But if O’Donnell had addressed reader reception by those of us in Mitchell’s audience who continue to open each of his works with hope but close them with a nagging feeling that an added effort could be made by their author, this consideration would have strengthened what is an understandable if telling weakness in this work of literary criticism. O’Donnell offers only praise for David Mitchell’s diverse set of novels.

Granted, this is not to detract from a considerable achievement. Given that he is only 45, Mitchell may likely better his present success as an author respected by critics and welcomed on the bestseller lists by readers worldwide. He continues as one of the most talented storytellers and most rewarding fabulists in contemporary fiction. The Bone Clocks handles a very intricate narrative with verve. Mitchell enlivens Holly, telling her life’s story, one which for the first time in a Mitchell novel takes precedence throughout the narrative as a female presence. (Typically, this novel’s cast of characters and settings overlaps, as we see Mo Muntervary reappear in her Irish home turf, 15 years after her debut in Mitchell’s fiction.) Colliding with what begins the novel (shortly after Black Swan Green) as Holly’s daily routine, the clash of the Horologists and Anchorites as they wrestle over “decanting” immortality sharpens Mitchell’s depiction of what may be our species’ inability to match a utopian concept to a human set of weaknesses, given doubt, lust, temptation, and the profit motive.

Mitchell regards impermanence as the condition in which men and women must endure. He can present this with detachment, another reason some critics and readers get uneasy with his stance. Time, topography, and plot accumulate. They force readers to realize their implicated guilt along with that of characters like us, but as if a few decades later. The plight of the planet, weakened by ecological decay and predatory commercial, political, and social practices we encourage, implicates audiences into Mitchell’s dire warnings. Crucial characters cannot be written off as escapist or as alarmist. They face an evil era. While it is close in time to ours, it is one we wish to fend off forever.

Summing up Mitchell’s ambitions, O’Donnell charts patterns in six novels which may serve as models of how we can adapt to globalizing circumstances. Individually and collectively, the vexing question of how our lives may continue impels the risks Mitchell takes in each protean narrative. These demonstrate the “clearest sign of his imaginative investment in having a future” we want to create.

Splash Image: Screen capture from the film Cloud Atlas (2012, directors Larry and Lana Wachowski)

RATING 6 / 10